If a hangover-preventing pill existed, the world would likely be a much happier, more productive, less dehydrated place. To date, the closest we've come to this type of miracle cure is activated charcoal. The trendy ingredient that's found in some beauty products and juice cleanses is also sold in supplement form. People swear that popping a charcoal pill before bed or the morning after drinking can prevent the many miserable symptoms of a hangover.
What makes activated charcoal different from, other hangover cures, such as Pedialyte or a greasy bacon egg and cheese? Activated charcoal is powerful stuff, and it's often used in the emergency room to help treat patients who have overdosed on a medication or toxin, explains Alexis Halpern, MD, emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. When used within an hour of ingestion, activated charcoal can literally bind to a toxin in someone's stomach, so it can't be absorbed into the body, she says.
The activated charcoal that's implemented in the ER is pretty different from the OTC supplements you can buy at a drugstore. "We give it in what’s called a 'slurry' form, which would be most similar to a smoothie," Dr. Halpern says. "And it's really gross. It can sometimes even cause vomiting." Although these supposedly contain the same material, activated charcoal capsules and tablets are not as effective, she adds. In fact, supplements may not do anything at all.
Studies have shown that alcohol doesn't actually bind to activated charcoal at all, says Ziad Kazzi, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. This is likely because activated charcoal physically can't bind to low molecular-weight compounds, such as ethanol, Dr. Halpern adds. So, popping a charcoal supplement after a night of drinking likely won't be able to suck out all the alcohol you consumed. But what about the claim that activated charcoal will stop a hangover in its tracks? That's "a big stretch," Dr. Kazzi says. "Ethanol is absorbed rapidly in the stomach," he explains. By the time you've consumed activated charcoal in the morning, any alcohol that was in your stomach would be long gone, he says.
The more important thing to keep in mind besides, will this charcoal pill stop my hangover shakes, is that taking activated charcoal for a hangover could be risky. If you eat charcoal (pills, drinks, or any other form of the substance), and then were to vomit from drinking too much, you could get charcoal stuck in your lungs or breathing tubes, Dr. Kazzi says. "Charcoal can cause a lung infection or inflammation if you choke on it," he adds. And, on top of that, charcoal also can cause constipation, so it's just not a good idea to have it in your system, he says.
Ultimately, there's no proof whatsoever that activated charcoal pills help hangovers, except for the placebo effect, "which is what all these [companies] do: rely on people’s wishful thinking," Dr. Kazzi says. Given that, you're probably better off opting for a safer hangover remedy that we know works, such as exercise and drinking lots of water.