You wake up, and the sun is peeking through your window. A brutal combination of dry mouth, headaches, nausea, light sensitivity, muscle pain, fatigue, and sweating sets in. No, you don’t have food poisoning; you’re just hung over, and you’d do anything to make it stop. You can waste money on a bunch of snake oil, or you could just smoke some weed and eat a greasy breakfast sandwich. But what if you could just take a pill?
A study on mice published this week in the nanomedicine journal Advanced Materials suggests that scientists are on their way for this holy grail, at least in theory. To test their new potential treatment, a team of researchers got mice drunk — hell yeah, party on, mice — and then injected some of the mice with a combination of nanocapsulated enzymes that mimic the ones our livers naturally use to process alcohol. Doing so essentially supercharged the mice’s ability to break down alcohol and its toxic byproduct, acetaldehyde. The supercharged mice, the authors write, had significantly lower levels of alcohol and toxic acetaldehyde in their blood a few hours after treatment compared to their untreated counterparts. In an article published in The Conversation on Wednesday, Yunfeng Lu, Ph.D., a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author on the paper, suggests that this treatment has the potential to both reverse alcohol poisoning and help cure hangovers in the future. As of now, however, it’s not entirely clear it can do the latter.
When you drink alcohol, your liver immediately starts breaking it down with the help of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which oxidizes alcohol to produce acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is toxic, and studies show that it’s the main culprit for liver damage and cancer associated with alcohol abuse. Fortunately, it doesn’t stick around for too long: another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase breaks acetaldehyde down into acetate, a relatively safe chemical. But when you drink too much for your liver to keep up, alcohol and acetaldehyde hang around for longer, and you get drunk. If you drink even more than that, you get alcohol poisoning as alcohol and acetaldehyde accumulate to toxic amounts.
Usually, the treatment for alcohol poisoning involves using stomach pumps and activated charcoal to get alcohol out of the body, but the researchers who conducted this study envision an approach that takes advantage of natural enzyme action to process alcohol and aldehyde more quickly. By encapsulating the enzymes, the scientists argue that they’ll be delivered quickly to the liver without losing potency, and thereby provide the liver’s natural enzymes with a boost. In this way, the research suggests that the treatment could help reverse alcohol poisoning, but its effects on a hangover are less clear.
While alcohol and acetaldehyde are toxic, there’s actually not much left in your body by the time you get a hangover. Plus, there are multiple factors in addition to toxic chemicals that contribute to a hangover: Research has shown that the body’s inflammatory response and dehydration is also involved. So, just because the new treatment accelerates the rate at which the body gets rid of alcohol and acetaldehyde doesn’t necessarily mean it will speed up hangover recovery or get rid of them altogether. It might — the scientists didn’t ask mice how they were feeling the next morning — but until follow-up studies can be carried out on humans (trials are expected to begin within a year), we can’t know for sure.
Nevertheless, the main goal of this study was to quickly reverse the effects of alcohol consumption, which the treatment seems to do effectively. If this injection is ever available for humans, it could be a great way to help people recover more quickly from accidental alcohol poisoning. In the meantime, if you get hangovers, you’re probably still stuck with them.