Generally speaking, the first thing you consume after waking up with a hangover is going to look a lot different than what you’d use to quell your nausea after a bout of food poisoning or a stomach flu. For the former scenario, you want a real grease-bomb of a breakfast, something cheesy and carby and indulgent; for the latter, maybe a banana or a piece of plain toast, if you think you can keep either one of them down.
But these two diets, as different as they may be, do typically have one element in common: ginger ale, or whatever your fizzy beverage of choice happens to be. Really, the flavor doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got bubbles — any carbonated drink can go a long way toward cleaning up the damage wrought by a virus, too much booze, or a gas-station sushi roll.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But as writer Heidi Mitchell recently explained in The Wall Street Journal, the conventional wisdom isn’t actually all that wise: Soda, despite what you’ve been told, doesn’t really do much to soothe an upset stomach.
First, some background. Whatever you’re feeling in your abdomen, it isn’t quite pain, gastroenterologist Alexandra Gutierrez, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Journal. In fact, your gut doesn’t even contain any pain receptors:
“The only thing your stomach, intestines and colon feel are distention,” says Dr. Gutierrez, who specializes in inflammatory bowel disease … After gulfing down a meatball sub, most people become over-full and bloated, which feels like pain or queasiness. A meal high in fat also decreases motility, further enhancing that stuffed, nauseous sensation. “If you eat bad or poorly prepared food with toxic bacteria in it, your body will eject it one way or another. But if you overeat, you’ll likely have gas and distention, which can feel awful,” says Dr. Gutierrez. The only way to eradicate that feeling is to get the food out of the stomach and into intestinal tract through chemical breakdown and physical movement of the food.
That’s where the fizzy stuff comes in. In theory, Mitchell explained, the caffeine and the popping of the carbonated bubbles may kick your intestines into action, but in practice, “the nausea-relieving benefits might be offset by the high volume of sugar in a typical soda.” That’s even true for ginger ale, widely seen as the holy grail of stomach-settling beverages — ginger itself really does have that power, but the stuff you drink out of the bottle likely doesn’t contain any real ginger.
If soda’s proven itself as a tried-and-true method for you, Mitchell added, it’s probably just because you’ve always believed it to be. “The power of persuasion can be strong,” she wrote — in some cases, even stronger than what ails you. If not, there’s always ginger tea.