I was in the Cerveza Fauna tasting room at Plaza Fiesta in Tijuana when I started to feel my buzz. We’d started the day at a beer bar built into an old Craftsman house, then moved on to La Mezcalera, where we sampled some of Mexico’s smokey clear liquors.
After downing an IPA, I asked for a glass of water, into which I emptied my first powdered packet of Prime, a new hangover preventer that promises you can “rock today, roll tomorrow.” The water turned blue and tasted like Crystal Light lemonade. Not expecting actual results, I drank up.
The evening continued, into a shots bar on La Sexta, to the city’s oldest dive, Dandy Del Sur, then to a brewery inside a former strip club on the top floor of an empty parking structure, after which we stumbled back to the hotel.
I forgot all about the Prime — until my alarm woke me at 8 a.m. and I noticed I wasn't experiencing that “a train just ran over my body” feeling. I was running on only a few hours of sleep following some heavy drinking, but there was no headache, no nausea and no aching bones. I helped my struggling, Prime-less friends into the car and headed to the border crossing.
Everyone — from your mother to random people on the Internet — seems to have a solution for preventing hangovers, from taking multivitamins to eating that new brand of hangover-preventing beef jerky. As someone who writes about alcohol for work, I have tried a lot of ideas over the years, but in the end, I gave up. Either don’t get drunk or deal with the consequences.
"People mess around until they find something that works, but if you want a real solution to a problem you’re going to have to put down the shots of olive oil and mystical green smoothies and take a look at the scientific data," says Marlo Miller, co-founder of Prime, when I reached out to her after my Tijuana experience (I found the packets for sale at my local liquor store but you can also buy them online). "What made me want to go one step further than folk remedies was the fact that they didn’t work that well."
On a mission to create a scientifically proven hangover preventer that actually works, Miller says she hooked up with Walter Thornburgh, a biochemist who recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach, and looked at the true causes of hangovers. They’re really complex. A half-dozen different factors, with varying degrees of influence, play into that shitty feeling in the morning. Thornburgh claims most hangover preventers on the market address only a few of them.
“Alcohol causes dehydration by increasing urination; it disrupts biological rhythms; it releases inflammatory cytokines from the liver,” says Robert Swift, a physician and researcher who studies alcoholism and hangovers at Brown University. “Then, there are non-ethanol compounds in beverages (e.g. tannins in red wine; methanol in some brandies) that may contribute to hangovers.”
Miller and Thornburgh decided to create a hangover preventer that attacks a problem that they claim no other product has attempted to eliminate before: acetaldehyde toxicity. Acetaldehyde is a byproduct of the body’s natural breakdown of alcohol in the liver and, according to lots of science, it’s pretty nasty stuff.
"It is a powerful toxic irritant, probable carcinogen and overall biological hellraiser," Miller says. It's also been shown to be the culprit behind the so-called "Asian Glow."
Though humans have a natural mechanism for destroying some acetaldehyde on our own, our livers could use some extra help to get rid of all that grossness from a night’s worth of booze.
Prime attempts to help with an amino acid blend that Miller and Thornburgh's testing has found stimulates production of the enzyme needed to reduce acetaldehyde. They say it also has a potassium-replenishing electrolyte supplement and a bunch of B vitamins to tackle some of the more well-known hangover causes.
That’s not to say that Prime will work on everyone, and it’s definitely not a cure-all.
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“There are several possible causes for hangover symptoms, including acetaldehyde, and unfortunately there is little research on the subject, so how much of a hangover is attributed to acetaldehyde is unknown,” Swift says. “Improving the oxidative state of the liver can be helpful, but it will not completely eliminate hangovers for everyone.”
Thornburgh spent more than a year testing various formulations of Prime before settling on the current version, which is produced according to specifications at a plant in Ontario. You mix one packet into water or a cocktail for every four to six drinks.
When might it not work?
"The biggest factor that will make Prime less effective is smoking," Miller says, "as it introduces more toxins into your system, causing your body to produce even more acetaldehyde."