One of the great triumphs of the human spirit is our unwavering determination to solve impossible problems.
Take, for example, our quest to find a hangover cure: Ever since the invention of alcohol around 7,000 BC, scientists and physicians have tried—and failed—to find something to effectively alleviate the sometimes catastrophic effects of a night of over-indulgence, to no avail.
That has yet to deter our efforts.
Like most ancient medicine, the first hangover cures were rooted in more lore than actual science. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal points out, some of the earliest attempts to get rid of a hangover were actually external, like cabbage leaves bound to the head in ancient Greece, and necklaces of laurel leaves in ancient Egypt.
Eventually, physicians realized that the best way to cure an internal affliction was to ingest something else. The ancient Greeks were also the first to come up with the notion of “the hair of the dog,” according to Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure. Around 400 BC, the Greek playwright Antiphanes wrote (or at least the equivalent words in ancient Greek, Bishop-Stall notes):
Take the hair, it is well written,
Of the dog by which you’re bitten,
Work off one wine by his brother,
One labor with another.
Antiphanes may have been referencing some Egyptian mythology in which a god drank too much and was revived by a literal hair of a dog with a little plant matter and oil placed on his forehead, per the Wall Street Journal. And as Bishop-Stall writes, Antiphanes’s words reflected a common belief in medicine at the time: Like cures like. If you were suffering from a hangover from alcohol, more alcohol would make you feel better.
Surprisingly, there may be some truth to this idea. Because hangovers are a mild form of alcohol withdrawal, having another drink could make you feel better—although doctors advise against this, because it merely prolongs the inevitable.
Ancient doctors, though, were satisfied enough with this short-term fix, and therefore prescribed all sorts of booze-laden remedies for hangovers. Hippocrates—he of the physician’s oath to do no harm—prescribed “wine therapy” for hangovers and all sorts of ailments, Bishop-Stall writes.
In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder, a physician and author of the first encyclopedia, suggested that “eggs of a night-owl in wine,” “a mullet killed in red wine,” and “two eels, suffocated in wine” would all do the trick after a night out. He also used wine to treat gladiator wounds (again, not totally misguided—alcohol in some forms can be an antiseptic).
Alcohol continued to be a popular hangover cure through the 16th century. By the Middle Ages, hangover remedy ingredients also started including “ashes of scorpions, dog excrement, and wolf’s liver.” Dried human skulls also made appearances: Sometimes, they were mixed into piping hot elixirs, but if you were feeling guilty with your hangover—we’d call it “hangxiety” today—you could grow moss in the skull, crush it up, and snort it.
Eventually, in the 1600s a version of this bizarre skull remedy became one of the world’s first expensive medical scams, the Wall Street Journal reports. Jonathan Goddard, a physician close to Oliver Cromwell, created lozenges with crushed skulls in them, which he sold to King Charles II of England for thousands of pounds. (These lozenges weren’t just hangover cures, though: They were marketed as cures for just about anything, although they probably cured nothing.)
For a brief period in the 19th century, physicians used opium to cure hangovers. Doctors eventually moved on to what we know today: There are no real hangover cures, besides time. In fact, the reason so many of these bizarre cures “worked” for centuries is because people eventually felt better—not because of their ingredients.
However, as Quartz has reported before, there are some ways to make hangovers more bearable. Essentially, you need to replenish your body with all the water, electrolytes, and sleep it lost as a result of drinking. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and caffeine (or a nap) can calm a headache, and drinks with sugars and electrolytes—think sports drinks, or now the adult Sparkling Rush Pedialyte—can restore your body’s natural balance.
And of course, you could always just drink less.