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The supplements I take to avoid a hangover and why I take each one

Article at a Glance
  • When our bodies metabolize alcohol, a toxic substance known as acetaldehyde is produced as a byproduct.
  • Alcohol toxins put a strain on the liver which depletes glutathione, one of our most important antioxidants.
  • To make matters worse, alcohol’s diuretic effect causes essential minerals, like magnesium, to be excreted at an accelerated pace.
  • Supplement regimens that seek to avoid hangovers should focus on restoring glutathione levels, as well as water soluble vitamins and minerals that are excreted from the body in larger amounts as the result of alcohol’s diuretic effect.
  • If this post is too complicated, and you were going to simplify the list down to just two products, we like NAC about an hour prior to drinking with food and then a high quality Vitamin C during drinking and before bed.
Genes Mentioned
Supplements to Avoid a Hangover

Note: there isn’t a supplement regimen out there that is going to protect you from a hangover if you abuse alcohol. I have certainly done my fair share of partying, so no judgment, but going 7,8,9 plus rounds deep is going to give you a hangover, almost without exception. This post is designed for people who feel off their game after a night of social drinking and are looking for a boost to mitigate those effects, not as a “hall pass” for consuming huge quantities of alcohol. Stuff happens, but when it does, a hangover is going to follow. However, if you ordered that extra glass of wine after polishing a nice bottle with dinner, or maybe you got into the grappa after a few Manhattans, this is the type of post that may have some value for you. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement, and if you do try any of the supplements listed here, start with one at a time, and with a low dose so you can see how your body reacts. With that said, on to the post. 

Since I left New York City two years ago, I have cut way back on alcohol, however, I still like to “knock a few back” every so often. In fact, this past weekend, I attended a charity event and had some drinks. In this case, it was a particularly bad pairing of gin and tonics and red wine.

Ouch.

But, believe it or not, I felt fine the next day. Perhaps a little groggy, but not in any pain.

So, what did I turn to in my supplement cabinet to mitigate the impact of all that alcohol and avoid the dreaded hangover?

What causes the hangover?

Before we delve into the supplement angle, let’s take a quick look at the metabolic processes that cause hangovers.

When our bodies metabolize alcohol, a substance known as acetaldehyde is produced as a byproduct. Acetaldehyde is toxic, even more so than alcohol, and our bodies have to use large amounts of glutathione (our most powerful natural antioxidant) to clear the stuff.

For more on glutathione, see: Supplementing with glutathione: what you need to know

Consuming multiple drinks in one night has the potential to overload the liver with the toxic acetaldehyde, and deplete glutathione levels as a result.

The bottom line for this article is that regularly drinking alcohol puts a toxic load on the body. Acetaldehyde weakens the immune system and is a known carcinogen. Interestingly, it’s also produced by Candida overgrowth, which is why those with gut issues can have more severe hangovers than the rest of us.

See also: 8 strategies for rebuilding gut health other than probiotics

Drinking alcohol loads up the liver with toxins it has to work hard to clear, and in so doing draws down on our stores of “endogenous” antioxidants, leaving us more susceptible to the free radicals produced by all that booze. (R)

With that out of the way for important context, let’s dive into the substances (aside from drinking a ton of water) I take to counteract these effects.

Supplements to avoid a hangover

SupplementTimingPurpose
N-acetyl-cysteineBefore consuming alcoholRestores glutathione (while alcohol depletes it); may protect the liver if taken before drinking per animal studies
L-theanineBefore consuming alcoholIncreases feel-good brain waves and helps the body produce glutathione, which our livers need before partying
Vitamin DBefore consuming alcoholBoosts the immune system ahead of alcohol use (which has toxic byproducts that weaken the immune system)
Buffered Vitamin CDuring alcohol consumptionEffective antioxidant that also raises glutathione levels
Prophylite clay and activated charcoalBefore bed after a night of drinkingMay help absorb alcohol toxins like acetaldehyde; be careful of timing with other supplements
MagnesiumBefore bed after a night of drinkingRestores magnesium, which is lost at an alarming rate during alcohol consumption; crucial to energy production and sleep regulation
Methyl B Vitamin ComplexBefore bed after a night of drinkingRestores B vitamins lost during drinking
Potassium citrateBefore bed after a night of drinkingHelps restore potassium lost during drinking and reduce acidity of alcohol; particularly helpful for women with recurrent UTIs or men with kidney stones
Digestive enzymesBefore bed after a night of drinkingGood if you've eaten junk food before bed to help break down all those nutrients in the pizza you scarfed
CurcuminThe day after alcohol consumptionGood alternative to aspirin as an anti-inflammatory, but should not take during drinking

Prior to drinking

Remember the choose your own story books from childhood? No? Ok, it doesn’t matter, but there is a fork in the road right away here. Because charcoal may eat up all the NAC in your system (R), you may want to either take the NAC prior to drinking or the activated charcoal when you are done, but not take both together. If you know you don’t do well with NAC, then it will be the charcoal. Or if charcoal has never been your thing, you will go with the NAC, you get the idea.

The study I cite above is far from conclusive, so you may also find that both charcoal and NAC work for you if you take them far enough apart.

N-acetyl-cysteine

Recommended brand: Cysteplus NAC by Thorne Research

Science Score

N-acetyl-cysteine, or “NAC” is a supplement that many are confused by. They know it’s a glutathione precursor, but what they don’t get is that NAC is only effective for glutathione restoration, not maintenance. (R) In other words, NAC is a great supplement to take if you’ve run your glutathione levels down, as you will have after a night of drinking, or even an intense workout, but you won’t get the same benefit it your glutathione levels are in the normal range.

Because alcohol depletes glutathione, I add 500mg of NAC to my before drinking regimen as it’s probably the most effective supplement for restoring glutathione levels and helping out our poor liver in the process. In the comments, readers turned me on to a study in mice that sheds light on the timing of taking NAC when we’re planning on having some drinks. That study showed that NAC had protective effects on the liver when taken before drinking, but accelerated liver damage when taken after drinking.

Now, it’s important to keep in mimd that this was a study in mice where the mice were given mega doses of straight ethanol, so we can’t say for sure that there is any application for humans. Having said that, it’s enough for me to add NAC as a pre-drinking supplement. After having a conversation with your doctor or go to health care professional to make sure it’s safe for you, you could try anywhere between 250-500mg with food about 30 minutes before drinking. Because of the mouse study I cite to above, you may want to think twice taking NAC before bed after a night of drinking. I would put a Science Score of 1 star on that mouse study, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss it entirely.

Note: those with certain up-regulated CBS genes may have sensitivity to sulfur donor supplements like NAC. For more on that, take a look at: Why sulfur and the CBS genes are on my nutrition radar.

L-theanine

Recommended brand: Jarrow 100mg Theanine with Suntheanine

Science Score

This is personal preference, as some people will find theanine too calming to take before a night out, but, in my experience, it’s a nice nootropic to use socially that also helps mitigate some of alcohol’s negative effects. Just 50 mg of L-theanine has been shown to increase alpha brain waves, which are the creative, feel good brain waves. I like to think of theanine as an “active calming agent,”meaning it’s effects are mellow, but also uplifting. Assuming I’ve had plenty of rest, 100 mg of L-theanine on an empty stomach before going out hits me just right, and as an added bonus, it appears theanine aids in helping the body produce glutathione, which as we’ve established above, our livers are going to need plenty of as the big night out progresses. (R)

Side note: if theanine makes you sleepy, try pairing with some coffee or tea. Most nootropic blogs consider caffeine and theanine as a natural combination.

Vitamin D

Recommended brand: Vitamin D3 drops, 1,000 IU by Pure Encapsulations

Science Score

Alcohol and its toxic byproduct acetaldehyde weaken the immune system. (R) As a result, I also start the night with Vitamin D, which has been shown to boost the immune system. I take about 2,000 IU of Vitamin D before going out. (R) I take Vitamin D, or at least monitor levels, under normal circumstances anyway, but I am especially vigilant if I am on getting on a plane or having drinks.

During Drinking

Buffered Vitamin C

Recommended brand: Ortho Molecular Buffered Vitamin C (USP Grade)

Science Score

Ahh, Vitamin C, the much maligned (Vitamin C has many haters), but also very effective antioxidant. I don’t think for a second that Vitamin C will prevent or cure the common cold, but I do have tremendous faith in Vitamin C’s ability to mop up free radicals. Vitamin C, or absorbic acid, is known as a “scavenger antioxidant,” meaning it’s job is to soak up and neutralize cellular bad guys. (R) (R) (R) For example, I use a Vitamin C shower filter because the Vitamin C absorbs and neutralizes all the chlorine and other crap in the water.

Vitamin C also raises glutathione levels, hence my 2,000 mg dose. (R) I will also take another 1,000 mg before heading off to bed. A word of caution with sourcing Vitamin C: most ascorbic acid comes from China, where the quality controls are not as strict as in the US, so be careful about where you buy your Vitamin C. For a primer on how to find good quality Vitamin C that doesn’t contain heavy metal toxicity, take a look at my blog All Vitamin C isn’t created equal. I take buffered Vitamin C because it is far less acidic than non-mineral bound ascorbic acid and it will help replenish mineral stores that are depleted when we drink alcohol.

Before Bed

Prophylite Clay and Activated Charcoal

Recommended brand: BioBotanical Inc., Activated Charcoal and Clay

Science Score

Here, I took a blend of 562mg prophylite clay and 188mg of activated charcoal. I will start with activated charcoal since it’s much better known.

We talked about Vitamin C as a scavenger antioxidant that mops up free radicals, right? Well, with a belly full of booze, and a liver under stress, adding to the list of supplements that absorb toxins isn’t a bad idea. It’s for this reason that I will pop a little bit of activated charcoal when I have had a night out.

Why activated charcoal?

Some studies have shown that Activated Charcoal is ineffective at absorbing alcohol, others are more promising, but alcohol isn’t necessarily the target. The target is acetaldehyde, and other alcohol toxins. There is some evidence indicating that activated charcoal could help absorb acetaldehyde in particular. (R) The efficacy here is not clearly established, hence the low Science Score, but I include it in my regimen since I’m in the experimental mindset.

Prophylite clay is said to have the same absorbent ability as charcoal. Although I will be first to admit that the the data on prophylite clay is pretty scarce, I had a practitioner I trust recommend this product, and so that’s what I stick with: a 75%-25% blend of clay to charcoal.

The problem with activated charcoal is that it can’t be taken within two hours of any of the other supplements I mention in this post, so you’ll need a time window devoted to the charcoal and clay if you plan to add it to your stack.

Magnesium

Recommended brand: Ortho Molecular Reacted Magnesium

Science Score

Note: some people will experience stomach discomfort with magnesium, proceed with caution.

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes you to excrete fluids at an accelerated pace. As you’re doing all that peeing, one of the essential minerals that leaves your body at an alarming rate is magnesium, a mineral our bodies need for over 300 biochemical reactions. (R) In order to keep up with the loss of magnesium, I supplement and take 500mg before bed. Magnesium is a regular supplement for me even when I’m not drinking, as it is so crucial to energy production and sleep regulation. Magnesium is also the co-factor for the enzyme Aldehyde dehydrogenase (AD) which I discuss in the genetics section below. There is nothing specifically looking at magnesium supplementation, AD and hangovers, but maybe this is why it works so well for me!

Methyl B Vitamin Complex

Recommended brand: Ortho Molecular Methyl B Complex

Science Score

This is another class of Vitamin you lose when you drink: B Vitamins. It makes sense when you think about it, as B Vitamins are water soluble, they are also prone to loss via alcohol’s diuretic effect. (R)

Potassium Citrate

Recommended brand: Potassium Citrate by Thorne

Science Score

Alcohol puts an acid load on the kidney, which lowers the PH of urine. It also depletes potassium just as it does with B vitamins and magnesium. (R) My 100mg of Potassium citrate gives a little shot of the potassium I lost, and it has the dual effect of reducing the acidity of the alcohol.

If you’re a woman who has recurrent urinary tract infection, or a man with kidney stone issues, both of which have been linked to more acidic urine, this supplement becomes that much more important. I don’t have kidney stones, but found this University of Chicago paper which turned me on to how potassium citrate can help the kidneys and reduce the acid load on the body.

Digestive enzymes

Recommended brand: Digestive Enzymes Ultra by Pure Encapsulations

Science Score

Only applicable if you eat junk food before bed, and not effective if you’ve opted for the charcoal option.

Ok, so who are we kidding? You had a number of drinks, you’re also going to eat something you shouldn’t, and likely right before bed. In my case this weekend, I absolutely destroyed a gluten free pizza. To lessen the impact from eating junk, and especially a whole bunch of low quality cheese, I took a digestive enzyme to help my body break down and absorb whatever nutrients my gluten free pizza had to offer.

As an aside, I can’t recommend Via 313 Pizza in Austin enough if you’re drunk (or sober) and looking for a regular, or gluten free pie. These guys rock.

The next day

Curcumin

Recommended brand: CurcuWin Curcumin

Science Score

Curcumin is a good alternative to an aspirin for the next morning. It’s not a good idea to take while drinking because some mouse models show that at certain doses it can speed up the liver damage caused by alcohol. (R) The standard advice, even from many doctors, is to pop Ibuprofen before heading off to bed after a night of drinking. Bad, bad, bad idea!

Ibuprofen, and other NSAID drugs will harm your microbiome, increase the risk of stomach bleeding, further tax the liver, and in the case of certain genotypes, may cause an allergic reaction. (R) (R) NSAID drugs also lower levels of an enzyme known as diamine oxidase, which our bodies use to clear histamine. Don’t take NSAID drugs unless you absolutely have to.

For more, take a look at our AOC1 gene page.

As a proven anti-inflammatory, curcumin offers a nice alternative to NSAIDs, and it’s good for your gut. In our post, Has curcumin been proven in human studies? We give curcumin a Science Score of 4 stars as an anti-inflammatory. I also like curcumin because there is preliminary evidence that it increases levels of superoxide dismutase (an important antioxidant made by our bodies), and I have a homozygous SNP for SOD2 A16V.

See also: How to choose a bioavailable curcumin supplement

What about Hangover “multivitamins?”

You may be wondering, why not just get all of these ingredients in one pill? For example, products like drinkSmart and DrinkWell make blends that contain many of the ingredients I list in this post. For some, these products may be good solutions for the occasional night out, however, I steer clear of these formulas because many of their ingredients are low quality. The first thing that jumps out is the Vitamin C, which isn’t USP grade. Next you look at the B vitamins and see they’re using large doses of folic acid, which is cheap B9 that those with MTHFR SNPs won’t handle well.

Rather than take supplements from a brand that appears to be cutting corners on quality in favor of margin, I go with brands I trust who are transparent about their sourcing and manufacturing practices.

The Genetics of alcohol metabolism

Science Score

Since this is the Gene Food blog, we should also point out that how we react to alcohol is also influenced by our genetics. The gene ALDH2 encodes the enzyme Aldehyde dehydrogenase (AD) which is the second step in the pathway which breaks down alcohol, AD converts acetaldehyde to acetic acid. As I discuss above acetaldehyde is the molecule associated with a lot of the negative symptoms of alcohol such as hangovers and skin flushing.

So where does genetics come into it? Well the risk ‘A’ allele of the SNP rs671 in ALDH2 is associated with reduced AD activity making carriers more likely to experience alcohol flush, and bad hangover symptoms even with a relatively low intake of alcohol. This SNP is especially important in those of East Asian descent who commonly lack the sister gene ALDH1 completely, leading to an already increased level of alcohol intolerance. So even with all the preparation in the world you might still have to deal with that hangover.

Practical Considerations

Well, there you have it, the supplement regimen I use to combat the dreaded hangover. Of course, I take all these supplements with plenty of water, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear that drinking lots of water will perhaps be the biggest factor in avoiding a morning from hell. I also try to work out on an empty stomach immediately after I wake up. This gets the blood flowing and helps me sweat out the toxins that are still lingering in my system. My goal isn’t to set any records, I am just looking to do 20-30 minutes of mild exercise before I sit on the couch for the rest of the day.

What is your supplement regimen when you drink?

Would love to hear from everyone in the comments.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food and an Integrative Health Coach, trained at Duke IM. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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16 Comments

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  1. Lauri says:

    Hi John,
    Regarding the above “…NAC had protective effects on the liver when taken before drinking, but accelerated liver damage when taken after drinking”,
    1.Why/how it causes damage when taken after?
    2.Taken how soon after will it cause the damage?
    Also, any thoughts on the supplement SOD? I was told years ago (actually when giving the supplement to my dog) that is very good for the liver. Also that our bodies make less of it as we age. I currently take the Vitacost brand.

  2. Chase Lawrence says:

    I got all of these supplements and vitamins, except NAC because it didn’t come in the mail in time before my night of drinking. I took them all in the exact order you wrote and I woke up with one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had in my life. I only drank 7 drinks over the course of 6 hours. My friend who doesn’t even get hangovers often tried the regimen with me and he didn’t get a hangover, but threw up before bed about an hour after taking the magnesium and potassium. And he NEVER throws up from drinking. Ever. Do you have any idea what may have caused any of this? We hydrated well all day and ate a good meal before drinking

    • Chase, bummer you had this experience. As with MCT oil, some people do get stomach aches with mineral supplements like magnesium. What brand of magnesium did your friend take? If the Vitamin C he took was buffered with magnesium and potassium, the addition of more magnesium and potassium could have been what caused the indigestion, but it also could have been food poisoning, or the 7 drinks he had in one night. I could take all the supplements in the world, but if I had 7 drinks in one night, I would definitely not be feeling great the next morning. Activated charcoal isn’t always well tolerated either, so I will add a note to that section. I feel like I should also point out that the NAC is by far the most important ingredient in the stack, so that is not the one to leave out.

  3. Jon says:

    Last Night I took a vitamin B-Complex before going to bed, mind you I had 12 Coors light which was a bit too much. Didn’t wake up with the dreaded hangover. Normally when I drink that much my hangover last 2 days or more because I don’t drink often, once a month or two. Now I’m good to go to work tomorrow..

  4. Legion says:

    My full mix to support body and especislly liver during drinking and to avoid hangover is below

    My liver blood scores and health is good.

    Before Drinking…
    Eat a decent meal
    1 table spoon Olive Oil

    NAC 1200mg
    ALA 600 mg
    Sam e 400g
    PPC 1800 mg
    Milk thistle 1000 mg
    Vitamin B complex
    Pantethine 500 mg
    Liv 52, two capsules
    Vitamin C 1000 mg
    Taurine 500 mg
    Coconut water
    Green tea

    During
    Vitamin C, B complex, Brazil Nuts, Water, maybe sam e at a push.

    After
    ALA 600 mg
    Sam e 400g
    PPC 1800 mg
    Milk thistle 500 mg
    Vitamin B complex
    Pantethine 500 mg
    Liv 52, two capsules
    Vitamin C 1000 mg
    Taurine 1000 mg
    Coconut water
    Soya milk
    Sports drink
    Water

    Notes
    (1) take NAC a few hours before you start. Not during or after. Research shows this can do damage. When I did it after it also had a bad effect in my stomach
    (2) popping pills during drinking is no fun, vit c and b enough once during the session
    (3) munch on a Few brazil nuts as you neck the devils juice
    (4) get a B complex with no Niacan, this can do damage, especially with alcohol, niacinamide is better.
    (5) no paracetamol at any stage ibruprofen in morning if emegency headache

    • Adam Hefner says:

      Just curious but why do you add Taurine? I know its a calming amino and it mechanism of action but curious for after drinking

  5. John says:

    I have a similar before bed routine, but I am curious if activated charcoal makes the other supplements useless. Most things I have read claims that one should take charcoal 1-2 hours before or after supplements. Read anything to the contrary?

    • Hey John, yeah, I have read that, but haven’t seen any studies. Admittedly, yes, the activated charcoal could also mop up some of the antioxidants, but usually I don’t take each supplement literally right before bed. I am taking these as I drink water preparing for bed, so within an hour time window. Good point though and thanks for the comment.

  6. Taylor H says:

    The activated charcoal makes a lot of sense! I don’t drink as much these days (which means the impact when I do is worse, yikes) but typically I try to balance every drink with a drink of water the same size. The every-other pattern of drink followed by water seems to not only cut back on the amount I drink, but also helps with the severity of any hangovers a bit the next day too.

    • It absolutely does, and yet, of all the anti-hangover supplements I list, activated charcoal definitely has the lowest Science Score. The best study showing it absorbs alcohol was done in dogs. Now you know what to do if Atlas or Loki get in your medicine cabinet!

  7. Amber Krosel says:

    Nice post, John! I knew taking ibuprofen wasn’t a great idea, but wasn’t sure why until now. I’ll be working in curcumin and Vitamin D for sure the next time I go out.

    Right now, I make sure I get plenty of electrolytes and water before bed, and water throughout the evening. I stick to only one drink every hour, or sip on my drinks even more slowly. I also usually alternate water after having a couple of drinks, pause drinking, and then go back if I’m out for a while or at a wedding or other long event. The next day, I like to get a big detox smoothie that has turmeric and ginger in it (I love Juiceland in Austin almost as much as your Via 313).

    Definitely start feeling hangovers much more easily once you get into your 30s — like after just having 2-3 drinks the night before, ugh — so this is useful information. Thanks!

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