Many of us will have experienced the symptoms of a hangover at some point in our lives; the unquenchable thirst, pounding headache and sensitivity to light and sound. But aside from these, consuming alcohol to excess can also pose more serious health problems, such as breathing issues, an irregular heart rate, and alcohol poisoning.

Research into a potential new treatment that would help to reduce these effects hit the headlines last week. Yunfeng Lu, a chemical engineering professor at the University of California, has been experimenting on drunk mice to find an antidote for alcohol intoxication.

What does the treatment do?

Prof. Lu’s antidote contains three natural enzymes that are found in the human liver: alcohol oxidase, catalase, and aldehyde dehydrogenase. These enzymes help the body process alcohol faster, so that people could potentially enjoy alcohol without the adverse after effects. Prof. Lu also states that this antidote opens up the possibility of creating a lifesaving therapy for alcohol overdose victims in A&E.

To conduct the experiment, the enzymes were wrapped in nano capsules and inserted into the veins of inebriated mice. The study reported that the blood alcohol level of the mice that received treatment dropped by almost half (45%) in four hours (compared to the test subjects that received no treatment).

There was also a reduced concentration of acetaldehyde, which is a toxic, carcinogenic compound that causes headaches and vomiting after drinking. It is produced during alcohol metabolism, and is usually broken down by other enzymes when a small amount of alcohol is consumed. However, the toxin remains in the body for longer when the liver cannot keep up.

Development is still in the early stages, and the research team are still looking for possible dangerous side effects. They hope that they can begin human clinical trials within a year.

What effect would the treatment have?

The development of the treatment raises a number of potentially complex questions.

Alcohol misuse costs the NHS a lot of time, money and resources. According to Alcohol Concern, there were over 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK in 2014-15.

It’s conceivable that such a treatment, if effective and used correctly, could reduce the number of admissions related to alcohol poisoning.

But, at the same time, could such a treatment be open to misuse?

For instance, if it were readily available to buy, it could be argued that the antidote would act as a facilitator for people to drink to excess more often, in the knowledge that the body will be able to process the alcohol quicker after they had taken it.

But making the treatment available only in hospital clinics for those already inebriated and at immediate risk of health complications (and not as a pill you can buy off the shelf) presents a different situation; by this point, the patient would already be in the care of medical professionals, so in this case the hospital would still be spending money and resources.

As mentioned above, the treatment is in a very early stage of development. But it will be interesting to see how it progresses following further trials, and how it will be received by the medical community.

Current hangover prevention methods

There are various hangover cure tablets that claim to rid symptoms, however there is no concrete scientific basis to them. They function best when taken before drinking and this is thought to be mainly due to the placebo effect. In the US, the only one that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the Blowfish pill, which is a combination of aspirin and caffeine in a dissolvable tablet.

While there is no certified hangover cure currently, there are things you can do to avoid one or alleviate the symptoms:

  • The only way to completely avoid a hangover is to not drink alcohol at all.
  • Drinking a sensible amount that you know your body can cope with can also reduce the risk. Any amount over 6 units in one session is categorised as binge drinking, and increases the likelihood of a hangover.
  • If you are planning on drinking alcohol, it can help to eat a (healthy) meal that is high in carbohydrates beforehand, because the food will slow the body’s absorption of the alcohol.
  • Typically, it takes one hour for the body to process one unit of alcohol. Drinking several units quickly can therefore give your liver a lot of work to do. Alternating between alcoholic and soft drinks can help to ensure you aren’t drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time.
  • Drinking a pint of water before you go to bed can also help, as it will keep you hydrated.
  • If it is too late and you are already in a bad way the following morning, try to replace lost fluids by drinking bland liquids that can be easily digested such as water and isotonic drinks. For food, soup is a good option as it can also be easily digested.