Can Science Finally Put An End To The Hangover?

Senior Contributor
09.27.16

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Almost everybody loves alcohol, and we all loathe hangovers. We dread them so much that we make promises to ourselves, “Next time, water and Advil before bed…maybe a shot of Vitamin B.”

Now, thanks to science, we might not have to worry about hangovers ever again. A new alcohol substitute promises to give all the buzz with none of the headaches (this company will be bigger than Facebook in a week!). But will it really work? Can Homer finally go on a consequence-free bender? Will the hangover be a thing of the past?

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How Hangovers Work

Considering all the anecdotal evidence that human history has accrued, it’s surprising that hangovers are still poorly understood by science. Here’s what we do know: When you consume alcohol, you start dehydrating: Alcohol is a diuretic, after all, but it also causes alcoholic acidosis, blocking your ability to synthesize glucose. That, in of itself, can be more than enough to make the next day horrific, which is why wise drinkers alternate drinks with water.

It goes further. Chemists have discovered that certain chemicals arising from alcohol distillation called “congeners” — methanol in particular — can intensify hangover symptoms. Methanol is a nasty customer in the first place; it’s where all those stories of moonshine making you blind comes from. As methanol breaks down in the body, it becomes formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and a cocktail of other nasty chemicals, which stick around well after the alcohol leaves your body.

The one-two punch of dehydration and a body desperate to get rid of these chemicals sets off a chain reaction, which ends with you pulling the shades and calling into work with a stomach bug.

Meet Alcosynth, The Booze Of Your Dreams

Until recently, synthetic alcohol didn’t have much legitimacy. Enter David Nutt. The British scientist has spent his career studying neuropsychopharmacology — basically, he studies what happens to your brain when it’s on drugs — and he claims to have patented over ninety synthetic alcohols. Two of these supposedly have all the benefits of swilling booze with none of the side effects. Sounds cool, right?

Nutt is thinking bigger than just your bachelor party, though. There are genuine public health concerns around alcohol, especially in his home country of England. Nutt himself ran a study that found that alcohol was the single most damaging drug for British society, and got fired from a prominent government role for actively advocating Britain reconsider its drugs classifications. The CDC has found that here in the U.S., excessive drinking is responsible for one in ten deaths of people aged 20-64. Long term, heavy drinking can drag mightily on your health (even if the effects of that study might be exaggerated).

The idea of synthetic alcohol that wouldn’t wreck your health is one worth striving for. But even just getting rid of the hangover would probably help society. It’s estimated we collectively lose $250 billion a year on hangovers between medical bills, judicial fees and trials, and sick days.

Still, alcosynth has a few hurdles to clear before it’s on the shelves.

Why Aren’t We Drinking Alcosynth Already?

Alcosynth sounds awesome, but there are a few problems. Scientifically, it has a long way to go; and socially, it might not be as popular as Nutt hopes.

First off, we have no idea what Nutt’s alcosynth actually is, because it’s a patented chemical with a secret formulation. That makes it difficult to assess as something people might consume heavily, and it’s going to require years of testing before it’s released to the public.

Nutt, is no scam artist, he’s a responsible scientist and he’s going to do his due diligence. When we consume something, our bodies can have unexpected reactions, and figuring those out might take a long while, or even rule out alcosynth for human consumption altogether. After all, Olestra was supposed to be the chemical that saved us from our own appetites, and instead it turned out to be a one-way ticket to diarrhea.

Meanwhile, in much of the world, we’re trending away from getting bombed. Millennials prefer exercise to getting loaded and ditching beer bongs and drinking games for enjoying one or two beers with friends instead. In the U.S., we’re also moving toward the nationwide legalization of marijuana, which is increasingly a clear threat to the booze industry and can already lay claim to being hangover free.

Even if alcosynth doesn’t prove to dramatically take over the world by 2050, the research Nutt is doing is obviously important. For now, moving away from congener-heavy booze like whiskey and towards the better vodkas should help. Combine that technique with a protein heavy meal and lots of water, and your Monday mornings can already be a lot less painful.

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