Researchers from Tulane University and the University of California, San Francisco found that an extract of the Opuntia ficus indica plant, or prickly pear cactus, lessened hangover symptoms such as nausea and a dry mouth in a group of young adults.
The plant is already known to diminish the inflammatory response to stressful stimuli. The symptoms of the alcohol hangover are largely due to the activation of inflammation, according to the researchers.
The study, reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine (164:1334-1340), involved 55 volunteers aged between 21 and 35. Half were given extracts from the skin of the cactus five hours before consuming alcohol. The other half were given a placebo. The volunteers ate dinner an hour later and then four hours later were asked to drink up to 1.75 g of alcohol per kilogram of body weight.
Hangover severity, based on nine different symptoms, and overall well-being were assessed, and blood and urine samples were obtained the following morning. Two weeks later, the study crossover phase was carried out.
The scientists found three hangover symptoms - nausea, a dry mouth and loss of appetite - were significantly reduced by the cactus extract. Overall, the symptom index was reduced by 2.7 points on average and the risk of a severe hangover was reduced by half. The people who took the cactus extract also had higher scores of well-being than those who had taken the placebo.
Levels of a protein produced by the liver in response to stress and inflammation, called C-reactive protein, were also reduced by the cactus extract. The placebo group had C-reactive protein levels 40 per cent higher than those of the volunteers who took the cactus extract, said the researchers.
The team believes the extract reduces inflammation caused by impurities in alcoholic beverages and by-products produced when alcohol is broken down by the body.