Unfortunately, many of us have experienced a hangover or two in our time. Waking up the morning after a night out, we nurse our pounding heads and swear off alcohol for good. While some people turn to fry-ups and sports drinks to soothe their hangover, others choose to take milk thistle. But does taking milk thistle for hangovers really work?March 02, 2021 11:33 am March 02, 2021 11:33 am
What causes a hangover?
A ‘hangover’ is a term to describe the general feeling of illness that follows a night of drinking. Typically, you can expect a bad headache, nausea, dry mouth, extreme thirst and even vertigo.
Dehydration is at the root of many of these symptoms, as alcohol is a diuretic. This means it encourages you to urinate more, expelling liquid from your body and leaving you dehydrated. Astonishingly, 50g of alcohol mixed with 250ml water (approximately four drinks) could lead you to lose up to a litre of liquid!(1)
Losing so much water can also result in an electrolyte imbalance. This can lead to other unpleasant symptoms such as an irregular heartbeat.
Alcohol also irritates the lining of your stomach, which causes inflammation and increased production of stomach acid. This explains why you might feel nauseous, or get stomach or chest pain, when you have a hangover.(1)
Meanwhile, fatigue, weakness and mood disruption are probably due to low blood sugar, which is caused by the way alcohol disrupts your liver function.(1)
While we’re no strangers to a hangover ourselves, it’s important to remind the reader that drinking alcohol in excess can be damaging to your health; the best defence against a hangover is simply to drink sensibly, or not at all.
The endless search for a hangover cure
Understandably, a lot of people are interested in finding a cure for these unpleasant symptoms. A lot of different remedies have been touted as hangover cures.
Some of the most popular include a Bloody Mary cocktail, fried foods, raw egg yolks, fruit juice, supplements and sports drinks.
But there’s little clinical evidence for any of them.
For example, one recent review of fifteen relevant trials on remedies such as prickly pear, dried yeast and borage found that there was no evidence that any of them worked to prevent or treat a hangover.(2)
In fact, a lot of scientists have flagged that it might not actually be a good idea to find a cure for hangovers. Think about it: if there were no negative consequences to drinking in excess, wouldn’t more people feel able to do it?
However, that doesn’t stop researchers from looking into it – the demand is simply too high to ignore!
How can using milk thistle for hangovers help?
The reason that milk thistle is often used as a hangover cure is that it has been traditionally used to cleanse and detox the body.
Silymarin, which is the main bioactive component of milk thistle, is a powerful antioxidant. This means it can help prevent the damage caused by excess free radicals in the body.(3)
Alcohol consumption increases the amount of free radicals circulating around your cells, so in that sense milk thistle might be of help.
What’s more, milk thistle has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help calm the inflammation caused in your stomach and other areas of the body by alcohol.(3)
What about damage to your liver?
As we know, drinking alcohol in excess can cause major problems for your liver.
Your liver is an amazing organ, and the only one which is capable of regeneration. That means if it gets damaged, it can generate new cells to repair itself.
However, if you drink lots of alcohol regularly, you could be reducing your liver’s ability to do this.
In fact, even drinking heavily over just a few days can trigger build-ups of fat in your liver; the first sign of liver disease.(4)
Milk thistle is thought to have some hepatoprotective (liver-protecting) properties.
"Silymarin, which is the main bioactive component of milk thistle, is a powerful antioxidant. This means it can help prevent the damage caused by excess free radicals in the body.(3)"
Does milk thistle protect your liver?
A review of clinical trials of milk thistle’s effects on the liver suggested that it could help support liver health in various ways.
For example, it works as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, stops toxins getting through membranes, and helps you produce important proteins, among other things.(5)
However, while many of the studies reviewed produced positive results, the researchers found that several of the studies had issues with their methodology or couldn’t be considered conclusive.
As a result, they couldn’t make a definitive conclusion on milk thistle’s liver-supporting effects.(5)
Other studies have produced similar promising, but inconclusive, results.(6) So in essence, the theory for milk thistle’s liver-protecting effects is there, but the clinical evidence is not (yet!).
So, should I take milk thistle for a hangover?
As far as science is concerned, there isn’t any concrete evidence to prove that milk thistle (or indeed anything else) can cure a hangover.
However, plenty of people swear by its ability to help clear their body of toxins.
What’s more, there is solid scientific theory for how milk thistle could help protect your liver, even though clinical proof doesn’t yet exist.
Our best suggestion is to try it out for yourself and see if you feel better. At the very least, you’ll be giving your body lots of antioxidants to help protect you from free radical damage, and at best, it might just help soothe your symptoms.
If you can face breakfast, make yourself a nourishing bowl of porridge and add a teaspoon of milk thistle powder. Top with fresh fruit to get some vitamins into you, as well.
There are a few people who should be cautious when taking milk thistle, including people taking prescription medication, birth control or pregnant or breastfeeding women.
What else can I do to help with my hangover?
The best thing you can do is to rehydrate yourself. Sip water slowly and often, to avoid overloading your stomach.
Lots of people recommend drinking broths and soups during a hangover. This can be helpful in replenishing your water stores as well as providing electrolytes and some calories to get your blood sugar levels back to normal.
Next time, before you start drinking, make sure to eat a full meal to line your stomach. Try to alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks to limit your dehydration, and drink a glass of water before bed.
Many people also like to take milk thistle before a night of drinking, to give them a head start on those toxins.
Other benefits of milk thistle
Whether or not it can help with your hangover, milk thistle is a popular addition to lots of people’s diets.
You can consume it as a powder or an oil. When treating hangovers, most people go for the powder version as it is higher in the active ingredient, silymarin.
This compound has also been found to help protect against deterioration in the brain due to ageing. Scientists think this is due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.(7)
However, milk thistle oil is also good for you. It’s high in vitamin E, so supports skin, eye and immune health. Drizzle it on your recipes or smooth onto your skin directly to nourish and moisturise.
These are just a few of the health benefits of milk thistle. So, why not try adding it to your routine, regardless of whether you have a hangover?
For now, though, grab a glass of water and head to the sofa to wait it out (it will pass, we promise!).
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