The Secret Hangover Cure Doctors Use After Partying

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Aug. 29 2013 5:44 AM

The Best Hangover Cure

You can find it in the children’s medicine section of your local drugstore.

A secret cure for that hangover.
Someone needs a hangover cure

Photo by PJPhoto69/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Like most people in their 30s, I’ve felt my hangovers getting incrementally worse with each passing year. Whereas once I could imbibe freely without serious repercussions, now a few beers over the course of an evening are enough to result in a headache and dry mouth the next morning. And the summer seems to exacerbate these symptoms—when it’s hot out, lying in bed trying to not move a muscle seems like the only way to avoid imminent death.

Always on the lookout for a quick fix, I read with interest a recent profile of musician Jason Isbell, the former songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers, in the New York Times Magazine. Asked for his favorite hangover cure, Isbell (who recently got out of rehab) named Pedialyte, the electrolyte solution often given to infants suffering from vomiting and diarrhea to replenish fluids and minerals in their bodies. Cut to me running to the nearest drugstore to stock up. But what I found at Walgreen’s was something even better: Pedialyte Freezer Pops. The rehydrating formula of Pedialyte in fruit-flavored ice pops. I bought a box, stashed it in my freezer, and headed to my neighborhood bar. (For research purposes, obviously.)

Any serious drinker will be familiar with the way I felt the next morning: I knew I ought to drink a glass of water, but I just didn’t want to. It can be hard to force down flavorless water when you feel like you’ve just gone nine rounds, which is one reason Coke, Gatorade, and other sweetened drinks are so popular among the hungover. Regular, drinkable Pedialyte is a step up from sports drinks—it contains more sodium and less sugar, so it restores fluids more quickly. But ice pops are even better: They’re easy to eat (you don’t even have to sit up to consume them), and they don’t make you feel bloated or nauseated the way choking down huge amounts of liquid can. Cold, sweet, and refreshing, the pops were the most pleasant way I’d ever found to get fluids back into my body. And they counteracted the summer heat to boot.

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This discovery seemed to me to be on par with the discovery of penicillin. I went looking for medical evidence to back up my new faith in the healing power of Pedialyte pops. I started by calling Stanley Goldfarb, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. A nephrologist—otherwise known as an expert on fluids in the body—Dr. Goldfarb dismissed my idea that Pedialyte would make much of a difference to a hangover, saying, “There’s nothing you can do to remove the alcohol byproducts. They have to be metabolized by your liver, which takes time. There’s no evidence that anything is better than waiting.”

Dr. Michael Oshinsky, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University who specializes in headaches, agreed with him. “The work that we’ve done has demonstrated that it’s not dehydration that causes the headache. It’s the buildup of one of the metabolites—one of the chemicals that alcohol is broken down into.” When you consume alcohol, your liver breaks it down into toxic acetaldehyde, which is then quickly metabolized into acetate—something your body already has a lot of. Oshinsky again: “Acetate is always present in the blood because it is used as a fuel by all cells. The problem is that the metabolism of alcohol produces such a tremendous amount of acetate that [the body’s] overwhelmed.” And one of the byproducts of acetate can induce pain in some people. So while you may wake up feeling parched, with a serious case of dry mouth, it’s the chemicals produced by your body breaking down the alcohol that are actually causing you pain, not a lack of fluids. As Goldfarb puts it, “Alcohol is a pretty good poison.”

Still, Dr. Oshinsky did concede that for a certain subset of heavy drinkers, those who get, in his term, “smashed,” replenishing fluids would help. Alcohol isn’t as dehydrating as many people think, but it does have a noticeable diuretic effect in large amounts, and your body needs some water to break down alcohol. And Dr. Goldfarb told me that Pedialyte pops could help those whose hangovers include vomiting or diarrhea—the symptoms the pops are designed to treat in ill children.

Both doctors were adamant that freezer pops wouldn’t have much effect on a hangover of ordinary proportions. But they also said that hangovers are a neglected field of research. Said Goldfarb, “There’s not much research being done on hangovers. There’s a view out that there that you should feel sick if you overindulge.” Also, developing a cure might result in people drinking themselves comatose on a regular basis. Hangovers function as a deterrent to overdoing it, and drinking without repercussions could be potentially disastrous in health terms. Although there’s a healthy market for over-the-counter hangover remedies, peer-reviewed studies are scarce and findings are inconsistent.

Drs. Goldfarb and Oshinsky both told me they are not regular hangover sufferers, but when I spoke to a physician with a history of partying, I got a different story. Tom, an ER resident I know who didn’t want me to use his last name for reasons that will soon become apparent, recently paid a mercy visit to a friend who was recovering from a Hangover-style bachelor party. Tom lifted an IV and four liters of saline solution from his hospital, took them to the groom’s house, hooked him up, and brought him back to functionality. According to Tom, young doctors often shoot fluids directly into their bloodstreams when they arrive at work the morning after a bender. While hooking yourself up to a saline drip is quite a bit more hard-core than sucking on ice pops, both methods are ways of replenishing fluids.

After spending hours researching exactly how consuming liquid might affect a hangover (hours that could have been more entertainingly spent in the pub), I realized that what Drs. Goldfarb and Oshinsky said was true—no one really knows for sure. While this seems to me a field of research that deserves far more funding and man-hours, until Puritanism takes a back seat to greed—imagine the money in developing and selling a proper hangover cure!—I’ll be sticking with the freezer pops. Do they work? After several hangovers that were made markedly more bearable by the pops, I finally got around to reading the instructions on the back of the box. Apparently, dehydrated babies and children are supposed to suck down 16 to 24 per day. My one or two seem meager by comparison. But they make me feel better, and that’s what counts.

Nell McShane Wulfhart writes about news and travel in Asia. She lives in Seoul.

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