Last week we learnt all about how fungi give us alcoholic beverages such as beers and sparkling wine, so naturally this week we’ll focus on the inevitable next step: the hangover.
Coprinus atramentarius: The Common Ink Cap Mushroom
After rainfall from spring to autumn, you may see clumps of these mushrooms beginning to appear. Standing under 20cm, with a brownish, grey appearance in urban and disturbed areas such as lawns- these common ink caps may be seemingly insignificant to any old passer by.
They’re not particularly strange looking, offensively smelling, or conspicuously dotted in random places across the world. They are however affectionately known as “tippler’s bane”, because they have a secret power…. here we go, there had to be something.
Toxicity of C. Atramentarius
Coprinus atramentarius fall into a strange category of ‘sort of’ edible. This is because they contain a compound called coprine. Common ink caps are perfectly safe to eat, under one condition- that you’re not a tippler.
Consuming these mushrooms whilst you have alcohol in your system will lead to something known as disulfiram syndrome, and this is quite unpleasant. Take a look at the symptoms:
- Tingling in limbs
Expect to experience this 5 to 10 minutes after consuming alcohol on a belly full of ink caps.
The name ‘disulfiram syndrome’ comes from the effects of another drug, one that is commonly used to treat chronic alcohol addiction.
Discovered in the 1920s, disulfiram is a drug that goes by the trade name of “Antabuse/Antabus”. Along with counselling and psychological treatment, it’s used to treat chronic alcoholism. It does this by increasing the body’s sensitivity to alcohol, meaning that if alcohol is consumed whilst disulfiram is being taken, the patient will experience the aforementioned effects of disulfiram syndrome- namely, an immediate hangover.
This happens because the drug is an inhibitor of the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. It stops this enzyme doing it’s job, which is converting ethanol (alcohol) to the compound acetaldehyde.
You wake up to a dry mouth. After a quick glance around it’s not entirely apparent how you managed to unlock the door, when you probably couldn’t even stand. There’s a constant, booming sensation inside your skull. Were you kicked in the head by a horse? It would appear so. You’re also shrouded with a feeling that can only be described by a word I recently learnt- malaise: “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify.”
To top it off, that churning sensation deep in the pit of your stomach reminds that you bought a dirty kebab with what was probably your taxi money. You’ve been hit with disulfiram syndrome, baby.
Mechanism of mother’s ruin
Okay so let’s go through the process leading to you getting a hangover. By this I don’t mean: get dressed up, have a shot, dance, fall over, pass out. I mean the chemical mechanism that results in your hangover.
The alcohol you ingest (copiously) in drinks is ethanol. This swans around in your blood stream for a bit, manages to get to your brain, then ruins your street cred. Eventually alcohol goes to your liver, where it is broken down and removed (thank you trusty liver, I’m sorry for what I put you through).
In the liver ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Next, acetaldehyde is converted into acetic acid by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. This second reaction is much faster than the first, and this is a really good thing because whilst acetic acid is perfectly safe and harmless, acetaldehyde is actually quite toxic. This isn’t normally a problem because acetaldehyde dehydrogenase acts so quickly that only really small amounts are present, before they’re converted into our lovely friend acetic acid. Nonetheless, it’s acetaldehyde that is responsible for lots of hangover symptoms, like headaches and vomiting.
So what the drug disulfiram, and the compound coprine inside the ink cap mushrooms have in common is that they both lead to the inhibition of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase- so stop it working. This results in a massive build up of acetaldehyde, which makes you feel (frankly) like the smiling poo emoji, except not smiling.
There is also a much more serious side to this. After being consumed, dilsulfiram can lead to an acetaldehyde level up to 5x above normal. It has been suggested that this may lead to cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heart beat) and mycocardial infarctions (heart attacks). This is because of the effects that acetaldehyde has on a receptor in the body that is known as a beta receptor, the receptor that controls cardiac output. This also lead me to panic and google “can I die from a hangover”- the answer was conclusively yes. Oh my god.
Additionally, disulfiram isn’t actually that successful. This is because it doesn’t target the psychological source of alcohol addiction, only acts as a deterrent. This means that the drug has poor compliance, and people simply stop taking it in order to drink. For this reason it’s not used as much anymore, and there are more effective ways of treating chronic alcoholism.
What about our fungus then? Does it inspire hope for the future of addiction? Well actually, trials have been carried out using coprine and unfortunately they showed that it could cause sterility. Sooooooo nope, not really.
In conclusion, C. atramentaria are the fun police. This fungus will give you an immediate hangover.