I am not one for believing in miracle cures, but in the past month I drank the (electrolyte-fortified) Kool Aid, chugging Pedialyte after weekend parties and gently evangelizing it to my friends. It really felt like I was waking up less groggy and crusty, and reassurance that it was genuinely helping came from the fact that it was an ostensibly medicinal product (though meant for a demographic that wasn’t mine).
But really, to me at least, that’s the magic of Pedialyte’s hangover-curing sales pitch: Its original use, dating back 50 years, is not as a magical hangover cure. It’s intended for diarrhea-stricken toddlers. As someone wary of marketing claims, I trusted it more for that reason: If a company made an explicit, audacious claim about its product’s hangover-eliminating properties, I’d be more likely to dismiss it as snake oil.
It turns out my faith was misplaced. I spoke with Stanley Goldfarb, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and a kidney doctor, about the effectiveness of Pedialyte versus water (or simply time and patience). “Is it really improving the outcomes? I doubt it. [People are] probably wasting their money,” he says. “They’d probably do as well drinking any kinds of fluids and waiting until the symptoms pass.”
The root of hangovers, Goldfarb explains, isn’t that the body lacks water or electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, or magnesium after a night out. Instead, it’s just that the chemicals produced when the body breaks down alcohol are toxic and pain-inducing. The surest hangover cure, then, is something that the market doesn’t generally prefer: patience. (While Goldfarb says dehydration doesn’t play much of a role in determining the intensity of a hangover, it can be important to drink fluids if there’s been water loss from diarrhea or vomiting.)
Amy Hess-Fischl, a nutrition specialist at the University of Chicago, says that before bedtime, drinking fluids does matter when it comes to hangovers, but still, Pedialyte is no better than water. “The Pedialyte itself is truly helping because it is rehydrating,” she says. “But any non-alcoholic decaffeinated beverage will do the same thing.”
So why do so many people think Pedialyte works wonders? For one thing, there’s that medicinal sheen—if it can help the most fragile of dehydrated babies, generous amounts of it must be able to help a hardy, fully-grown human. Also, while some do drink Pedialyte before going to sleep, Goldfarb suspects that by the time others actually wake up and start drinking it, enough time has passed since their last drink that the body has already started healing naturally. Finally, hydrating does help a little bit, and Pedialyte might be more enticing than the faucet. “Water isn't very tasty, and these sugary drinks are pretty tasty … People feel more comfortable drinking lots of them,” says Goldfarb. (I would dispute his taste evaluation but his point about water’s deterring blandness in the morning stands.)