Can Milk Thistle Cure Hangovers?

Could milk thistle prevent hangovers?

“Tis the season where so many of us tend to go overboard with drinking, between festive Thanksgiving dinners, countless holiday parties and raucous New Year”s celebrations.  But after the holiday cheer dissipates, most of us are left with that unwelcome side effect of our boozy excesses: the hangover.

While some people swear by the effectiveness of their own favorite hangover remedies–like a greasy breakfast or the “hair of the dog”– others are equally adamant about the effectiveness of their favorite hangover prevention techniques.  One popular belief — fueled in large part by Internet testimonials — is that using an herbal supplement called milk thistle before drinking will prevent hangover.  But is it true?

The theory behind milk thistle‘s potential effect on alcohol metabolism–and therefore hangovers– derives from its active ingredient, silymarin. Silymarin is an antioxidant that protects the liver. Alas, my best research efforts did not unearth a single study that actually examined the effects of milk thistle supplementation on hangover symptoms in humans.

But what does the research say about the relationship between alcohol metabolism and milk thistle?  Generally, milk thistle supplements appear to have the most promise in mitigating and repairing the liver damage associated with — namely, alcoholic hepatitis and possibly even early stage alcoholic cirrhosis–particularly in alcoholics who have stopped drinking.

But there is less reason to think that occasional, moderate drinkers would derive any benefit from milk thistle–even if they overdo it once or twice.  This is due to the different way alcohol is metabolized in moderate drinkers as compared to chronic, heavy drinkers.  In moderate drinkers, the primary enzyme system used to metabolize alcohol is called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), and milk thistle has not been shown to have any effect on this enzyme system.  Therefore, in occasional, moderate drinkers using milk thistle before an uncharacteristic night of heavier drinking, we should not expect to see any changes in alchohol metabolism… or, presumably, its after effects.

In people who abuse alcohol chronically, however, a different enzyme system, called MEOS, is significantly upregulated to handle the big job of alcohol metabolism.  MEOS is the enzyme system that milk thistle appears to interfere with, and lab studies suggest that it may reduce the damaging by-products of alcohol metabolism that cause alcohol-related liver damage.

Of course, until the milk thistle industry funds some scientific studies to examine the supplement”s potential benefit on hangovers in humans, we can”t know for sure.  If you still want to give it a try, milk thistle supplements are generally considered safe for healthy adults who are not taking other medications (such as blood thinners like Warfarin), so using a reputable product once in awhile shouldn”t be cause for concern. Please note that doses above 1,500mg per day have been shown to cause diarrhea, so beware.

If you do take prescription medications, however, check with your doctor before using milk thistle.  Because dietary supplements are unregulated, you can”t know for sure how much silymarin your milk thistle actually contains, and this can significantly impact the product”s efficacy–if indeed, it would be efficacious to begin with.  Experts recommend using pills made from milk thistle dry extracts instead of seed powder to ensure a higher amount of silymarin.

Of course, if you”re serious about preventing a hangover, there”s no evidence that milk thistle will help.  I, for one, am inclined to stick with my own personal, tried and true strategy: chasing each alcoholic drink with a glass of plain water, and popping a few Advil before bed.

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