May Your Holiday Hangovers Be Sprite

David Carn

May Your Holiday Hangovers Be Sprite

As I write this, it’s the morning after the holiday party at a law firm that represents, among other highly regulated clients, breweries and distilleries. As you can imagine, client products were consumed. 

As we always advise, we consumed those products responsibly. (We also had an early morning presentation for our other legal specialty, cannabis, so that helped motivate our temperance...for the record, we did not consume those client products.) Although I feel fine as I write this, I am nevertheless compelled at breakfast to order a beverage I have only rarely consumed since childhood—Sprite. 

Nonalcoholic beverages have long been consumed with alcoholic beverages for various reasons, including minimizing any possible negative effects from drinking—that is, hangovers. Many of these beverages don’t really do anything at all when it comes to hangovers. Others make hangovers worse. For reasons I am about to explain, Sprite is one that actually helps.

The most classic symptoms of getting sick from alcohol, including nausea and vomiting, are not actually caused by alcohol. They’re caused by an intermediary metabolite of alcohol that is poisonous.

There are two enzymes that break alcohol down. The first is called ADH for short (alcohol dehydrogenase). It turns alcohol into the poison I mentioned, called acetaldehyde. The second enzyme, ALDH (aldehyde dehydrogenase), turns the poisonous acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid that our bodies can convert to energy. (Yes, the same acetic acid in vinegar.)

Around 10 million years ago, the common ancestor we humans share with the other African apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) evolved a version of the first enzyme, ADH, that’s 40x faster at breaking down ethanol. This was good for us at the time, as we were starting to live on the ground more, as opposed to trees where our ape ancestors first evolved. 

The previous version of this enzyme was better at breaking down other types of alcohol in leaves, which we would have eaten more of in the tops of trees. For example, leaves are full of geraniol, which is the primary ingredient in citronella that keeps mosquitos away. Geraniol is supposed to keep us away, too. After all, plants don’t want us eating their leaves, which is where photosynthesis happens. So, if we’re going to eat leaves, it’d be good if we could break geraniol down quickly. The previous version of the ADH enzyme did this. 

As we began situating ourselves on the ground more around 10 million years ago, though, we would have eaten fewer leaves and more of the fallen fruit that would have been fermenting more than the fruit in the trees. Now it would have been more helpful to break ethanol down faster.

But while the first enzyme (ADH, specifically ADH4) evolved to work faster on ethanol, the second one (ALDH) didn’t. This means we humans, and also gorillas and chimpanzees, break ethanol into acetaldehyde faster than we break the poisonous acetaldehyde into harmless vinegar. Don’t worry, our bodies have a way to fix this.

The first time we drink, most of us get sick. This is ALDH not being able to keep up with ADH, causing poisonous acetaldehyde to build up. Not wanting to get sick again, our bodies will create more ALDH to fix the problem in the future. If we drink more the next time, the same thing happens again. We get sick from acetaldehyde building up, and our bodies adjust the amount of enzymes they make in the future to break it down. That way, we shouldn’t get sick from the same amount of ethanol again. This is how tolerance works. 

Things like Holiday parties create an environment where we may drink more than what our bodies have adjusted to handle, causing us to get sick from acetaldehyde, just like the first time we drank. It would help, then, if we had some sort of tool to artificially slow down the ADH that makes poisonous acetaldehyde, and speed up the ALDH that turns it into harmless acetic acid.

In 2013, a team of Chinese researchers sought to figure out if any of the nonalcoholic beverages we consume with alcohol do this. They tested 57 drinks from the area and found various effects on the two enzymes that metabolize alcohol. Some drinks caused ADH to speed up, and ALDH to slow down, which is the worst possible combination. You’ll want to avoid deng lao liang cha at all costs, for example. It causes a 40% increase of the ADH that turns ethanol into poison and a 110% decrease of the ALDH that breaks the poison down. The best drink is hui yi su da shui, which causes a 6% decrease in ADH, and an almost 50% increase in ALDH. 

But good luck finding hui yi su da shui stateside. Your best bet is going to be xue bi, which causes a tiny increase in ADH activity, at 7%, and an almost 30% increase of the slower-acting ALDH, which is what we need the most. 

You can definitely find xue bi stateside. It’s made by the Coca-Cola Company, headquartered two hours down the road from me in Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta, and everywhere English-speakers consume xue bi, it’s called Sprite.


David Carn is an attorney primarily representing manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. Also an award-winning graphic designer of alcoholic beverage packaging, David’s work has been featured in Time Magazine and USA Today.

No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.



Matthew A. Carrigan et al., “Hominids Adapted to Metabolize Ethanol Long Before Human-directed Fermentation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 2 (2015): 458–63,

Sha Li et al., “Effects of Herbal Infusions, Tea and Carbonated Beverages on Alcohol Dehydrogenase and Aldehyde Dehydrogenase Activity,” Food & Function 5 (2014): 42–49,


David carn

David Carn

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