For as long as humans have been drinking alcohol, they have sought a cure for hangovers. Now, a small study suggests that a mix of plant extracts might help ease the misery.
Researchers found that the herbal blend -- of Barbados cherry, prickly pear, ginkgo biloba, willow and ginger root extracts -- seemed to lessen certain hangover symptoms.
The supplement also contained various vitamins and minerals. But study participants given those nutrients alone saw no hangover relief.
It all suggests, the researchers said, that something about the plant compounds might explain the benefit -- though it's not clear precisely what.
"Our study does not allow us to identify which plant ingredients, exactly, are responsible," said researcher Patrick Schmitt, of Johannes Gutenberg University, in Mainz, Germany.
So a next step, he said, would be to separate the plant compounds to see how effective each might be. The ultimate goal, Schmitt explained, is to isolate any beneficial compounds and try to boost their bioavailability (absorption in the body). From there, the researchers hope to create an "anti-hangover additive" for use in alcoholic beverages.
However, a researcher who was not involved in the study was unimpressed by the supplement's performance.
"There were no significant differences between the treatments," said Joris Verster, an associate professor at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.
Verster, who founded the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, has conducted many studies on the science of hangovers. And he broke the news like this: "There are currently no marketed hangover treatments that are backed up by published, peer-reviewed scientific data demonstrating their efficacy."
According to Verster, "The best way to reduce or prevent hangovers is to moderate your alcohol consumption."
The new study, published online April 30 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, involved 214 healthy adults who were randomly assigned into three groups. One was given a supplement containing vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, zinc and the electrolytes magnesium, potassium and sodium; another was given those nutrients plus the plant extracts; a third received a placebo supplement containing only sugar.
All participants took the supplements 45 minutes before, and immediately after, drinking alcohol. They chose from beer or wine, and were allowed to drink as much as they wanted.
The next day, once their blood alcohol levels were 0%, they were asked to rate any hangover symptoms they were suffering -- 47 in all.
It might sound surprising that so many hangover symptoms exist. But according to Verster, they can run the gamut from physical to mental -- ranging from headache, nausea and fatigue to dizziness, memory problems and dulled emotions.
On the overall hangover scale, all three study groups scored similarly.
But when it came to a few individual symptoms, the plant-extract group looked a little better. Those symptoms included headache, nausea, indifference and restlessness.
The problem, Verster said, is that those differences in select symptoms could have been due to chance. Plus, the few apparent improvements were "not impressive," he said.
For example, in the placebo group, the average headache severity was just under a 3, on a scale of 0 to 10. That compared with a 2 in the plant-extract group.
Of course, people vary in how they respond to alcohol, and in hangover symptoms, Schmitt said. "The response even differs day to day in the same person," he noted.
So responses to any hangover remedy could vary, too.
It's a common belief that dehydration, and a resulting loss of electrolytes, drives hangover symptoms. That has led many a sufferer to down water or sports drinks as a cure.
But in the current study, there was no evidence that dehydration played a role. Nor did people benefit from the supplement containing electrolytes but no plant compounds.
That's in line with what other research shows, according to Verster.
"Although it's sometimes suggested that hangovers are caused by dehydration," he said, "there is no scientific evidence that supports that claim."
The herb/vitamin/mineral blend used in this study is already sold in Germany as a food supplement, Schmitt said. The manufacturer provided the product to the researchers.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more on hangovers.