Could Alcosynth Save Us From Hangover Hell?

With migraines, nausea, and the dreaded “hangxiety”, it’s a wonder we drink alcohol at all.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pexels

hen I lived in Spain, I had a typically slow freelance Friday. Work dragged. My pyjamas were very appealing. The couch quickly morphed from a desk to a lounger. Motivation was at an all time low.

So when I got a text at 12pm for an impromptu lunch date, I almost said no. But when I examined my reasons (lazing around and binge-watching Gilmore Girls) I realized this was a very poor excuse. It was Friday. This was a chance to meet new people and practice my Spanish. So after much humming and hawing, I said yes.

Spanish lunches are a relaxed affair, stretching out in front of you, the time not managed, clocks not watched. You start at around 2pm with an aperitif, snacking on small plates of tapas, until you finally order some real food around 3:30pm, usually with a glass of wine or two. This is followed by dessert, coffee and/or a cocktail.

The “lunch” can end there, but as it was Friday, we decided to go to a bar for another drink. We sat on the terrace, watching the weekend vibes roll out across the town as it quietly got later and darker. Random friends appeared, joining our group. We smoked cigarettes and snacked on olives and cheese, talking about feminism and languages and the distant possibility of buying a house in the Galician countryside.

All in all, I had around six standard drinks, stretched over the course of ten hours. And although six drinks is a sizeable amount, I was not drunk. I felt a slight buzz, a dulling of the social anxiety that helped my Spanish and brought the group closer together. But I went to bed thinking I had been very sensible.

Ah. Ah hahaha.

I forgot that I am over thirty and drinking above three drinks brings on a host of nasty symptoms. Insomnia, heart palpitations, migraines and, more often than not, some level of “hangxiety”. Brought on by booze and a miscalculation of your GABA levels, this brain state not only makes you feel like an idiot, but also that the whole world is doomed.

I have been researching the why and how and what the hell I can do to fix hangovers ever since Google got big. If there’s anything I hate more, it is the after effects of drinking too much. I’ve tried Nuxvom (homeopathic remedy…sorry), B12 supplements, chilli, miso soup, energy drinks and when in Japan and Korea, many so called “hangover cures” in little orange bottles littered with cartoon livers and random English buzzwords. Sometimes they helped, sometimes they didn’t. But they never got rid of the hangxiety.

And yes, I begrudgingly accept that NOT DRINKING AT ALL could be a permanent solution. And compared to my British teenage years (prime time for binge drinking) I drink a lot less. But I do believe the benefits of moderate booze outweigh the negatives. Contrary to what Instagram would have you believe, life is not one long competition on how to be the most put together person on this planet. Humans live in a range of conflicting states. We are productive, we are lazy. We are confident, we are anxious. We have fun, we get bored. These things, with or without booze, will not change. Moderate alcohol, when used correctly, can take the edge off, allowing us to relax into the moment (hopefully with a nice group of people and a few plates of tapas).

So when I stumbled across Alcosynth, a product announced in 2016 by David Nutt, I was excited. In an interview with Vice, Nutt explained that he had spent his whole professional life working on something that would reduce the problems of alcohol, “Medicine is awash with alcohol problems, like seizures and withdrawal, so from the first day I was a doctor… I’ve been trying to think of ways to reduce alcohol harm.”

Because Alcohol isn’t just a hangover problem for spontaneous afternoon drinkers like me — it’s a major public health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 3.3 million people die worldwide every year due to alcohol. When you consider this, and the overall danger of alochol misuse to individuals and society, it is high time we made a safer alternative.

Plus, having something fun to drink that doesn’t make us feel crappy would be a nice side-effect.

One thing I admire about the Spanish is their relationship with alcohol. Sometimes they get drunk, sure. But more often than not, I see them drinking a few glasses of something with food until they have that nice comfortable feeling. And then they stop.

This is, in fact, what Nutt and his team are aiming for with Alcosynth. David Orren explained to the Drinks Insight Network that Alcosynth is “not a replication of alcohol itself” but “an attempt to go further and to do something better. We’re looking for a slight degree of reduced inhibition…a sense of agreeableness — a sense of feeling good, and a sense of curiosity. Things you would associate with an interesting, free-flowing social interaction.”

Sounds great. But what the hell is this dreamy elixir made of? Crushed rose petals, organic peppermint tea and a sprinkle of MDMA?

Unsurprisingly, the exact chemical concoction has yet to be revealed. But whatever it is, it will play tricks with your GABA and serotonin levels without screwing you hard the next day. In an interview with The Guardian, Nutt explains: “We know where in the brain alcohol has its ‘good’ effects and ‘bad’ effects, and what particular receptors mediate that — Gaba, glutamate and other ones, such as serotonin and dopamine. The effects of alcohol are complicated but … you can target the parts of the brain you want to target.”

Nutt has patented 90 compounds of Alcosynth, including two that are being “rigorously tested for widespread use”. He hopes that by 2050 it will completely replace normal alcohol.

Completely replace alcohol? Really? Could anybody actually achieve that?

Perhaps. The future is wild and unpredictable. But they need to change the name. Alcohol, as we now consume it, is intimately tied up with the drink itself. It is not a static, chemical thing, but something that evolves over time and through cultures. It does not feel synth. It feels real.

And how often do we actually call it alcohol? Rarely. We call it Pinot Noir, Albariño, IPA, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Cuba Libre, Margharita. People are wine sommeliers, beer cicerones, mixologists. These drinks have a history, they have a family, they have provided millions of people with jobs and money.

So despite the bad side effects, there is a warm, artistic, inter-generational feel about many of the drinks we consume today. “Alcosynth”, on the other hand, speedily steers us towards bright blue ethanol dripping from a long pipette. Alcosynth laced lemonade does not conjure up the same feeling as a crisp Sauvignion Blanc on a warm summer evening. A cold locally brewed beer on the porch. An oak-aged whiskey in a heavy glass. It might be better for us, but the name makes it all feel a bit…unnatural.

So, the name sucks. But alcosynth as a concept sounds perfect for people who want social fluidity without the nasty headache. Think of the posssibilities. Think of the avoided awkward encounters. Think of the good nights sleep. Think of the fresh mornings with happy memories from the night before. Sounds dreamy.

Almost too dreamy. Can you sell something that is essentially alcohol, sans consequences? We all know people who drink to loosen up. And we all know people who drink with the sole aim of getting wasted (and damn the hangover). Binge drinkers could go mad, downing pint after pint of alcosynth with reckless abandon.

Occording to Orren, this is not their aim.

“We’re absolutely not interested in the binge drinkers. We’re interested in the people who want to have a relaxed, casual social interaction, perhaps over dinner or perhaps in the afternoon,” he explains.

Sounds good in theory. But there’s also the assumption mixed in here that people drink alcohol soley because there is no safe alternative and that humans are always logical in their life choices. Clearly we are not. We are an inherently self destructive bunch, regularly eating, drinking and smoking things that are harmful to our health but pleasurable in the moment. We do this knowing (and maybe because) it will shorten our life. Alcohol drinking is a complicated psychological and cultural phenomenon that is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

But, like e-cigarettes, some kind of synthetic alternative on the market could improve our relationship with booze, and reduce the millions of alcohol caused deaths each year. And it would definitely help people like me who are over binge-drinking but want the occasional fuzzy evening without the nasty hangover.

So can you buy it yet?

No. But it’s getting closer. But if it ever does get past the FDA, it will be fascinating to see how it translates.

People could love it. They could be freaked out by its chemically sounding name. They might start using it straight away, or rebel against the health police and down more Chardonnay. Either way, I am reinstating a two drink maximum for now. The hangxiety just isn’t worth it.

UPDATE: Since writing this article I have now heard the name “Alcarelle” being thrown around by Nutt. Still not convinced. But it’s getting better.

Copywriter and writer. Lover of British comedy and discussing the weather. www.roxannebatty.com

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