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Sprite – The Ultimate Hangover Cure?

by on 2014/01/10

Many of us will have started 2014 with a hangover, and many of us will have also turned to a personal “tried and tested” cure for the infamous blinding headaches and queasy stomachs that follow excessive alcohol consumption. Pints of water, fruit smoothies, bacon sandwiches and even icy swims – there are probably as many “cures” for hangover as there are drinks that cause them, but a recent study published in the journal Food and Function has suggested that the soft drink Sprite is the most effective of all. So how did the researchers come to this conclusion?

The Study

The authors examined the activity of two enzymes involved in the metabolisation of ethanol: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which converts ethanol into acetaldehyde, and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), which converts the acetaldehyde into acetic acid. Accumulation of acetaldehyde after drinking is thought to be one of the causes of hangovers, as well as many of the diseases associated with alcohol abuse, and so the authors used an assay to test the activity of these isolated enzymes in the presence of a number of Chinese beverages to find which would minimise the time acetaldehyde is present in the body before it is broken down. Of those tested, “xue bi“, widely reported as being equivalent to Sprite, was found to give the best combination of increasing ALDH activity without significantly effecting ADH activity. In contrast, some herbal teas were found to inhibit ALDH activity, which could prolong hangovers.

The Media

Predictably, the study received a lot of media coverage at the time of publication and renewed interest over the New Year period. Chemistry World ran an initial article, which was subsequently picked up by the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Independent, none of whom provided a link to the study, rather to the Chemistry World story on which their own articles were based. An NHS guide discusses not only the science behind the claims but also puts forward an interesting point on the media coverage:

“The claim is likely to have received media attention after Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry, published a news article about the study, naming Sprite as the drink of choice. The Royal Society of Chemistry also publishes Food and Function.”

The Cure?

When looking for a quick hangover fix, we should also note that the cause of hangovers is far from clear and varies from person to person. Dehydration and the effects of ethanol and other compounds, known as congeners, on the body’s biochemistry are all thought to induce hangover symptoms. So acetaldehyde is only one facet of an incredibly complex issue, and this particular study looks at enzyme activity and acetaldehyde production and metabolisation outside the human body. To truly examine the potency of the hangover cures, a medical trial of the efficacy of remedies in hungover people would be required, but this would suffer from ethical issues, as inducing a hangover is technically slowly poisoning your patient. Although, with the temptation of free alcohol, no doubt some volunteers would come forward if asked!

The makers of Sprite will obviously have enjoyed this free publicity, but the original study never actually names it as the particular beverage found to have the most desirable properties in the enzyme assays, and soda water is also mentioned as a close runner up.

It may sound obvious, but the only guaranteed way to avoid a hangover is not to drink in the first place.

S. Li, L.-Q. Gan, S.-K. Li, J.-C. Zheng, D.-P. Xua H.-B. Li, (2014). “Effects of herbal infusions, tea and carbonated beverages on alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase activity”. Food and Function vol 5, pp 42–49 doi: 10.1039/C3FO60282F

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