The best way to avoid a hangover is to not drink. But since many of us do find ourselves "over-served" at times, we're always seeking more creative ways to prevent a hangover. Still, chances are no one has recomended eating the fruit of a prickly pear cactus before hitting the bar. But that's more or less what researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans offered study participants to reduce hangover symptoms; the results were recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Before hangovers can be effectively treated, you have to first know what is causing the headache, dry mouth, nausea and other symptoms that people suffer from after a night of overindulgence. According to lead researcher Jeff Wiese, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Tulane, there are probably three causes of hangover: dehydration; disrupted sleep because the brain is stimulated due to alcohol withdrawal; and inflammation, which is caused by the congeners in alcohol, which are the impurities that give spirits their flavor, color and aroma.
Dr. Wiese and his colleagues chose to focus on the inflammatory component of hangover, which is why they evaluated extracts of a type of prickly pear fruit called Opuntia ficus indica in their 55-person study. When the body is under stress, it produces heat shock proteins to repair cellular damage as soon as it starts. The prickly pear fruit has been shown to accelerate the creation of these proteins and reduce inflammation. "If the plant repaired those cells that were inflamed, there would be less inflammation and fewer hangover symptoms," Dr. Wiese explained.
In the study, researchers divided participants into two groups. While one group received the extract five hours before consuming a meal and enough alcohol to induce a hangover, the other group took a placebo. The next morning, nine hangover symptoms and overall well-being was evaluated, and the study was repeated two weeks later with the placebo and extract groups swapped.
The researchers found that the extract reduced three of the nine symptoms—nausea, dry mouth and loss of appetite—and was associated with a higher score for well-being. Additionally, levels of C-reactive protein, a blood marker of inflammation, were higher in people with more severe hangovers.
While the study authors are not yet recommending that you grow prickly pear cacti in your backyard, they say the study offers scientific validity to the idea that there is an inflammatory component to hangover from congeners. "So if an individual decides to imbibe, they should choose their alcohol wisely, drinking those low in congeners," Dr. Wiese said. "This includes the clear spirits such as vodka, gin and rum, particularly those that have been highly distilled, which are the more top-shelf liquors."
In the meantime, a better understanding of the physiology of hangover may, at some point, lead to hangover medications. But, Dr. Wiese warns, because of the many causes of hangover "there will never be one drug that will cure it."