Hangover Cures

Hangover culprit

Hangover cures…don’t work. And, that’s official. So you’re stuck with that thumping headache, the sick feeling in your stomach, and the mouth that feels like the bottom of a parrot (or parrot’s cage depending on what you were drinking.

According to a report published in the British Medical Journal some time ago, but timely once again given the imminent holiday season, the only way to reduce the risk of waking up with a stinking hangover the morning after the night before is to not drink alcohol or at the least to avoid imbibing copious amounts of this natural poison.

There is, says the report, “No compelling evidence to suggest that any complementary or conventional intervention is effective for treating or preventing alcohol hangover.”

Apparently, hangovers waste something like £2billlion (almost $4b) in lost earnings every year because of sufferers taking a sickie and forfeiting their pay for the day. Add to that the cost of the various “hangover cures” those drinkers often turn to. They usually do so in the hope that they will be able to get out of bed and stand up straight without feeling sick or as if someone has hit them round the head with a sledgehammer. You get the idea of just how much all this drunken debauchery costs.

The authors of the paper trawled medical databases and the internet looking for hangover cures (it doesn’t say whether they were suffering the after effects of one too many sherberts themselves). They also contacted experts and manufacturers to find any randomised controlled trials of medical interventions that could prevent or treat hangovers.

The results of their search pulled up eight trials testing eight different agents: propranolol (a beta-blocking drug), tropisetron (drug for nausea and vertigo), tolfenamic acid (a painkiller), fructose or glucose, and the dietary supplements borage, artichoke, prickly pear (Opuntia ficus indica), and a yeast-based preparation [not to be confused with a yeast based infection, Ed.]

Of those trials none reported any significant positive effects on post-alcoholic health, although there was some evidence that borage, the yeast-based preparation, and tolfenamic acid had some benefits. “We are confident that our search strategy located all published trials on the subject,” say the authors. “Our findings show no compelling evidence to suggest that any complementary or conventional intervention is effective for treating or preventing the alcohol hangover.”

An earlier paper in the journal suggested that the main active ingredient in beer, wine, spirits and other alcoholic drinks, “ethanol itself may play only a minor part in producing the thirst, headache, fatigue, nausea, sweating, tremor, remorse, and anxiety that hangover sufferers report.” Research shows that hangover symptoms reach their peak, or should that be trough, when almost all the ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde have actually been cleared from the blood. Moreover, peak blood ethanol or acetaldehyde levels do not correlate closely with the severity of the subsequent hangover. This is borne out by the fact that between a quarter and half of drinkers claim not to get hangovers even after a drunken binge.

Rather, it’s the congeners – other organic molecules such as polyphenols, methanol, other alcoholic compounds, and histamine – that seem to be to blame more than ethanol itself. Different drinks have different amounts of these nasties. This likely explains why a heavy session on cheap bourbon or brandy – thick with congeners and blinding methanol – is more likely to leave you with a mouth like the bottom of a parrot’s cage and a skull-crushing headache than a half dozen shots of clear, pure vodka. Not that I’d know anything about parrots and skulls, of course.

Consultant anaesthetist Ian Calder of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, in a BMJ editorial suggested that “the fear of hangover prompts most people to moderate their ethanol intake.” This may have been true a decade ago. However, given the advent of vodka-based alcoholic shots type drinks in the last few years and the apparent burgeoning of binge drinker numbers across the UK it either no longer holds true or else this kind of research has reached the boozing masses and their drinking habits have evolved to home in on beverages with lower congener concentrations.

It’s all almost enough to make you turn to drink. Or, perhaps turn to a pharmaceutical alternative to alcohol that might emerge from research labs in the near future, according to a report in newscientist.

Alcohol exerts its effects on the brain by latching on to GABA-A receptors in the brain, and these come in various sub-types. Alcohol binds indiscriminately to them all, interfering with many brain pathways including memory and leading to its pleasant and unpleasant initial effects. A designer molecule that binds strongly to the “good” subtypes, producing the pleasurable effects of alcohol without interfering with essential brain processes, could easily be made the magazine reports. But, do we need yet another substance of abuse, especially one with a whiff of a Huxley-type world of Soma addiction?

Still, in the absence of the hangover-free substance, we’ll continue to see throughout the coming party season websites touting cure-alls from jalapeno peppers and the full English breakfast to a good old hair of the dog as the cure to end the morning-after blues.

My personal tip? Alternate your alcoholic drinks with the equivalent volume of good old-fashioned tap water and make sure you boogie more than you booze.

UPDATE: While it is quite easy to discuss a hangover in a relatively light-hearted way, Sciencebase guest author Sheila Gibbs discusses the far more serious side of drink and how alcohol destroys lives

Starry, starry night

Starry, starry scienceDetermining the chemical composition of 2000 stars in four of our neighboring dwarf galaxies, is a task even the biggest parallel analytical lab would probably baulk at taking on, although of course the referral fees would be stupendous. Nevertheless, a chemical survey of just such inter-galactic proportions has been carried out.

The chemical survey was made possible by the imaginatively named European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. This a bigger than normal telescope operated by Europe’s Southern Observatory, in case you couldn’t get.

The results from this survey are now shedding star light on our Galaxy’s ancient ancestry and revealing it to be very different from that of several of our near neighbors. Indeed, the findings have already cast some doubt on the theory that diminutive neighbours like these were the building blocks for our own Milky Way Galaxy.

You can find out more in the latest issue of Reactive Reports.

Rusty nanoparticles and arsenic poisoning

A subject that I have returned to on several occasions is arsenic-contaminated drinking water. This insidious environmental disaster was first brought to light by Dipankar Chakraborti of the University of Jadavpur whom I interviewed for The Guardian in 1995. However, the problem has not gone away. Various research teams have looked at various solutions to the problem but Chakraborti emphasises that the issue is one of politics more than anything else.

Nevertheless, there are emerging, simple technologies that with the political will to implement them, may one make the arsenic contamination that is affecting hundreds of thousands if not millions of people across the Indian sub-continent a thing of the past.

The latest unexpected discovery that rusty nanoparticles are more magnetic than predicted may help.

Researchers at Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) have developed a low-cost technology that can extract arsenic from drinking water. The discovery could save millions of people from untold suffering across India, Bangladesh, and other developing countries where thousands of wells are poisoned by arsenic salts.

Find out more in Issue 60 of Reactive Reports.


What is it with software and websites and scientific tools that they all have to have these mixed case acronyms, abbreviations, and odd spelling?

Anyway, today sees the launch of another odd spelling from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute – CiteXplore. This is a freely accessible literature resource service that melds data from the peer-reviewed scientific literature with key biological data such as DNA and protein sequences, functions and structures of molecules and microarray data.

The tool essentially searches Medline abstracts, patent abstracts, and Chinese Biological Abstracts and links to publisher websites. But, the crucial difference between this and any other literature search tool is that it cross-links to EMBL-EBI’s biological databases.

‘When you are reading an abstract describing a specific gene or protein, typically you want more information on it, for example its sequence or its function, as well as easy access to the full paper,’ says Peter Stoehr, who coordinates CiteXplore. Built-in text-mining tools allow “touch of a button” or more aptly, “click-of-a-(lab)-mouse” access to the specific record for a molecule of interest.

This is just the kind of system that chemists Peter Murray-Rust and Henry Rzepa have been aiming for the chemical sciences. Once again, the bio guys seem to have stolen a march on chemistry.

Santa Claus Address

Santa Claus AddressNow that Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the Holiday Weekend, and Cyber Monday are over for another year, it’s time to start writing your letter to Santa Claus…

Of course, to make sure it reaches him, you’ll want to know his proper address, not just one of those scammy spammy addresses that say “North Pole”. As you probably know there are actually two North Poles and they never sit still. There’s the geographical North Pole, which is the point at the top of the world through which the earth’s axis passes, then there is the magnetic North Pole, which is quite variable and at several times in history has actually been at the South Pole.

Thankfully, NASA has done some satellite tracking and a little remote imaging to try and trace Santa Claus’ address and have come up with the goods. Check out their images and learn how to pronounce Santa’s zip code here. But, for our recent anonymous visitor who cannot click a link I’ll spell it out:

Mr S Claus
North Pole
H0H OH 0

The Internet is a series of tubes…

…no, sorry…wrong story. Tubes, carbon nanotubes are the new material of choice for a wide range of experimental technological applications. Now, US researchers hope that they will be used to make implantable biomedical devices that could act as artificial nerve cells, control severe pain, or maybe one day move paralyzed muscles.

Nicholas Kotov of the University of Michigan and colleagues at Oklahoma State University and the University of Texas Medical Branch have used carbon nanotubes to connect an integrated electronic circuit to living nerve cells. The new technology offers the possibility of building cyborg type interfaces between biology and electronics only dreamed of in science fiction stories until now.

Read on…

Ayurvedic analysis

I, like many with a chemistry training, have on occasion dismissed the more mystical-seeming strands of non-western medicine. The origins of homeopathy, for instance, relied on literal Bible bashing of glass phials to ensure the infinitely dilute remedies would work. Which of course western medicine says is ludicrous. Herbal medicine on the other hand needed the industrial age to extract its active ingredients and bring us the likes of aspirin from the sap of the cricket bat willow and asthma inhalers from ephedra plants.

One area of non-western science that many western medics and scientists say is nothing more than pseudoscientific claptrap is Ayurvedic medicine. This is a holistic healing system that emerged in ancient India. It talks of the mind-body balance and the kind of “energy” and humours that modern science claims not to exist, yet there may be a grain of truth in some aspects of this system for which modern science has not given due credit.

Consider the western approach to the common problem of anaemia in pregnancy. The treatment of choice, according to western medicine, is simply to ingest iron sulfate. In this form, iron can be readily absorbed by the body, assimilated into new red blood cells, and anaemia solved.

Unfortunately, many pregnant women cannot tolerate iron sulfate and regurgitate it so they don’t get to ingest the iron and the anaemia remains.

Now consider the Ayurvedic approach. The sage assesses the pregnant woman, finds she has an imbalance in her energies, humours, whatever, and prepares a herbal infusion aimed at shifting the balance towards a more healthy state. It works, there’s no vomiting, the morning sickness subsides, and that anaemic look is replaced by the flush of pregnancy once more.

So, what is going on? How can a bunch of herbs cure anaemia so readily?

AP de Silva of the Queen’s University Belfast, whom I recently interviewed for Reactive Reports, was once equally as sceptical of the possibilities of Ayurvedic medicin. He told me that, as a fledgling chemist, he challenged an Ayurvedic practitioner to answer the question of validity. The practitioner, however, was entirely confident of his position and turned the tables on AP suggesting that he take away the herbal infusion and analyse it in his lab, which he did.

The result? A standard elemental analysis revealed the infusion to contain a stabilised concentration of iron(II) ions. Natural chelating agents in one of the herbs provide a suitable chemical environment to maintain iron in the II state, as opposed to its more common (III) state. This allows it to be ingested, absorbed, and to cure the anaemia without the sickness of raw iron sulfate.

This is, of course, circumstantial evidence, and does not provide the support of full double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials. However, the chemical analysis provides one possible rational explanation of the efficacy of this remedy beyond a placebo effect.

Perhaps it is time modern science took a closer look at the multitude of alternative remedies that sit under the Ayurvedic umbrella. Ancient herbal remedies evolved from folk knowledge and a huge proportion of modern drugs are based on such remedies, 40% of them, or thereabouts. Instead of instantly assuming isolation of an active ingredient is the optimal approach, perhaps science should consider the holistic approach to drug discovery with a view to coping with the side effects and improving efficacy overall.

Science journalist in the news

It’s not often that I’m on the receiving end of journalism, but today Jenny Gristock gave me a taste of celebrity in a Guardian media article about the role played by science journalism in science.

I’d tipped her off about one of the biggest success stories, from the perspective of academic research becoming an industrial commercial reality, that had emerged from the pages of New Scientist in recent years. This is how she put it:

“In 1994 freelance science journalist, 雷竞技官网 , wrote an article about the work of the Nottingham university chemist, Professor Martyn Poliakoff (Yes, brother of…). Poliakoff was conducting experiments with supercritical carbon dioxide, a highly compressed gas that can dissolve all manner of chemicals. “It acts like a solvent, but has none of the environmental problems of traditional ones,” says Poliakoff.

Bradley’s article captured Poliakoff’s vision of his research. After it appeared in New Scientist, Poliakoff’s world changed completely. “I was happily working away as an academic, and then the article was published,” says Poliakoff. “Thomas Swan, an industrialist, read it and phoned me. He said we ought to collaborate.”

The result, says Poliakoff, is one of New Scientist’s greatest success stories. In 2002, Poliakoff and Thomas Swan & Co built the world’s first full-scale, multi-reaction supercritical carbon dioxide plant.”

You can read Gristock’s full article here, although you’ll need to register with the Grauniad site to do so. Alternatively, Gristock has posted the full text on her blog.

I’m just waiting for the paparazzi to arrive, and the full profile in Hello magazine, and maybe even a chance to jump up and down on Oprah’s sofa!

Synthesizing a new breed of chemist

Mark LeachFrom the age of 13, Mark Leach has had a subscription to the popular-science magazine Scientific American, and more recently the journal Nature. His scientific interests include cosmology, high energy and nuclear physics, materials science (particularly carbon nanotubes), geophysics, molecular biology, evolution, information technology, the brain, defense technology, and scientific ethics. Professionally, Mark is a chemist interested in ‘chemistry, the-whole-thing’. I interviewed for my Reactive Profile column this month, find out about the origins of meta-synthesis.com, Dr Leach’s aspirations for his various sites, and how he believes chemistry education could be radically improved through a re-think of some fundamental principles.

The latest Reactive Profile is in Issue 60 of our chemistry magazine.

Geekish girls

The Cnet newsite has a rather politically incorrect item this week listing the Top Ten girl geeks. I’m not entirely sure how they’re defining geek but among those listed are Marie Curie, Ada Byron (Lovelace), Rosalind Franklin (after whom my wife wanted to name our daughter), and…Paris Hilton (don’t ask).

So, where’s crystallography pioneer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin? And, what about Judith Howard, first female Professor of Chemistry in the UK? Then there’s Helen Sharman first British woman in space (also a chemist), finally what about Margaret Thatcher (she trained as a chemist too and then spent her time in office effectively dismantling UK science, can’t get more geekish than that!