vitamins

The hazy business of treating your hangover

December 30, 2013: 1:55 PM ET

Most medical experts agree that there is no real way to cure a hangover. So why are more and more companies getting into the hangover treatment business?

By Caroline Fairchild, reporter

131230133145-hangover-cures-620xaFORTUNE -- On the eve of one of the biggest drinking nights of the year, we have some bad news.

There is likely no cure for the hangover that you will inevitably wake up with come January 1st.

Despite this dark truth, a look around practically any gas station or liquor store could still give you hope for a hangover-free 2014. After all, next to the cases of beer and magnums of wine there are likely several drinks, pills, or capsules from companies all promising that they will make you feel better if you take them before or after a big night out.

Welcome to the hazy business of treating your hangover.

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"Hangover treatments and cures are a scam," said Dr. Cynthia Kuhn, a professor of pharmacology at Duke University and the co-author of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. "Most hangover products market a lot of ingredients that cannot change hangover symptoms, or ingredients like aspirin and caffeine that might help but are available for much less on their own."

Put simply, the more alcohol you drink, the harder it is for your body to metabolize the toxic substance and the worse you typically feel the next morning. Nausea, headaches, fatigue, and thirst are the most common symptoms the morning after a night of overdrinking. For most drinkers, the only proven cure for a bad hangover is time.

These largely agreed-upon facts in the medical community have not stopped several companies from trying to turn a profit in the hangover treatment industry. Jay Grdina, the CEO of NOHO Inc. (DRNK) and the maker of the "no hangover defense" beverage NoHo, predicts his company will grow to $100 million in sales in three years on the premise that while you cannot cure a hangover, you can prevent ever getting one in the first place. By drinking a two-ounce bottle of NoHo before a night out, Grdina claims you can "preload" your system with natural ingredients like ginger root and prickly pear extract that help metabolize alcohol. In 2013, NoHo sales increased by 40%.

"Our product works prior to your first drink by fortifying your body," said Grdina about the $3 beverage sold in 25,000 stores nationwide. "We are the sunblock of alcohol. We protect your body against the adverse effects of alcohol."

The Food and Drug Administration classifies NoHo and other hangover products like it as dietary supplements. Unlike drugmakers, supplement manufacturers cannot make claims that their products will cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent a disease. Instead, a product like NoHo centers its marketing on how it "cleanses the liver" or "soothes the stomach and digestive system."

Still, none of its ingredients or claims have been vetted or approved by the FDA, according to Dan Fabricant, the director of the FDA's Division of Dietary Supplement Programs.

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"There is a grey area on what they can or cannot say," Fabricant said, speaking broadly about the claims of dietary supplement companies. "We like to say that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Without the FDA's official stamp of approval, dietary supplement companies attempt to bring credibility to their products in other ways. NoHo's formula was created by a pharmacist and is currently undergoing medical testing for its positive effects. Privately held hangover-prevention beverage company Mercy Nutraceuticals recently announced the preliminary results of a clinical study that showed its product reduced hangover symptoms associated with alcohol consumption.

Other companies sell over-the-counter drugs that claim the most effective way to battle a hangover is to instead take something the morning after. Brenna Haysom, the president and founder of the privately held Rally Labs, said while "the wild world of supplements" goes largely unregulated by the medical community, her company's lemon-flavored fizzy tablet Blowfish is made with FDA-regulated ingredients like caffeine and aspirin. The product is available for about $2 per dose in more than 8,000 stores across the country and is marketed on its website as being able to knock out the adverse effects of alcohol in as little as 15 minutes. Haysom declined to comment specifically about her company's financial performance.

Dr. Kuhn is skeptical that hangover treatment products are any more effective at warding off a hangover than traditional solutions like staying hydrated or taking a pain reliever. Still, the growing market for hangover-easing drinks and pills does prove that people are desperate for a reliable cure. Americans consume 117 billion drinks every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Hungover workers who trudge to the office after a night of tying one on cost the U.S. economy $160 billion annually in lost workplace productivity.

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The obvious solution to this problem is painfully simple: Just don't drink. But for the 66% of Americans who enjoy the occasional beer, wine, or cocktail, that is not an easy option.

"We are a nation of light to moderate alcohol consumers, and it is part of our social dynamic," said David Racicot, the CEO of Mercy. "As we come up on the holiday season, drinking comes at an even faster pace."

Even as 2014 approaches, an undeniable cure for your hangover is not likely something that will be discovered in the near future. Dr. Wilkie Wilson, a professor of prevention science at Duke's Social Sciences Research Institute and the co-author of Buzzed, said very few institutions are willing to devote research into all the ways alcohol negatively affects the body because it is such a preventable problem. As a result, the medical community also remains in the dark about what exactly can curb the misery that follows a night of drinking.

"Should we be spending our precious research dollars trying to figure out how to make people who went on a drinking binge feel better? Unless there is some greater good than that, probably not," Wilson said.

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