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Eat asparagus, and more questionable ways to ease your hangover

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After all the champagne, beer, spirits or (and?) wine on New Year’s Eve, some of us will wake up with a persistent pounding in our heads, mouths as dry as deserts and overwhelming nausea -- all the telltale signs of a hangover.

What can make this terrible feeling go away? “The only thing that actually helps is not drinking,” says Dr. Glen Aukerman, medical director of the Ohio State University Center for Integrated Medicine, using logic to wreck everyone’s festive mood. He notes that taking calcium, magnesium and a complete B supplement and drinking lots of water helps with hangover symptoms.

While the experts agree -- and, really, most of us know -- that abstaining from alcohol or drinking less is the only surefire way to prevent a hangover, if you must imbibe tonight, here are a few foods people often use to lessen the pains the day after drinking. 

Pass the asparagus: In 2009, researchers in South Korea published a paper saying that eating asparagus before drinking prevents those icky hangover feelings.

“There is a little tidbit of truth to it … not that I would discourage people from eating asparagus,” explains Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at UPMC Center for Sports Medicine in Pittsburgh, adding that bingeing on asparagus the night before drinking will do nothing for a headache the next day.

But asparagus might protect the body from booze. The amino acids in asparagus improve how quickly human cells break down alcohol, preventing some long term damage from toxic byproducts of alcohol such as hydrogen peroxide.

“Whether other or not these effects will actually make a human feel any better remains to be seen,” writes Dr. Rachel Vreeman, co-author of “Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies about Your Body and Health,” in an email. “It is not clear that these amino acids, or amino acids from other good sources like eggs, will actually help a person with a hangover feel any better.”  

Guzzling pickle juice: Russians and Eastern Europeans swear that a swig of pickle juice makes them feel better after a night of heavy drinking. 

If people can get the pickle juice down, says Bonci, it acts like a sports drink, restoring the electrolytes that the dehydrating alcohol has depleted. Much of the pain of a hangover occurs because the body’s dehydrated of water and nutrients.  

“Of course, if you actually manage to get it down, you might think of yourself as being ‘cured’ of your hangover,” jokes Vreeman, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Aside from its taste, pickle juice has another disadvantage.

“Pickle juice, that’s got a lot of salt in it; I’d probably stay away from that,” says Dr. Daniel Hall Flavin, MD, an addiction psychiatry consultant at the Mayo Clinic. “If there is any benefit [it] is replacing the electrolytes.” 

The experts say that a sports drink such as Gatorade is a better panacea to dehydration (and tastes better).

Reach for the prickly pear: Before some people begin drinking, they turn to a houseplant. Well, not exactly. Some believe that the cactus, the prickly pear, will cure what ails them.

Prickly pear is chockfull of potassium, explains Bonci, and an extra boost of that nutrient might make a hangover sufferer feel more human. Prickly pear extract can be added to drinks. People can also purchase prickly pear jellies and candies as well as the pulp (it is easier to find it in say the Southwest, but co-ops and speciality stores carry the extract.) Specifically, people should eat the species Opuntia ficus-indica, which is used most often for foods. (While it might seem obvious, we'd like to remind you to remove the spines before eating prickly pear.)

“[A] study found that the prickly pear improved some individual symptoms,” says Vreeman. Taken before drinking, prickly pear lessens dry mouth and nausea. But Vreeman adds that in the randomized, controlled test, the group that received the prickly pear and the placebo group both scored their hangovers the same—people still feel yucky.

Prickly pear works because it helps regulate inflammation. Alcohol changes the amount of inflammatory chemicals, prostaglandins and cytokines, in the body and this imbalance might cause hangovers. Prickly pear controls these fluctuations and the body experiences less turmoil.  

“Whether that improves how humans actually feel remains to be seen,” says Vreeman.