New Hangover Helper Discovered

Prickly pear cactus extract cuts unpleasant symptoms

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Folk cures abound for curing a hangover, yet only time -- to let the body clear out the toxins -- seems to really do the trick.

But help may be on the way.

Researchers from Tulane University and the University of California, San Francisco report that an extract from Opuntia ficus indica, a type of prickly pear extract, eases the symptoms of a hangover when taken before drinking begins.

Results of the study appear in the June 28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"People need to know that there's an inflammatory component to hangover," said one of the study's authors, Dr. Jeff Wiese, an associate professor of medicine at Tulane University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

That means, he said, that just drinking extra water, while a good idea, won't stave off all of the symptoms of a hangover.

Symptoms often include headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light, and difficulty sleeping. While most people know that drinking too much alcohol will cause a hangover, scientists still aren't sure exactly what happens in the body to cause a hangover.

One of the main suspected causes is dehydration because alcohol has a diuretic effect. It also lowers blood sugar. And alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach and the intestines, causing inflammation, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

According to the new study, 77 percent of people who drink alcohol experience at least one hangover a year, and as many as one in six have a hangover at least once a month. Still, no reliable cure exists.

Wiese and his colleagues recruited 55 people between the ages of 21 and 35 for this study. None of the volunteers smoked and all had reported having at least one hangover in their lifetime.

The participants were randomly assigned to either the supplement group or a placebo group. The supplement group received two capsules filled with 800 international units of Opuntia ficus indica. Both groups were asked to take their capsules five hours before drinking.

Then, over a four-hour period, the volunteers were asked to drink the equivalent of 1.75 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight -- that's about five to six drinks, according to Wiese. This amount has been shown in other studies to produce a hangover. The participants could drink vodka, gin, rum, tequila, bourbon or scotch.

The next morning, the participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their hangover symptoms and provided blood and urine samples. Two weeks later, the researchers repeated the experiment, but switched the groups so those in the placebo group received the extract and those who had received the extract were now getting the placebo.

The prickly pear cactus extract significantly reduced three symptoms of hangover -- nausea, dry mouth and loss of appetite. On a seven-point scale, the severity of symptoms was reduced more than two points when volunteers took the extract before drinking.

One reason may be that the extract lowered levels of C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is a marker of inflammation in the body, and inflammation may cause some of the symptoms of hangover, such as upset stomach. C-reactive protein levels were 40 percent higher in those taking the placebo, the study found.

"This extract has some positive effects. It settles the stomach, but is a mild diuretic," said Dr. Marc Siegel, a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. "It may settle the stomach, but if it gets you more dehydrated it could make your symptoms worse."

Both Wiese and Siegel recommend that if you know you're going to be drinking a lot of alcohol that you drink plenty of water before and after to prevent dehydration.

Siegel said more studies need to be done on the extract before people should use it for a hangover because there were only 55 people in the research and they weren't examined for a long period of time. The study got research support from Extracts Plus, a San Diego, Calif., company that markets products with the extract.

Wiese said, "The only way to beat the hangover for sure is to stay in the light alcohol consumption category." Light consumption is about one drink a day.

More information

To learn more about alcohol abuse, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

SOURCES: Jeff Wiese, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Tulane University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans; Marc Siegel, M.D., clinical associate professor of medicine, New York University School of Medicine, internist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; June 28, 2004, Archives of Internal Medicine

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