Sarah* counts a heavy night as going out on a Saturday afternoon and not sleeping until the next day. The 28-year-old from London mixes alcohol and ecstasy when she’s partying. The resulting hangover? “I feel really tired and depressed,” she says.
But a month ago she discovered a supplement brand called Happy Tuesdays. Sold through targeted ads on Instagram the single-use packs – costing £19 for three packs – are described by the brand as designed to “help mind and body recover after raving.” Peek behind the bold marketing claims, however, and the evidence behind these rave recovery pills is thin, and in some cases non-existent.
Launched in June, Happy Tuesdays claims that each pack of five pills contains “science-backed” ingredients including amino acid 5-htp (a building block of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is depleted when taking MDMA) and L-Tyrosine (used to make dopamine, depleted when you’re taking cocaine). On its website it says that these are joined by nutrients such as vitamin C, magnesium, ginseng and antioxidants to help “detoxify”, “declench muscles” and “lift mood”. Happy Tuesdays has not yet published supporting research; it says it is “in the process of publishing [its] research online.”
The brand is one of a growing number of firms that appear to be targeting supplements at people with comedowns. There’s RaveAid, launched in 2011, which describes itself as “the oldest and most trusted rave recovery supplement in the world”. Its website features a stock photograph of a group of “scientists” in goggles and white coats above a list of links to scientific papers that the site claims support each ingredient. “We don’t promote the use of drugs,” a spokesperson says. “What we promote safety, responsibility and recovery. The use of drugs is not acceptable to most people, but we don’t judge.”
There’s also the tropical-flavoured dissolvable supplement Sorted (£7.99), which launched in 2017. Containing 5-htp, ginseng, gaurang as well as electrolytes, its founder Joel Moss says he developed it because he “loved to seize mornings but it can be hard when you’re having late nights”. He says the supplement was designed to aid productivity and “help you recover” but not for post-drug use.“We are aware that people like to take Sorted after partying and that there is an interest in 5-htp as a recovery ingredient for recreational drug use,” says Moss. “However it was not designed to be consumed after drugs.” The Sorted website features a rating Vice gave it as a comedown cure.
Meanwhile the celebrity-endorsed “hangover cure” industry has developed too. Back in 2012 Rihanna was once of the first stars to Instagram a picture of herself hooked up to a “party drip”. Now, brands like Get A Drip offer detox and rehydration IVs for prices around £200.
Sarah says that she finds the Happy Tuesdays supplements effective. “They make me feel so much less sad and lethargic than I normally would,” she says. She’s not alone in relying on them. As drugs have become more normalised – cocaine and ecstasy use are at their highest levels for ten years – recovery products have started to develop cult followings on on forums such as Reddit and Bluelight. “Sesh” Instagram accounts post memes: “When you roll every weekend but you tell people it’s okay because you take 5-htp”. More than 70,000 packs of RaveAid have been sold worldwide.
Laura*, a 25-year-old from London, uses Sorted during and after festivals. She says she started taking it after getting advice from a friend. “He’s very good at preparing for nights out,” she says. “He’ll take magnesium because it’s good for gurning and told me to take 5-htp because replacing serotonin makes your comedowns less bad.” She says it helps her be more productive after a big weekend. “If you’re going to be mixing coke or MDMA with the working week,” she says. “Then you need something that will repair your mind quicker.”
But while these supplements are gaining fans, experts doubt they’re doing anything effective. Nicole Rothband, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association says that, similarly to slimming supplements, the founders are probably just “trying to make a fast buck” off vulnerable people who want a “quick fix”. She says there’s no scientific research on any of the products that would act as proper evidence for the claims that they’re making. She describes the RaveAid site as the “most ludicrous” thing she has seen in a long time. “The links [to some of the papers] are a good 20 years old,” she says. “Some of it’s done on rats and monkeys. You’re supposed to believe that if it needs more research to see how good it is on a monkey it’s going to be good for you.”
The supplement industry is estimated to be worth more than £160 billion globally by 2025, but in the UK supplements are regulated as foods, not medicines, so firms selling them only have to substantiate their claims based on existing research rather than demonstrating that their specific product is effective.
There have been no clinical studies that show that absorbing supplements via an IV drip have any health benefits, says Rothband. “I posted a pamphlet for a shopping centre IV drip in a closed dieticians Facebook group,” says Rothband. “The reaction was universal outrage and horror. There’s a very good reason why medical IVs happens in hospitals and clinics. It’s invasive and there’s risk of infection.” She says that drinking a rehydration solution of salt, sugar and water will have the same effect for much less risk and much less money.
The evidence that specific hangover and comedown cures work is weaker still. There has been very little research into the after-effects of drugs and alcohol. In fact the only nutrient shown to potentially help decrease toxic chemicals released when the body metabolises alcohol is the amino acid cysteine found in eggs, meat and dairy foods. Meanwhile, when it comes to comedowns, the only investigations into minimising their impact solely looked at antioxidants – and didn’t find conclusive answers.
There has been no research into the impact of 5-htp, the amino acid many of these supplements are built around, on MDMA users. “The tests [brands like RaveAid and Sorted] are referring to aren’t on people who have taken MDMA,” says Cathy Montgomery, a reader in psychopharmacology at Liverpool John Moores who studies ecstasy’s long and short-term impact on the brain. “They’re not in someone who is serotonin depleted. The supplements will increase circulating levels of 5-htp in your brain. You might take these and make serotonin more rapidly with them but there’s been no evidence in MDMA users that it will do you good.”
In fact, none of the ingredients in the supplements have been tested on MDMA or alcohol users. This means that while claims might be true about individual nutrients – for example, there is evidence to suggest that ginseng is a cognitive enhancer that can improve alertness and focus cognitive attention – those tests have only been done in healthy populations so don’t make it a conclusive hangover or comedown aid. None of the experts we spoke to believed that there was scientific rationale to suggest that electrolyte magnesium would help with muscle tightness or gurning.
Additionally, Montgomery says: “The mind boost tablet on the Happy Tuesdays website contains a dose of vitamin B12 that’s 18,333 times the recommended daily dose (RDA). It’s not dangerous but taking that dose of something is pointless. Especially if you already eat a really healthy diet. Your RDA is 100 per cent because that’s all that you can metabolise.”
If experts agree that there’s no clear evidence these supplements are likely to improve comedown or hangover symptoms then why do so many people swear by them? Montgomery says that it’s probably a placebo effect. “When you’re feeling absolutely dreadful, it doesn’t whether something has a physiological or psychosomatic effect, if taking it makes you feel better,” she says. It’s something that Sorted-user Laura agrees with. “I’d rather take it than not have anything even if it’s a placebo,” she says. “It’s just having something else to lean on to make those days a little less turbulent.”
That might be so, but the experts say the actual physiological solution to feeling better when you’re hungover is as simple as hydration, good nutrition, outdoor exercise and a good night’s sleep. Especially since all these supplements need to be metabolised by the liver and so might actually put it under more pressure. “If you’ve already given your liver a horrendous bashing over the weekend, it’s probably not a good idea to say: ‘Okay, liver, here’s more stuff to get to grips with,’” says Rothband. “Just accept that you’re not going to feel good and show your body a bit of care instead. It’s an awful lot cheaper.”
*Names have been changed
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