WE HAVE all been there. The nausea, muscle ache, and thirst are all telltale signs of an impending hangover. While most enjoy the light-headed and giddy feeling that accompanies drinking alcohol, the aftermath can take a toll on one’s body. It is no wonder there is so much advice on how to alleviate hangovers and just as many hangover remedies. Frequent drinkers have their own know-hows for alleviating the effects of alcohol. Some people suggest simply drinking plenty of water and resting while others swear by a bowl of boiling hot soup after a night out drinking. In Korea, where drinking culture is pervasive and relationships are established through hoe-siks*, there is a wide variety of hangover relieving supplements for sale. Such remedies are commonly consumed by Koreans; but do these “remedies” actually qualify as medicine? And if not, how should we classify them?
What causes hangovers?
When alcohol is consumed, it is absorbed through one’s stomach, small intestine, and bloodstream. The liver then gathers this foreign substance and detoxifies over 90% of it from the body**. This process involves the dehydrogenase enzyme breaking down the ethanol in alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that irritates the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. When the liver cannot keep up with the pace of alcohol consumption, the excess alcohol and acetaldehyde adversely affect organs such as the heart, brain, and muscles resulting in what we know as a hangover.
Dehydration can be another cause of hangovers. Alcohol consumption increases urine production and irritates the intestines, which may lead to diarrhea. Due to an excessive loss of fluids, the body becomes dehydrated leading to the most common symptoms of heavy drinking: thirst, dizziness, nausea, and lightheadedness. This is why medical experts advise people to drink plenty of water in between shots and also during a hangover.
Types of relievers
There are two main types of supplements: hangover drinks and hangover pills. The former is the more traditional version, having been around the market since 1992. According to Nielsen Korea, hangover drinks are estimated to be a ₩200 billion industry dominated by three main brands: Dawn 808, Condition, and Morning Care. These drinks have had over 90% of the market share for more than a decade.
All three products contain natural substances that are thought to relieve hangover symptoms. Dawn 808 markets itself as an all-natural, traditional medicinal drink containing alder tree extract which it claims to detoxifies alcohol. Condition uses extract from the Hovenia dulcis, or oriental raisin tree, that supposedly prevents alcohol-induced liver damage. Morning Care is the newest and perhaps the least well-known of the three, but it has managed to appeal to customers with its honey-sweet taste and scent. This hangover drink does not rely on a single main ingredient the way its rivals do and instead incorporates eight different substances including milk thistle, guarana, and arrow root—all of which are associated with liver health and reduction of fatigue.
Although relatively new, hangover pills are also quite popular with customers. The most well -known in Korea is Sang-quae-hwan. In 2018, it was recognized as the second most popular hangover reliever—competing against hangover drinks which have dominated the hangover supplement market for decades***. Sang-quae-hwan is made of a combination of various ingredients found in other supplements such as alder trees and oriental raisin trees, but in a more concentrated form. Aside from drinks and pills, hangover relievers are also being sold in the form of jellies, candies, and even ice creams.
However, it is important to note that commercially available hangover relievers are not scientifically proven to cure the symptoms of hangovers. They merely contain ingredients traditionally associated with improving liver health. The widespread belief that hangover relievers are medicine, is propagated via advertisements claiming that these commercially available products remove the effects of hangovers. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Kim Seung-eob, a gastroenterology professor at Severance Hospital and one of Korea’s leading liver specialist, explains that hangover drinks are officially categorized as generic beverages rather than medicines and are not proven to cure hangovers. When asked why some people claim that hangover drinks have been effective, Kim elaborated that so-called hangover relievers—regardless of their form—may assist in the decomposition of acetaldehyde, though he noted that there is only weak evidence to support this.
Myths and facts about sobering up
According to research conducted by Statistics Korea in 2016, people between the ages of 19 and 29 drink the most out of all other age groups in South Korea. The prevalence of drinking culture among college students in particular has led to a number of personal methods for combatting hangovers. Park Jung-min (Fresh., UIC, Underwood Div.) says, “To prevent hangovers I usually drink a lot of water and milk... Drinking fluids helps my body return to its normal condition while the intake of protein is necessary to alleviate hangovers. However, when I have had too much alcohol, I drink Gal-bae**** and Cho co ae mong*****. They are really easy to buy and are pretty effective too.” Like Park, many students have their own sobering-up-myths such as eating a special brand of ice cream or drinking isotonic drinks. None of these “cures” are backed by research which suggests that these myths rely on the placebo effect—a phenomenon where mentally believing in a cure can actually contribute to its effectiveness. That being said, these personal remedies can help hydrate the body and replenish low blood sugar levels caused by drinking alcohol******.
Obviously, the foolproof way of avoiding hangover is to not drink alcohol at all. However, this is sometimes difficult to do—especially in Korea, where drinking is an integral part of social and business culture. It is worthwhile to find ways of reducing the worst of alcohol’s effects. In an interview with the Annals, Kim advised that sufficient sleep, hydration, and food and beverages containing large amounts of glucose are crucial when coping with hangovers.
Another useful tip is to pick drinks that cause fewer problems the day after. According to the National Institute of Health, drinks with smaller amounts of congener******* are less likely to cause hangovers. Clearer drinks such as vodka, so-ju, and gin have lower concentrations of congener than others. Hangover soups or hae-jang-guk eaten to cope with the effects of too much drinking also enjoy widespread popularity. The two most common ones are bean sprout soup and bone soup. Bean sprouts contain high levels of aspartic acid which can help neutralize the acetaldehyde formed by the breakdown of alcohol in the liver. Bone soup is also helpful in the sense that it hydrates the body and contains high levels of minerals and proteins to revitalize the body********.
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Because Korea has an extensive drinking culture, it is easy to forget that alcohol, in excess, is a poison that can contribute to a number of serious health issues. What we need to be aware is that there is no cure to hangovers and a damaged liver. As the saying goes, the best wealth is health; so, do not go wasting it to get wasted.
*Hoe-sik: A Korean word that refers to a social gathering among peers or colleagues
****Gal-bae: Abbreviation of “Gal a ma si neun bae,” which can be translated into “grinded pear drink”
*****Cho co ae mong: A Korean brand of chocolate milk
******Harvard Health Publishing
******* Congener: By-products created during the process of producing alcoholic drinks