Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Limited
The Times (London)
March 26, 2004, Friday
A REMEDY FOR THE EFFECTS OF EXCESSIVE ALCOHOL IS AVAILABLE IN THE UK. KATE REW PUTS IT TO THE TEST
IN RECENT months partying New Yorkers and LA-based celebs have been finding little bowls of pills alongside the canapes. These are not new recreational drugs but an all-natural remedy that is being touted as an anti-hangover cure. RU-21 went on sale in the US last July, and by December the manufacturers claim that four million pills were being sold a month.
RU-21 is a combination of succinic and fumaric acid, L-Glutamine and vitamin C.
The makers, Californian-based Spirit Sciences, say it was invented during the Cold War when the KGB was looking for a pill to keep its spies sober while Western agents got drunk. Instead it found a concoction that erased hangovers.
The pill is now available in the UK, classed as a dietary supplement. Because succinic and fumaric acid are natural carbohydrates, and L-Glutamine is an amino acid, the product does not require a licence.
Does it work? When I tried it last Saturday, an afternoon celebration had segued into an evening party, but by 11 the next morning I was on the golf course with a fresh head and steady hands -not something I would normally expect after champagne, red wine and vodka.
Hangovers are caused by a combination of dehydration, toxification (from compounds to give drinks their taste and appearance) and other factors such as exposure to smoke or consumption of high-sugar drinks, which may cause lethargy the next day.
The pathway that RU-21 claims to work on is the metabolism of ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. The theory is that succinic acid slows the conversion of ethanol into acetaldehyde, reducing both hangover and the damage that alcohol causes -acetaldehyde has been linked to liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related cancers, although the exact mechanism is not yet understood.
However, in the absence of any available clinical data, the experts are sceptical.
"Succinic acid may have a certain metabolic effect but there is no published data showing that it affects the rate of breakdown of alcohol, and I can't see any reason why it would work," says Professor Roger Williams, director of the Institute of Hepatology at University College London. He adds that if it did "it would be disastrous -we'd like people to get more severe hangovers so they stuck to the safe drink limits".
Dr Jonathan Chick, consultant psychiatrist at the Alcohol Problems Clinic at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Moira Plant, Professor of Alcohol Studies at the University of the West of England, agree that hangovers help to protect against damage caused by drink.
"Some people limit their drinking because they suffer hangovers, and these people are less likely to develop alcoholism," Chick says. "If people were protected from hangovers it might swell the numbers of those drinking excessively."
Plant says: "Heavy drinking is linked to accidents, aggressiveness and problems in relationships. If someone is even trying to answer the question 'how can I keep drinking at the level I'm drinking without experiencing problems?' that should be a warning bell to find other ways to relax."
RU-21 joins a range of popular remedies such as milk thistle, artichoke and fizzy B-vitamin drinks that supposedly combat the effects of heavy drinking. The only medically recognised way to avoid alcohol-related problems is to drink less. As to my "miracle" recovery, it could be down to the placebo effect: studies have shown that, depending on the illness, between 30 and 60 per cent of people who take a drug experience the effect they are told it has.