"Hangover pill" goes on sale in UK – but here's the problem with Myrkl
A new Swedish "pre-drinking pill" went on sale in the UK today. Widely referred to as the "hangover pill," the optimistically-named Myrkl is claimed to break down alcohol before it reaches the liver, preventing the formation of toxic acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde, according to Duke University's Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership, is the primary product you get when the liver metabolizes blood-borne ethanol. It's "responsible for alcohol-related facial flushing, headaches, nausea, and increased heart rate," and contributes to the overall awfulness of a hangover. So it's definitely something you want to avoid where possible.
Myrkl, developed by Swedish probiotic company DeFaire Medical, costs UK£2 (US$2.41) per two-tablet dose. It contains bacteria strains including Bacillus subtilis and B. coagulans, with added L-Cysteine and Vitamin B12, as well as other bits and pieces like fermented rice bran, dextrin, fatty acid magnesium salts and calcium phosphate.
This drug is designed to place gut flora in your intestinal tract, specially selected for their ability to metabolize alcohol before it's absorbed into your blood. Thus, it doesn't change the damaging effects alcohol can have on your stomach, but it appears to significantly reduce how much of the alcohol you consume your body gets access to.
Myrkl's scientific credibility appears to rest upon a single clinical study, funded by DeFaire Medical itself and published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition and Metabolic Insights last month.
This small study of 24 healthy, caucasian subjects didn't exactly replicate how Myrkl is likely to be used in the real world, partially for ethical reasons. Rather than testing the effects on a single dose taken two hours before a drinking session, it had subjects take a dose every day for a week, and then tested the effects of a single glass of spirit, measured to be 0.3 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. Thus, the lightest participant drank a bit less less than two standard 30-ml shots of 40 percent alcohol, and the heaviest drank about three.
Under these circumstances, the team found that blood alcohol levels in the study group peaked at around 50 percent of what the control group showed, measured 30 minutes after drinking the alcohol. At 60 minutes, the gap between the two groups widened to about 70 percent, and the study group had a mean level of zero measurable blood alcohol after two hours, where the control group took three hours to reach the same mark. The drug appeared less effective in reducing alcohol detectable in the breath – the strongest effect being around a 30 percent reduction.
The limitations of this study are pretty clear – in 10 cases, or 42 percent of the study group, the small amount of alcohol given to the participants didn't result in a measurable blood alcohol concentration at all. The researchers were constrained to this amount in the IRB study approval process.
Indeed, the research team mentions it followed up with an unpublished but placebo-controlled trial giving twice the amount of alcohol to subjects after just one single dose of the drug, and the effects were vastly reduced, with the difference between study and control groups peaking at around 10 percent in blood alcohol content, and 7 percent in breath alcohol content.
The study did not appear to track levels of acetaldehyde or acetic acid, so it's unclear exactly how DeFaire backs up its advertising claim of "no-to-low acetaldehyde & acetic acid produced by the liver." If alcohol gets into your bloodstream, it'll end up in your liver, and your liver will produce these substances as it works to neutralize the alcohol and get it into the body's waste-ejection system.
So the message we'd have for British drinkers is this: if you take Myrkl every day for a week, without drinking, and then have two to three standard drinks' worth of strong alcohol, you might only feel the effect of one to two standard drinks, and the effect may not scale up if you drink more than that, and/or just take a single pill on the day of a drinking session – you know, following the instructions on the packet.
There is of course another, significantly more affordable technology available everywhere on the planet that can reduce the amount of alcohol that makes it into your blood and liver. It's called "put less alcohol in the largest hole in your face," and while it's proven unpopular over the centuries with the drinking public, it's completely agreed upon within scientific circles.
It's important for drinkers to understand: Myrkl doesn't reduce alcohol's damage to your system while preserving the "fun" effects you're hoping to experience when you hit the pub. It simply (and possibly not all that effectively) reduces the amount of alcohol that makes it into your blood. It neutralizes, and thus in some sense wastes, the alcohol you just paid a pretty penny to drink.
You could swap every second alcoholic drink for a water, and hugely reduce your blood alcohol, breath alcohol, hangover symptoms, dehydration and the cost of a night out to boot ... but of course, logic and reason tend to take a back seat when the reason you're heading out in the first place is to bust out of your logical, reasonable, employable work-day mindset, let yourself go a bit nuts and have a good time.
Like so many things in our modern world, it's fair to assume that if alcohol was invented today, it'd never be made legal. The simplicity of its production, the abject failure of prohibition and the weight of thousands of years of boozing culture outweigh the well-understood damage this stuff does to individuals, families and societies as a whole.
A UK study released in 2010 by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs ranked alcohol as far and away the most harmful drug available, in a list that included heroin, crack, meth, cocaine, tobacco, cannabis, ketamine, GHB, MDMA and psychedelics.
But it's part of the culture – and in the UK, that culture now includes a two-quid "hangover pill" that might give people the impression that they can lash out and drink heaps more booze without suffering any consequences. The science, such as it is, does not appear to support this idea.
But the first shipment of Myrkl is already sold out, suggesting there's quite an appetite for this kind of pill.