Any of us who have suffered from a severe hangover know how awful a night of boozing makes you feel. Dizziness, nausea, a stabbing headache, dreadful fatigue, inability to concentrate — these are all common symptoms. While there are multiple causes for these side effects, dehydration is definitely one of them. Many try to prevent it with electrolyte supplements, but why do electrolytes help hangovers? You might be asking yourself if it actually even works or if it’s just a myth. But does it work?
First of all, alcohol is incredibly dehydrating because it inhibits the hormone vasopressin1 2, which helps your kidneys reabsorb water and stops you from urinating. Without vasopressin, you end up going to the bathroom more and losing more water. While this might not be a big deal during happy hour, you'll certainly feel the effects of dehydration — headache, dry mouth, fatigue — when you're hungover, which is why you need water ASAP.
So plain drinking water is your first line of defense while you're drinking alcohol, because it essentially slows the effects of intoxication, meaning you'll get less drunk and feel less hungover the morning after. Drinking about a glass of water for every alcoholic drink you have will keep your kidneys working the way that they should be.
Dehydration depletes electrolytes
Electrolytes are key to hydration, and electrolyte-rich drinks are often lauded as solutions to basic everyday problems and ailments, including hangovers. Some might even refer to these electrolyte drinks as a hangover cure in a bottle.
When your body becomes dehydrated, it has to ration the water it has left. Your heart and lungs are pretty important, so it focuses on those and a few other organs and starts sending water from places like your muscles and brain.
With less water, the brain starts to contract, pulling on the nerves around it creating a massive headache. Your muscles, depleted of water and electrolytes, become sore and fatigued as if you’d overexerted them the day before.
As that water is streaming out of you and into the toilet, it’s pulling electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium out with it, which you need for normal muscle and nerve function4.
Why do we need electrolytes
Electrolytes are chemical compounds that can break down into ions when dissolved in water. The main examples of electrolytes are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate.
Once electrolytes are in our bodies, they dissolve into positive and negative charges. These charges have two main functions: regulating the flow of water in and out of cells, and sparking nerve impulses.
Sodium and potassium work together to maintain the correct balance of fluids inside and outside of your cells, ensuring that your cells neither shrivel up like raisins nor explode like over-filled water balloons. Calcium and magnesium are important for building strong bones.
More importantly, these electrically charged minerals help to stimulate contractions in the heart and other muscles, and also help maintain proper pH, keeping your blood from becoming too acidic or too alkaline.
Sports drink Gatorade and Purple Tree's Hydration Drops advertise themselves as electrolyte-replenishers because they contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other ions.
When humans sweat, we lose ions necessary for vital bodily functions; to replenish them, we need to consume more ions, often in the form of an electrolyte solution. In the human body, electrolytes have many uses, including helping neurons conduct electrical impulses.
In other words, electrolyte supplements are the ideal way to replenish the body's water and electrolyte concentrations after dehydration caused by exercise5, excessive alcohol consumption (hangover), diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, intoxication or starvation. Athletes exercising in extreme conditions (for three or more hours continuously, like marathon or triathlon) who do not consume electrolytes risk dehydration (or hyponatremia).
When to use electrolytes to prevent hangovers
Timing is everything. When it comes to an electrolyte supplement (liquid or powder), it can be more helpful if consumed before you go to bed. While that’s a prescription that can be hard to follow if you’ve already had too much to drink, rehydrating before sleep will lessen your chances of waking up dehydrated and reduce the symptoms of a hangover.
Furthermore, we want to reduce the amount of vasopressin (anti-diuretic hormone) downregulation that happens when we drink so that we don’t have to be as worried about the dehydration. A good option is to consume more potassium. Potassium has been shown to increase vasopressin production, so if you start eating more white beans, spinach, or baked potatoes, you can potentially spike your vasopressin production before you go out drinking.
Even if you can increase your vasopressin, you’re still at risk of it going below normal and dehydrating you, so you want to take every precaution.
The best way to prevent dehydration is to make sure you’re hydrated before you go out, while you’re drinking alcohol, and before you go to sleep. You can use regular water for this, but a better option is to mix it with electrolytes.
Of course, the ultimate hangover cure is abstaining from alcohol entirely. It’s truly the only way to prevent the dreadful side effects of booze.