Do Those Hangover Pills, Patches, and Powders Really Work?
Can you prevent or cure a hangover with one of these newfangled new remedies? Here, experts give it to you straight.
That fifth glass of red wine tasted gooood...until about 7 am the next day, when you were throttled by a skull-squeezing headache and crippling waves of nausea the second your alarm went off. (P.S. here's why your hangovers might be worse than your friends'.)
A new wave of OTC hangover pills, powders, and patches present an interesting prospect: Can you really have it all? A night of alcohol-fueled fun without the painful consequences that leave us immobile on the couch whilst Googling "mobile IV therapy near me"?
It's what a lot of new(ish) hangover remedy brands would have you believe. Some comprise a cocktail (see what we did there?) of B vitamins, electrolytes, and caffeine or aspirin. Others are transdermal patches, offering to infuse vitamins directly through your skin and into your bloodstream to prevent a hangover. And some come in liquid form, like a concentrated Gatorade mixed with a shot of espresso. They go by names like: Bytox, The Good Patch, Morning Recovery, DripDrop, Liquid IV, Drinkade, Flyby, Blowfish, and Cheers.
But do they actually do anything? Anecdotal accounts and the proliferation of similar products in this category would say "totally." Sales are profitable enough that more brands keep emerging, which means people are buying. But is it placebo, or is this really the miracle cure you wish you had in your college days?
Some experts are hesitant. But to give these products the benefit of the doubt, let's look at what exactly they are, and how they're administered.
What are the ingredients in these hangover pills?
There's no one particular formula for a hangover remedy. Some use dihydromyricetin, an ingredient often used in hospitals to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Others use B-complex vitamins and electrolytes. You may find a combo of these, or a handful of products that use unique ingredients like hemp, aspirin, or chlorophyll.
"Many of these products are based on the ingredients in the 'banana bag,'" said Amber Robins, M.D., founder and CEO of Camillia Wellness and Aesthetics. Not familiar with the term? "The banana bag, usually administered through an IV, is given to many patients coming into the emergency room with alcohol intoxication or going through alcohol withdrawal. The ingredients help replete nutrients like B vitamins (like thiamine and folic acid) along with magnesium." Fun fact: though bananas also have B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, these intravenously delivered bags get their name from their yellow color, not their content.
Here, some of the most common ingredients in OTC hangover pills and remedies.
As mentioned, "dihydromyricetin is a medication that is more so for alcohol addiction and withdrawal symptoms," said Dr. Robins—which is quite different from a hangover (keep reading to understand the difference). This medication comes from a "flavonoid-rich wild plant" and is thought to reverse liver damage from alcohol. "Even though this has been found in some studies to be true, there are more clinical trials needed to truly prove the relationship between dihydromyricetin and the liver."
So does dihydromyricetin work for hangovers? Medically, it's TBD, but possibly. A 2012 study in the Journal of Neuroscience called it "promising" and a 2016 Chinese report published in the journal Molecules said it could be used for "alcohol-induced liver injury and alcohol use disorders."
Back to the banana bag. B vitamins are great for brain health, but what about for hangovers? Thiamine (B1) and folic acid (B9) are the chief ingredients in the aforementioned IV fluid; deficiencies in either can lead to mental and physical problems, including fatigue, irritability, headache, and more serious symptoms. These vitamin deficiencies are also hallmarks of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. (Related: Why B Vitamins Are the Secret to More Energy)
A few experts warned against supplements containing caffeine. "Caffeine concentrations can be dangerous in supplemental forms," said dietitian Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. at RSP Nutrition. "Caffeine in these supplements can be at monstrous levels compared to what you might normally ingest in a coffee," she said. "A lot of people also tend to use these supplements on an empty stomach, which can compound the mega-dose of caffeine's effects." In addition, if there are other forms of stimulants in the supplement (like ginkgo biloba or even peppermint), the effects could be magnified, according to Moreno.
"I would steer clear of any supplements that contain stimulants," agrees Erin Stokes, N.D., Medical Director at MegaFood. "They may leave you feeling jittery and worse off in the long run."
Many electrolytes are found in that "banana bag" combo: magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphate. All these minerals help your body maintain homeostasis, and they're quite helpful when it comes to regulating fluid levels in the body. You know how your parents and pediatrician always told you to drink Gatorade or Pedialyte when you were sick and dehydrated? Same deal here. (Related: The Benefits of Magnesium and How to Get More of It In Your Diet)
As for electrolytes in supplements, Moreno says you can't prevent a hangover by preemptively taking electrolytes. "There is no ideal electrolyte supplement to prevent or cure a hangover," she said. "But if you are vomiting and having diarrhea as a result of a hangover, electrolyte drinks may become necessary as you lose too much fluid."
This makes "rehydration" brands like Liquid IV and Cheers a viable option. Moreno still recommends drinking plenty of regular ol' H2O before, during, and after your alcohol consumption.
So, Do Hangover Pills Work?
Moreno and Stokes were convinced that there's no such thing as a hangover cure and that you can chalk a lot of these products up to successful marketing. A 2005 study went so far as to say "no compelling evidence exists to suggest that any complementary or conventional intervention is effective for treating or preventing the alcohol hangover."
That said—no proof doesn't mean it's debunked or doesn't work at all. Studies come out all the time that share new discoveries when it comes to what does and doesn't work for our health. Remember how coconut oil went from the "greatest thing ever" to pretty bad to maybe okay? And how doctors used to say eggs were terrible for you, and now apparently they're fine?
Keep all of that in mind when it comes to supplements—especially if they haven't been studied at all. It's good to have a critical eye when putting something new into your body (and always confer with your doctor, dietitian, and any other medical professional you work with!), but you can also keep an open mind. So feel free to give these pills and patches a shot, but consider the risks.
Are There Risks?
Potentially. As with any kind of supplement, there are a number of factors that could negatively impact your health, even with the best intentions. Here's what experts said to consider:
Supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, which means the government organization that's dedicated to keeping food and drug products (i.e. anything you ingest) as clean and safe as possible isn't watching what goes into anything from turmeric capsules to hangover shots. Supplement companies don't need to disclose exactly what's in their product, because no one organization is checking or vouching for them, and they can make claims that haven't been verified. And though not all supplement brands are shady and take advantage of this window of opportunity, the lack of regulation leads to a slew of potential problems. "Not all products will list the additive ingredients in their product which could be harmful to those who take them," said Dr. Robins. Moreno agreed. "A lot of hangover cure supplements are poorly regulated and can contain substances that interact with peoples' prescriptions or other supplements." (Related: Are Dietary Supplements Really Safe?)
There could be contraindications. On that note from Moreno, you should be mindful of how any supplements impact any medications you're already taking. "If you take other supplements, prescriptions, have certain medical conditions, are pregnant/breastfeeding you'd absolutely want to avoid these 'cures,'" says Moreno. Dr. Robins agreed: "The contraindications to these medications may be different from one person to the next, depending on your own health condition," she said. Like with any supplement, "it's important to discuss these 'hangover drugs' with your doctor or medical professional prior to taking them."
There are ingredients beyond standard vitamins in many of these products. "Because these products don't just have vitamins in them, there is a chance that they may be unsafe," said Dr. Robins. "All of these have the potential to cause allergic reactions, especially when all the ingredients are not disclosed. There are also some additives that may be in the capsules and drinks that may be less tolerable."
If you're on the sensitive side, vitamins can upset your stomach. "Just like multivitamin pills, in general, vitamins may cause irritation and burning to the stomach and could lead to vomiting," said Dr. Robins. This is especially true if you're taking them on an empty or already upset stomach.
The topical patches may be irritating as well. "I have seen quite a few of my patients have reactions to transdermal patches that leave a rash in the area where it was placed because of sensitive skin."
How to Choose a Hangover Cure Product
If you're fighting for the will to get out of bed and onboard with trying a hangover pill, here's what to keep in mind: "With any supplement you take, you want to see a transparent label," says Stokes. "For example, if different B vitamins are listed, you should be able to see exactly how much of each one of the B vitamins is in the product. The company manufacturing the supplement should also be able to share information about product testing, including quality seals and certifications."
In terms of choosing what type of hangover product to go with, that comes down to personal preference, your own research and needs, and your doctor's advice. "Capsules, transdermal patches, and drinks are all ways to get vitamins into the body, which may help overcome some hangover symptoms," says Dr. Robins. The main difference between these options is how the vitamins are absorbed into the body. (Related: This Hangover-Cure Juice Shot Is Basically the Exact Opposite of Tequila)
"For instance, transdermal patches usually release ingredients into the body fairly quickly, but have some drawbacks depending on the location of the patch and the thickness of the skin," says Dr. Robins. "Capsules may take several minutes to dissolve in order to release its ingredients."
There's no clear winner, though. "Because these products all have vitamins in them, even though the amounts may not be clear of how much is contained in each, it is difficult to say if any of them are better than the other," she said.
You'll also—as you may have gathered—want to confer with a doctor before making these supplements a regular part of your health routine. If you're consistently hungover, you may have a more serious medical issue on your hands that requires expert attention. Speaking of…
When It's More Than a Hangover
FYI: There's a big difference between a hangover and having alcohol withdrawal symptoms. (Worth reading: What Young Women Need to Know About Alcoholism)
"With a hangover, you may have fatigue, weakness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and stomach pain which may go away after a few hours," says Dr. Robins. "But alcohol withdrawal is more intense and can be life-threatening."
Symptoms include fast heart rate (hypertension), tremors, and even seizures. These withdrawal symptoms can come or continue "even if someone has not had alcohol for days." This would typically happen after a patient has been "drinking heavily for some time," she says.
Unlike a hangover, "alcohol withdrawal requires medical attention," says Dr. Robins. "There are many medications that can help reduce withdrawal symptoms but they may require being in the hospital or detox center depending on the severity of the symptoms." (If you have an addiction to alcohol, please see your primary care doctor or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's helpline 1-800-662-4357.)
The Bottom Line on Hangover Pills
Don't drink so much. Chug more water in between cocktails. Pace yourself. Then drink more water.
"The only [proven] remedies for a hangover are rehydrating with fluid, the passage of time, eating a bland diet to not exacerbate any stomach issues, and if medically approved, taking a pain reliever to cope with a headache," said Moreno. (Here's the complete guide to things you should and shouldn't do to cure a hangover.)
A hangover is your body's response to putting too much of a toxin into your system, so as many a wise wellness professional has said before: "listen to your body."