Can Probiotics Ease Hangovers?

Kathy Wheddon Nutritional Therapist DipION

With ‘dry January’ close to an end, and ‘virtue’ restored to its full glory after the slight misdemeanours over Christmas and New Year, many of us will be turning our attention to the resurrection of our social lives in February, and the re-appearance of a little 'tipple' or two in our cupboards and fridges. So, what can we do to ensure that a return to drinking, doesn't necessarily mean a return to the dreaded Saturday morning hangover? Can probiotics, amongst other natural remedies, help to reduce the symptoms of a hangover?

wine & tapas
What can we do to limit the after effect of a big night out?

As a nutritional therapist I wouldn't recommend over-indulging on alcohol to anyone, however as a person who occasionally likes a fun evening as much as anyone else, I do know that even with the best of intentions, sometimes an evening ends up being just a little bit more ‘boozy’ than was intended. In this situation, a back-up plan seems like a good idea, something to limit the chances that you will be crawling out of bed the following morning with a headache, nausea and that overwhelming sense of fatigue that we all know too well. But, can a hang-over be avoided, and what actually causes the symptoms? According to Russian research, probiotics could be an effective part of any 'hangover prevention' plan.

There are a number of reasons that people feel bad after a couple of drinks too many. For one, alcohol is a diuretic which causes increased urination and therefore dehydration. Along with fluids, electrolytes are also lost, which can contribute to the headaches, nausea and fatigue. Due to the high concentration of sugar in most alcoholic drinks, their consumption can lead to imbalances in our blood glucose levels which again reduces cellular energy and creates that feeling of brain ‘fog’ or spaciness. In addition, most people don’t sleep well after an evening of drinking, as alcohol affects our circadian rhythms through disruption of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin.

In the body, alcohol is metabolized into various products that may play a role in the unpleasant symptoms of a hangover. Alcohol (or ethanol) is initially broken down in the liver to acetaldehyde, which is then further converted in to acetate. Acetate is non-toxic, however the intermediate break down product (acetaldehyde), is known to cause many of the symptoms associated with that ‘morning after’ feeling. Dependent on your liver function, some people metabolize acetaldehyde more quickly than others, which partially explains why some people suffer more than others for their ‘indulgences’!

woman hungover holding head

Could our gut flora have a part to play in how quickly we recover after drinking alcohol?

Effects of alcohol on the digestive tract:

Alcohol is also known to have various effects within the digestive tract. It is known to irritate the gut lining, by increasing acid production. This can lead to inflammation of the stomach and GI tract lining, known as gastritis. Alcohol also appears to harm the gut in another way, in that it alters the balance of gut flora. Learn more by reading: Gut health - all you need to know. A Russian1 study showed that study participants that drank regularly had lower levels of three types of gut bacteria, namely: Bifidobacteria, Lactobacilli and Enterococci. Within 5 days of supplementing probiotics, levels of both Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli had significantly increased. However, more interestingly, the study participants liver enzymes which had previously been elevated, had decreased to within normal levels. Elevated liver enzymes in a drinker, are usually a sign of liver inflammation from alcohol exposure. The fact that these enzymes dropped following probiotic supplementation, means that there was some sort of improvement in liver function as a direct result of the probiotic treatment.

Bifidobacteria are also known to help break down and detoxify acetaldehyde. By preventing the accumulation of this toxic by-product of alcohol metabolism, Bifidobacteria are thought to help prevent symptoms of a hangover. Naturopaths often recommend taking B.bifidus before going to bed, and again the following morning to reduce the severity of a hangover.

People with a healthy, balanced gut, and good levels of friendly bacteria may therefore have the capacity to better deal with overindulgences, than those people that have depleted probiotic colonies. This may explain why some people seem to ‘bounce back’ faster after any dietary, or alcohol-related, ‘faux pas’ than others, presenting us with yet another compelling reason to look after our gut flora!

Recommendations to help avoid/reduce a hangover:

• Drink plenty of water on a night out, and again before bed, to limit the effects of dehydration

• Take 50-75mg of B-complex before bed. B-vitamins are important in carbohydrate (and therefore alcohol) metabolising process, and also in dilating blood vessels, therefore reducing headaches. They also help to restore energy levels and balance blood glucose levels.

• The herb milk thistle, has liver protective effects as it prevents toxins from entering liver cells. It also helps to detoxify any circulating toxins.

• Feverfew, is effective at treating headaches and has none of the negative impacts on the digestive tract that aspirin has.

• Vitamin C stimulates the liver to break down alcohol. Use a mild, non acidic form of vitamin C that is gentle on the stomach, such as magnesium ascorbate, rather than ascorbic acid.

• Try taking a supplement of the green algae chlorella before bed. Chlorella contains high levels of chlorophyll which make it excellent as a detoxifier.

• Take a good-quality multi-strain probiotic supplement before bed, and again in the morning. The formulation should include at least one strain of Bifidobacteria to help break down the toxic metabolites of alcohol breakdown.

• If you suffer from an upset stomach or diarrhoea after consuming too much alcohol, then Saccharomyces boulardii. Healthcare practitioners can find out more about Saccharomyces boulardii on the Probiotics Database. It might be helpful, as it has anti-inflammatory effects in the gut. 

As you can see there are lots of simple steps that you can take to reduce the effects of drinking too much alcohol. The simplest of course, is not to over-do it in the first place, but if that doesn't sound like much fun, at least you know you can rely on a few natural remedies to help put the spring back in your step.
How our gut health impacts on our general health is a fascinating topic.

If you would like to read more on related topics, see: 

Is wine a probiotic?

Doing dry January? Your gut bacteria will be grateful

Study Reference: 
1. 2008 Dec;42(8):675-82. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2008.08.006.Probiotics restore bowel flora and improve liver enzymes in human alcohol-induced liver injury: a pilot study. Kirpich IA1, Solovieva NV, Leikhter SN, Shidakova NA, Lebedeva OV, Sidorov PI, Bazhukova TA, Soloviev AG, Barve SS, McClain CJ, Cave M.

Image references: 
ttp://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/feb/09/wine-criticismhttp://www.lifeguardbreathtester.com/Self_Monitoring/how_alcohol_affects.shtml