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The Arms Race to Cure Your Hangover

The quest to overcome self-inflicted damage has given rise to an entire industry of pills, patches, tonics and more.

The where, when and why are fuzzy, but some time ago, equal parts Fireball and Wild Turkey 101 became the signature shot of the hiking trip I help organize every fall. While you don’t even need to sniff the stuff to know its evil, we’ve collected volumes of field notes confirming the following: Firebird, as it’s come to be known, gasses you up in the moment, then guts you like a fish in your sleep.

But empirical evidence is no balm to tradition, nor stupidity. A couple weekends back, in a cabin upstate, over a round of Pass the Pigs, Firebird once again spread her mythic wings. This time, however, I had reinforcements rattling around in the tank: N-acetyl cysteine, milk thistle extract, 200 micrograms of chromium and more than 83,000 percent of my daily value of Vitamin B12, administered via a sweet, fizzy drink that tastes like grape Nerds.

That’s just a handful of the ingredients found in a 8.4-ounce can of B4, a “precovery vitamin supplement” developed by Florida pharmacist John Mansour and wine-and-spirits executive Dave Larue. It’s one single star in an ever-expanding galaxy of science-inclined hangover solutions that have gone Silicon Valley-slick of late.

Remedies specifically designed to save your morning after are big business in countries like Japan and South Korea, and the industry is growing in the U.S. The products therein vary greatly in price, makeup, methodology and mode of delivery. But they do share certain characteristics, like snazzy packaging; enough charts, graphs and buzzy lab-rat vernacular to make Bunsen Honeydew blush; a polished social media presence; and a common brand identity, born in the borderlands between wellness and debauchery, that’s limber enough to spin the act of overcoming self-inflicted damage as responsible—even aspirational.

Introduced in 2016, B4 checks all these boxes. Packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and plant extracts purported to protect you from an onslaught of ethanol, it’s “revolutionizing how we fight the aftereffects of drinking,” calibrated to combat “that extra glass of wine, double vodka cran or Sunday-funday pints.” Its trademarked term for preventative consumption—”precovery”—best exemplifies the wider phenomenon of hangover cure as self-care; users can make time for indulgence, but not the consequences of that indulgence. The analogy that B4 is “sunscreen for your liver” (also trademarked), signals a similar tilt towards the increasingly popular, if nebulous, notion of wellness. With such messaging, “Our goal is to shift the focus from ‘hangover cure’ to something relatable,” says Mansour, “so people understand the importance of protecting the body.”

But does it really do that? The morning after Firebird flapped up from Hades to carry out her annual scorching of my immune system, I definitely didn’t feel as dead as I usually do. I didn’t feel super alive either, so I shook out the Ziploc apothecary I’d prepared for this occasion in search of pile-on relief.

Built around a proprietary blend containing aloe vera, Asiatic pennywort, green tea, eleuthero and other extracts with healthful reputations, DrinkAde earns points for ease of use. You can either rip a 3.4-ounce “Prevention” shot ahead of time, or opt for an after-the-fact “Boost”—the same formula, plus caffeine and additional B vitamins. I downed the latter, and it did jolt me enough to actually go outside, if only to stare at some trees.

Within the ever growing space of hangover remedies, Blowfish, created in 2011 by Rally Labs, a self-described “drug company that parties,” enjoys significant visibility. Eye-catching as the “FOR HANGOVERS” slogan on the box may be, it’s nothing more than aspirin and caffeine in effervescent tablet form. Cue its cheeky marketing, including Archer-esque YouTube spots starring miserable office workers with toilets and octopuses affixed to their skulls.

“We try to balance our credibility as a legitimate over-the-counter drug with the reality that hangovers are a fun subject,” says Blowfish CMO Will Conrad. “We work hard to distinguish ourselves from the snake oil. At the same time, we don’t think that means we have to be boring.”

I can’t claim to understand the brutal chemistry bullying my insides every time I drink too much—even scientists dedicated to demystifying the hangover can’t quite claim that, either. Myriad factors, ranging from the style and quality of the alcohol being served to the age, gender, stature, ethnicity, heredity, diet and sleep habits of the drinker affect how alcohol is metabolized. The “constellation of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms,” as the National Institute of Health puts it, is personalized for each sufferer.

“We can’t say anything works for all the symptoms all of the time—it’s not one size fits all,” says Dr. Chris Alford, a hangover researcher at the University of the West of England, Bristol. “There is no magic bullet that does everything for everyone. There are some products out there to try, but you have to fish around to see which ones are going to work best for you.”

Seeking an edge in this increasingly crowded and convoluted category, American recovery companies are taking a scattershot approach, pulling in holistic alternatives while making appeals to the hyper-engaged self-improvement crowd.

Key to this approach is the growing understanding of dihydromyricetin (DHM), a flavanonol derived from the Japanese raisin tree. A staple of ancient Chinese medicine, DHM has long been praised as a homeopathic hangover cure, but it’s also shown promise in turbo-charging the enzymes responsible for processing alcohol.

DHM is a popular building block among hangover brands, like the before-and-after oral supplement Flyby and the chewable Zaca, which helped me tiptoe through a reception featuring a Negroni fountain that I metaphorically swam in; and a breakneck, tequila-soaked hop from Philadelphia to Jalisco and back, respectively. It’s also the “liver superhero” powering Morning Recovery, which collaborates with leading DHM researcher Dr. Jing Liang to bolster credibility.

Morning Recovery founder Sisun Lee, who worked as an engineer for Facebook, Uber and Tesla ahead of launching the brand via a successful crowdfunding campaign, best epitomizes the cross-pollination between the specialty prevention market and Silicon Valley’s obsession with productivity. (“This Tech Startup Says It Can Disrupt Your Hangover,” reads one headline.)

His sleek 3.4-ounce bottled shots implore users to “Do More The Next Day.” It’s a battle cry targeting those Lee perceives as Morning Recovery’s key clientele: the driven, ambitious individual who wants to be as sharp outside the office as they are at their desk. “A lot of people assume that our core demographics are college students,” says Lee. “It surprised us to learn that our largest base and most loyal consumers are working professionals.”

At the outset of this exploration, I’d hypothesized the opposite—that the real adopters here are people like me, who consistently fail to act their drinking age. Knowing everything we (don’t) know about hangovers, and how difficult they are to slay, makes me think the efficacy of the products in this arms race comes secondary to the satisfaction users glean from incorporating them into their streamlined lives. I’m happy for these folks, I really am, and I’d like to propose a toast to their maturity. Have you ever had Firebird?

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