The perfect hangover cure

Scientists have tested all sorts of food in the lab to see which breaks down booze the best...
09 December 2019

Interview with 

Alex Thom, University of Cambridge


A hungover man collapsed face down on a table cradling a bottle.


Now that the office party season’s in full swing, here’s some crucial research results: chemists in Mumbai have been searching out the perfect hangover cure. They’ve tested all sorts of fruits, foods and vegetables in the lab to see which ones help break down the nasty by-products of booze. And while it might not actually represent what goes on inside your body, they did come out with quite an interesting concoction. Phil Sansom went to get the opinion of a - slightly hungover - scientific onlooker: theoretical chemist Alex Thom…

Alex - So they found that various fruits and vegetables actually changed the way alcohol is degraded in the body.

Phil - Are we talking about treating a hangover?

Alex - Basically? Yes. I mean it's the products when you drink alcohol and it ceases to be alcohol and it turns into some nasty things, and then eventually turns into fat.

Phil - Okay. Explain how they investigated this.

Alex - Okay. So they didn't actually use any live subjects. They got some of the enzymes that are used in alcohol degradation called dehydrogenases. One that turns alcohol into acetaldehyde and that works fairly slowly, and a second one that takes acetaldehyde and takes it to acetate. And it's the rate of the two fighting against each other which keeps a steady state of this acetaldehyde, which gives you the hangover. If you make acetaldehyde faster than you get rid of it, you get a build up, and so they did separate tests on these two enzymes with all manner of different fruit juices and vegetable juices.

Phil - What fruit juices and vegetable juices?

Alex - So they went down to the local market in Mumbai and picked up basically everything they could find from pineapple, papaya, carrots, coffee, spices, coconut milk and coconut water.

Phil - Sounds like a horrible hangover concoction if you mix it all together.

Alex - They did them separately, but then they tried to work out what would be the best combination, and they had a panel who decided whether or not this concoction they were going to make was pleasant. The panel universally said that anything involving vegetables wasn't a very nice drink.

Phil - That makes a lot of sense to me. How good is this science? Is this actually testing whether these things are good hangover cure?

Alex - Probably not, because they're doing this in vitro, in glassware, rather than in the liver. All manner of other things are probably going on in the body, so take this with a pinch of salt as to actually whether it does the same thing in the body is in the test tube.

Phil - What was the weirdest thing that they tried, in your opinion?

Alex - So they tried cheese as a hangover cure.

Phil - Cheese?

Alex - Cheese, yes, and it actually appears to be a hangover cure. What was an interesting one I found was that coffee, which they tried, actually has the opposite effect on hangovers. That it causes your hangover to get longer.

Phil - That's mind-blowing. I always drink coffee when I'm feeling any sort of headache.

Alex - Same here. So I've deliberately avoided a coffee this morning.

Phil - Have you got a hangover this morning for the sake of science, can I ask?

Alex - I'll say I had a relatively late night at a friend's birthday. So, I wouldn't say I'm entirely fresh this morning.

Phil - Right. Well this is the ultimate test because you're in the perfect state. Now, did the scientists find what they think is the perfect hangover cure?

Alex - They found their best combination that would get rid of the acid aldehyde quickly, and it was a combination of pear, sweet lime and coconut water. So we've got three different liquids here. So there's some pear juice, freshly squeezed, some lime juice, freshly squeezed, and a little bottle of coconut water and we're going to mix them together. I have a little cocktail shaker here just for science, and let's. So it involved a bit more pear juice. A third of the same quantity of lime juice is probably about that much.

Phil - It doesn't look too appetising yet.

Alex - Yes, it's got a slightly murky brown colour. And the same amount of coconut water.

Phil - Well, it's still murky brown. All right. Bottoms up.

Alex - Bottoms up. Actually, it's quite nice. The lime really gives it a zing and it's certainly waking me up at the moment. I could just drink this for breakfast, actually.


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