My eyes felt like they’d been sealed shut with Krazy Glue. My neck felt wrung. My ears stung with an unearthly, unrelenting version of the Emergency Broadcast System tone, and my tongue tasted like I’d just spent seven hours sucking on silica gel.
My head had yet to move an inch off my sweaty pillow, but I already knew: The few merciful seconds between when my brain clicked on and my body squealed why? were the best I was going to feel all day.
I’ve had many hangovers in my life, but this was the first one that was fully tax deductible. My objective was to find out if Pedialyte, the over-the-counter elixir traditionally associated with thirsty babies, was truly the mystical, bad decision-zapping rejuvenator its many fans seem to think it is.
Pedialyte, if you are neither a newborn nor an informed lush, is a viscous, electrolyte-heavy beverage designed to be administered to children suffering from vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms that cause dehydration. It comes in many fruity flavors, like cherry punch, bubblegum and strawberry lemonade (“tested and approved by kids!” says the bottle).
For the majority of its history, public perception of Pedialyte—which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—didn’t stray far from its prefix, and that’s still true today; in most pharmacies and stores, it’s stocked next to the diapers and formula. It’s a trusted brand recommended by pediatricians, including my mom, Dr. Generosa Lazor, who suggests you administer one teaspoon to your ailing baby every five minutes for optimal rehydration.
Dr. Lazor, who claims she has only been hungover once in her entire life (?!), shrugged it off as “a marketing thing.”
It’s not entirely clear which iconoclastic adult was the first to seek renewal in a liquid designed to quell infantile stomach viruses, but as far as grownup users go, it’s been popular with athletes for some time. Runners and wrestlers were among the earliest adopters of Pedialyte as a rehydration tool a la Gatorade; NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB players have followed suit.
Since a parched palate is a major pillar of the classical hangover, it makes sense that it would eventually catch on with overindulgent drinkers desperate for any kind of edge in the relief process. Though I’d never tried it, I’d always hear friends preaching about its usefulness, in a we’re-all-degenerates sort of way. Seems Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories, which makes Pedialyte, heard them, too. Last year around this time, it launched “See the Lyte,” a marketing campaign targeting adults who can’t seem to quit while they’re ahead.
While Abbott is careful not to use the term “hangover” or make any specific proclamations about its product’s performance in the category, the campaign is not exactly subtle about its intentions. The first thing you see on seethelyte.com is the hunched back of a shirtless man with a Strokes haircut, bracing himself on the sides of his open fridge and staring at a glinting bottle of Pedialyte covetously, like the evil Nazi with the fake Grail at the end of The Last Crusade. Over on Twitter, the brand has taken to chiming in on booze-heavy national events—the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, most recently—with reminders for revelers.
According to Abbott, a Nielsen study commissioned by the company revealed a 57-percent increase in adult use of Pedialyte between 2012 and 2014, a dramatic spike the company attributes to social media chatter. From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense for Abbott to chase after these consumers. But that doesn’t answer the big question about Pedialyte’s second act: Does it actually work?
There is plenty of skepticism, scientifically speaking. Dr. Lazor, who claims she has only been hungover once in her entire life (?!), shrugged it off as “a marketing thing.” The Atlantic, citing medical experts, concluded that Pedialyte “is no better than water” when it comes to replenishing lost fluids. And Lifehacker accurately points out that “hangovers are more complex than just dehydration”—in other words, no amount of Pedialyte, in powder, liquid or freezy pop form, is going to reboot your immune system or relieve the churning in your organs.
But that doesn’t automatically discredit all anecdotal evidence that it’s clutch in a morning-after pinch. In her new book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, writer Jo Marchant explores “the biology of placebo”—the idea that the mere suggestion or concept of treatment, even if the subject is aware he or she is not receiving a real drug, often leads to tangible physiological changes. “If someone takes a placebo and feels their pain melt away, it isn’t trickery, wishful thinking or all in the mind,” writes Marchant. “It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.”
Maybe that’s all a little hifalutin when our topic is people who take ten too many shots of Espolón, but the point stands. Pedialyte is far from a magic potion, but it does rehydrate you efficiently, and a positive mental attitude can often bridge that seemingly insurmountable gap between life and death. I’ve talked to bar owners who stock Pedialyte for their employees, cooks who sip it on the line, restaurant managers who fit in pre-shift chug sessions, semi-pro drinkers who buy in bulk before bachelor parties and beer reps who lean on it during hectic strings of drinking events. Pedialyte really seems to work for them. So doesn’t that mean it works?
For them, maybe. Once I mustered up the strength to face my research hangover and get out of bed, I systemically drank an entire liter of blue raspberry Pedialyte throughout the course of the day. I did not notice any profound improvements. Later, I called Dr. Lazor to share my findings.
“Andrew, don’t abuse your body that way,” she told me. “You’re stressing out your liver.”
Pedialyte, it turns out, is no cure for mom guilt.