Touting this hangover cure is troubling

Nursing a hangover has long been a part of American drinking culture, and it's a tradition many are observin...

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 5:47 AM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 5:47 AM

Nursing a hangover has long been a part of American drinking culture, and it's a tradition many are observing on the first day of 2019. Pedialyte, a drink manufactured by Abbott Nutrition, was originally marketed as a rehydration solution for sick children. But sales among adults increased 57% between 2012 and mid-2015, according to the market research firm Nielsen.

The company recently released powdered packets of Pedialyte called "Sparkling Rush" in time for New Year's Eve excess. While there are other rehydration products from sports drinks to coconut water, the makers of Pedialyte seem to be intensifying their efforts to market the product to millennials and other adults as an antidote to hard partying.

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It's troubling to see the company's social media posts that position Pedialyte next to glasses of craft beer, and captions urging followers to share their "best bounce-back selfie." As the company seems to be set on making its new product the toast of the young social media influencer set, this is a perfect moment for a little hangover lesson.

Though Pedialyte is used in children's hospitals and by sick kids at home for dehydration caused by a variety of illnesses, "oral electrolyte replacement products intended to treat diarrhea are regulated as medical foods," according to the FDA, and are not regulated as drugs. Abbott can't make direct medical claims about treating the common hangover without the FDA's approval. Yet through social media and thinly veiled winks and nods, the company appears to be targeting people who are feeling worse for wear after nights out.

"The holiday season is unfortunately rife with dehydration pitfalls. With flu season in full effect, air travel to visit loved ones, and even those late nights out with friends, you've got a recipe for your body to lose more water than it takes in, causing dehydration," Abbott writes in its press release announcing Sparkling Rush.

What's really happening on those late nights? For a clearer explanation, turn to Pedialyte's Twitter account, where a pinned tweet shows an ice-filled tub of Lagunitas beer joined by bottles of Pedialtye. Scroll through social media and we see the company retweeting young people showing off branded Pedialyte gear. In one tweet shared by Pedialyte, a man writes, "Only one way to enjoy the new Pedialyte sparkling rush," with a photograph of himself with the drink -- which he appears to be enjoying from a wine glass.

Abbott told me via email: "We do not endorse or promote the irresponsible or excessive drinking of alcohol, and we know there is no cure for a hangover." But the company's marketing sends a different message.

It's all great fun until you recognize that a hangover is the sign of an injury. The fatigue, nausea, headache and upset stomach are messages from your body to your brain asking, "Hey Bud, what are you doing to me?" Like carelessly burning yourself on a hot stove, a hangover affords an opportunity for reflection on how to avoid the injury next time. Instead, Pedialyte's marketing suggests there's a way to power through the pain without understanding the root cause, or the consequences.

"Alcohol is a diuretic, and if you don't replace the fluids lost even after just a couple alcoholic beverages, it may lead to dehydration," wrote Molly Sustar, Abbott's global director of public affairs. Hangover biology is complicated, and still being investigated, but we know that dehydration is only one piece of the puzzle. Abbott is correct that alcohol is a diuretic, which, like many types of blood pressure pills, encourages the kidneys to dump water. With alcohol, your body's water loss rate over a few hours can be as much as four times the volume of the alcoholic beverage you're enjoying.

Will an electrolyte beverage like Pedialyte help you stay hydrated? Yes. But a little dehydration isn't all that's going on in your body when you drink to excess.

You probably already know that your liver and brain don't appreciate heavy alcohol consumption and that over time you can significantly damage these vital organs. A huge recent study that analyzed data from 195 countries challenges the formerly popular notion that light drinking, by contrast, confers health benefits.

And we're also learning that markers of bodily inflammation called cytokines shoot up in people suffering hangovers the day after drinking excessively as the blood alcohol level returns to zero. Inflammation is the body's response to injury, and immune system dysfunction is increasingly linked to numerous diseases.

There's no evidence that Pedialyte protects your vital organs or your immune system from the ill effects of alcohol intoxication, and it's quite reasonable to worry that these products might mask your body's warning signs that it's had too much. It would be a disservice if people incorrectly assume they can consume large quantities of alcohol and undo the adverse effects by downing Pedialyte the next day.

And even if Pedialyte helps ease the next day's hangover, that hangover was a critical message from your body to your brain that you're on the wrong trajectory. The painful messages our bodies send us about our behaviors are crucially important to our overall health. These physical tolls translate into subconscious wariness of the excessive food or drink that made us sick, helping us avoid that level of over-consumption next time around.

Truly sophisticated drinkers need nothing more than tap water and self control to have an enjoyable night with a few alcoholic beverages on board. If instead you're suffering hangovers that ruin the following day without dialing back and taking heed of the consequences to your life, you can be at risk for alcoholism. Indeed, such warping of your decision-making thanks to this addictive chemical is part of the definition of alcoholism.

The makers of Pedialyte certainly aren't the first ones to promote a remedy for alcohol's effects. Alka Seltzer's "Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz" campaigns of yore employed everyone from night life stars like Sammy Davis, Jr. to regular guys who've had too much beer to sell their indigestion treatment.

Pedialyte's incursion into a hangover culture that's already the subject of a three-part Hollywood franchise celebrating alcohol-induced debauchery isn't the crisis of our time. But Abbott, an otherwise respectable healthcare behemoth, is at risk of making a serious mistake. It's time for the company to step back from the edge before its unwise marketing efforts do anything to encourage alcohol abuse and over drinking.

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