Alcoholism

Red Ginseng Reduces Hangover Severity After Heavy Drinking

Large placebo-controlled studies are needed to confirm findings.

Posted Nov 01, 2019

Conventional pharmacologic treatments do not reduce hangover severity

Alcohol abuse is a major public health problem globally and is associated with high rates of medical and psychiatric comorbidity, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and increased risk of many other medical and psychiatric disorders (Rehm 2009). The economic burden of drinking in terms of lost productivity has been estimated to be between 1.3 and 3.3 percent of the gross domestic product in developed countries (Rehm 2009).

Although medications help reduce alcohol craving and cut down on drinking, there are no conventional treatments for reducing the severity of hangover symptoms following heavy drinking. This post is offered as a brief review of research findings for the herbal Red Ginseng, a form of Panax ginseng widely used in Korea and other Asian countries. Red Ginseng is produced by steaming and subsequently drying the raw herbal, resulting in a reddish color and prolonging shelf life. Ginseng is widely used in Asian countries for enhancing memory and improving stamina.

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

How heavy drinking causes hangover symptoms

The consumption of a large volume of alcohol in a short amount of time can result in the accumulation of acetaldehyde in the blood, a byproduct of the metabolism of alcohol by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ADH). Acetaldehyde binds with many proteins in the body, resulting in toxic effects experienced as symptoms of "hangover," including headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, tremor, increased blood pressure, and a general feeling of malaise (Swift 1998).

Animal and human studies support that Red Ginseng significantly mitigates hangover severity following heavy drinking

Findings of animal studies have established that a standardized extract of Red Ginseng reduces blood ethanol concentrations and increases the activity of ADH mitigating hangover symptoms (Koo 1999; Shin et al. 1976 (see full reference below)). 

In a small, two-week, randomized, cross-over, placebo-controlled study, 25 healthy men and woman who did not have a history of alcohol abuse were randomly assigned to drink alcohol (100 ml of blended scotch whiskey containing 40 percent alcohol) during two consecutive visits spaced one week apart (Lee et al. 2014). All subjects were instructed to abstain from alcohol for three days and not to eat 12 hours before the start of the study.

After drinking alcohol, individuals in the study were randomly assigned to drink either a standardized extract of Red Ginseng or an equivalent quantity of water within five minutes of drinking alcohol (or water). Blood samples were taken at the start of the study, 30 minutes after drinking alcohol, and incrementally until four hours after drinking alcohol.

At the second visit (one week later) subjects who had previously received the Red Ginseng drink were instructed to drink the placebo (i.e., an equivalent volume of water), and subjects who had received the placebo drink on the initial visit were instructed to drink the Red Ginseng drink. Subjects completed a survey rating the severity of their hangover symptoms after each session, and one week after the second session.

Analysis of blood samples found that individuals who consumed the Red Ginseng drink soon after drinking alcohol had significantly lower blood levels of alcohol 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and one hour after drinking, indicating that the Red Ginseng had long-term beneficial effects on acetaldehyde metabolism. Self-reports of hangovers by study participants suggest that individuals taking a standardized Red Ginseng preparation soon after drinking had significantly less severe hangover symptoms, including less difficulty concentrating, less memory loss, and fewer complaints of upset stomach, thirst, and dehydration compared to the placebo group.

All individuals in the Red Ginseng group had significantly lower levels of expiratory alcohol (i.e., alcohol exhaled in the breath) compared to the placebo group. The researchers reported that in addition to beneficial effects of Red Ginseng on ADH activity, antioxidant effects of the herbal might mitigate hangover symptoms by removing hepatotoxic metabolites from the blood (Li et al. 2010).

When considering the above findings, it is important to keep in mind that genetic differences between drinkers play an important role in how alcohol is metabolized. Such differences help explain why people from different ethnic backgrounds have widely varying tolerance for the toxic effects of alcohol (Yokoyama et al. 2014). For example, a genetic variant of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ADH) common in people of Asian ancestry results in slower metabolism of alcohol and more severe hangover symptoms. Other genetic variants of ADH are believed to result in a relatively faster metabolism of alcohol, reducing hangover severity.

Bottom line

Alcohol abuse is a widespread problem associated with an increased risk of medical and psychiatric illness. The psychological, social, and economic costs of alcohol abuse result in enormous personal suffering and losses in productivity. Although available medications help reduce alcohol craving and cut down on drinking, no conventional treatments reduce the severity of hangover symptoms following heavy drinking.

Research findings reviewed in this post suggest that taking a standardized preparation of Red Ginseng soon after heavy drinking may significantly reduce the severity of hangover symptoms. These findings should be regarded as preliminary pending confirmation by larger, placebo-controlled studies. The study reviewed in this post investigated the effectiveness of Red Ginseng for mitigating hangover symptoms in healthy adults who did not have drinking problems. Future studies are needed to investigate the effectiveness of Red Ginseng in individuals who chronically abuse alcohol.

Further, because of genetic differences underlying differences in alcohol metabolism (see above), placebo-controlled studies are also needed to compare the effects of Red Ginseng on hangover severity in Asian and non-Asian populations and to determine whether optimal dosages of Red Ginseng differ between ethnic groups. Finally, although Red Ginseng may prove beneficial for reducing hangover symptoms, the herbal does not address core behavioral and social issues that drive alcohol abuse.

If you are struggling with a drinking problem, I encourage you to find a therapist who specializes in addiction and recovery and to participate in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Rational Recovery. To learn about other non-pharmacologic treatments of alcohol and drug abuse, read my book Alternative Treatments of Alcohol and Drug Abuse: Safe, Effective and Affordable Approaches and How to Use Them.

References

M. R. Shin, Studies on the antidotal effect of red ginseng, Korean J. Ginseng Sci., 1976, 1(1), 59–78.