Can Probiotics Cure a Hangover?

A woman suffers from a debilitating headache during a hangover.

(© Barbara Pheby/Adobe)


Probiotics seem to be everywhere these days. They are marketed for numerous health issues, from irritable bowel syndrome and vaginal yeast infections to life-threatening disorders like the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile.

The new probiotic drink is made of genetically engineered bacteria meant to help people feel better the day after drinking.

While the probiotic gummies that you'll find in supermarkets may not do much for you, good clinical evidence does support the C. difficile treatment, known as a fecal transplant, despite a recent setback, and there are always new probiotic regimens entering the scene. One emerging such treatment targets the hangover.

The Lowdown

You read that right – although "hangover" is a loaded term, according to ZBiotics, the company that's developing the product. The popular understanding of a hangover implies a collection of symptoms like a headache and fatigue, many of which result simply from dehydration and low-quality sleep. But those aren't the problems that the new product, a genetically engineered form of a common bacterial species, was developed to confront.

"Dehydration and poor sleep have actually always been pretty simple to deal with by having a good breakfast and some caffeine," notes ZBiotics founder and microbiologist Zack Abbott. Instead, the product targets acetaldehyde, a chemical that accumulates in the body if more than small amounts of alcohol are consumed.

Normally, body cells produce an enzyme that converts acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid. But the enzyme becomes overwhelmed if you drink more than a little alcohol, or if you have a certain genetic deficiency.

A new probiotic drink aims to neutralize a chemical that builds up in the body after drinking alcohol.

(Zbiotics)

"I started ZBiotics with the hypothesis that if we used edible probiotic bacteria to make enzymes, and chose applications in which the enzymes these microbes make would be useful directly in the gut after you eat them, we could create all sorts of beneficial products," says Abbott. "I started with alcohol with the idea that we can augment the body's natural ability to digest its nasty byproduct, acetaldehyde, helping people feel better the day after drinking."

Next Steps

Based on the premise that the engineered bacteria augments a natural body function, ZBiotics had the product "sampled by thousands of beta-testers," including ZBiotics personnel, with "almost unanimously positive feedback," says Abbott.

"We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication."

ZBiotics is to set to launch on the market next week as a probiotic supplement, a category that does not require FDA approval. But some observers are troubled over whether the new product is attempting to serve a medical function without going through the standard drug testing process.

"I am skeptical of any new alternative product that is not FDA approved, has not undergone rigorous double-blind placebo control testing and adverse effects evaluation, and cites anecdotes as evidence of its efficacy," warns Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York.

Abbott acknowledges that his product still needs to undergo rigorous study. "We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication," he says, noting that the company was "founded and [is] run by people with backgrounds in academic research."

Open Questions

Moving beyond the need for proper testing, Berlin has an additional concern: will a "hangover"-blocking substance cause people to drink more alcohol, or mask important physiological sensations like thirst?

"If that negative feeling is obscured, they may not [rehydrate], which can cause numerous adverse effects," Berlin says.

As for excessive drinking, there is a treatment on the market that does the opposite of Zbiotics. Disulfiram, commonly given to alcohol abusers, inhibits the very enzyme that ZBiotics supplements, causing acetaldehyde to accumulate especially fast. This makes drinking a pretty miserable experience.

But Abbott says his product would not interfere with disulfiram.

"[Zbiotics] is about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus."

"Disulfiram globally inhibits the enzyme throughout the entire body, including the liver, creating a massive amount of acetaldehyde at once, making the person ill immediately and forcing them to stop drinking right away," Abbott explains, whereas his product exerts its effects in the gut, and is really only helpful the next day. Thus, timing is everything; the probiotic would not change the experience at the moment of drinking.

"ZBiotics isn't about going out and ripping shots all night," Abbott says. "It's about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus. Weddings, celebrations, weekends with friends. And wanting to do that enjoyably while being safe and responsible at the same time."

David Warmflash
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. David’s articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in David's new book, "Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow."
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.