When hungover, some people might fall back on the classic carb sandwich — a bacon-egg-n-cheese perhaps, maybe with some hot sauce and home fries on the side. Others might choose a sweeter dish to soothe the soul, like pancakes. And then some may simply try a little hair of the dog and order a bloody mary.
While none or all of these breakfast options might make you feel less sorry for yourself, you may be tempted to make your parents proud and add another morning staple: Fruit. And when you need carbs and comfort in equal measure, what fruit is better than a banana?
Do bananas help a hangover?
Rich in complex carbohydrates, bananas raise your blood sugar and help your body process alcohol by activating the metabolism. Bananas also tend to go easy on your tummy if you feel queasy.
But there’s some question as to whether bananas might betray you in your moment of need — perhaps even worsening your hangover tenfold. That’s because bananas contain a particular compound called tyramine that has been linked to migraines. Just like nobody wants to blast heavy metal in their headphones when they wake up hungover with a headache, nobody wants to eat something that will make them feel even worse.
But for several scientific reasons, most people have nothing to worry about. Food science professor Karen Schaich at Rutgers University peels back the myth.
What is tyramine?
Tyramine is an amino acid byproduct of tyrosine, another amino acid that’s found in bananas, aged cheeses, and fermented foods. The latter two contain live microorganisms, which turn tyrosine into tyramine by removing its carboxylic acid group.
Bananas contain tyramine, but it’s hard to pinpoint how much tyramine is too much. Schaich points out that across studies, what is considered a high level of tyramine differs by as much as 100 grams. Bananas tend not to feature on lists of the foods with the highest levels of tyramine — for example, fermented foods have much higher amounts of tyramine than bananas over all.
Also, the amount of tyramine you get from a banana depends on what condition it is in when you eat it. Bananas contain the most tyramine when they’re overripe — like, ready-for-banana bread-overripe, which “many people won’t eat, so then it’s not even a problem,” Schaich tells Inverse.
Does tyramine cause migraines?
To understand how tyramine affects migraines, one has to understand migraines.
During a migraine, a stimulus — whether it is a change in weather or bright flashing lights or something else — causes blood vessels in the brain to enlarge and press against brain tissue, causing a painful headache. This is called vasodilation.
One remedy for vasodilation is the feel-good hormone serotonin. Serotonin makes the blood vessels constrict — vasoconstriction — which counteracts the effects of a migraine. But too much vasoconstriction actually worsens the pain, generating a throbbing sensation.
Tyramine, Schaich says, has a similar structure to serotonin, so in a classic bait-and-switch, tyramine is able to bind to serotonin receptors in the brain and affect the same pathways, like blood vessels. Tyramine can thus cause vasoconstriction, but sometimes the effect is too strong, resulting in throbbing pain.
“[Tyramine is] not a migraine inducer by itself,” Schaich tells Inverse. Rather, if one already is suffering a migraine, then too much tyramine may make the condition worse. But eating tyramine-rich foods won’t bring on symptoms.
Schaich also points out that everyone processes amino acids differently. People who are sensitive to tyramine likely already know that they are because they’ve been betrayed by a banana or wedge of brie. She says that for some, a few milligrams may be enough to induce a migraine, and for others, it may take a few grams.
Could bananas make a hangover worse?
Add a hangover into the mix, and you might think bananas spell a double-whammy migraine. However, that’s not the case — unless you are a specific kind of person.
“If you’ve never had a migraine, and you’ve never had a response to bananas, then hell — eat bananas for hangovers,” Schaich says. Also, even if you do get migraines, people metabolize different compounds differently. Take, for example, Schaich and her sister, who both experience migraines. Schaich usually eats ground beef sans bun for her symptoms because her body metabolizes protein better alone. Her sister, however, has to eat protein with a carb in order to metabolize it smoothly.
Ideally, a post-hangover meal will “be metabolized in place of the alcohol,” Schaich says. (Cue the aforementioned bacon-egg-n-cheese.) If you want to try and optimize your food choice, then opting for a plate of something high in the amino acid tryptophan is potentially a great choice because the body metabolizes tryptophan into serotonin, which helps relieve headaches through vasoconstrictions. But even then, beware.
“You can put out a whole smorgasbord of things that have worked for some people, but they're not going to work for everyone,” Schaich says.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.