The only thing worse than a fun night of cocktails coming to an end is the morning after: when your mouth is as dry as the Sahara, your head feels like it's being used as a bass drum and your insides are churning. You're no stranger to being hungover, but that's the thing — why do hangovers now feel so much worse compared to when you were younger?
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There's a reason (well, several), and we'll get there — but first, a quick brush-up on what causes hangovers:
"There are many different reasons why hangovers occur, and these are due to both the direct actions that alcohol has on the body as well as the way your body metabolizes and gets rid of the alcohol," Heather Moday, MD, Philadelphia-based physician and author of The Immunotype Breakthrough, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Usually, hangovers happen as a result of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, but depending on what you drink, combined with your genetics, weight, overall health and even your sex, you can experience hangovers even after consuming small amounts of alcohol.
Because there are so many potential factors at play, the science behind hangovers and the role age can play in their severity is spotty at best — but experts do have a few theories as to why your body doesn't react as well to that pitcher of beer anymore.
1. Your Liver’s Not Functioning as Efficiently
It's the liver's job to metabolize the alcohol we drink, but as we age, its ability to effectively and efficiently get the job done decreases.
"This might be caused by the fact that there's simply less blood flow going to the liver, which means the body takes more time to expel the alcohol," Hisham Korraa, MD, a psychiatry and detox medicine specialist in Newport Beach, California, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
As a result, the alcohol ends up lingering in the body longer and creating a greater blood alcohol concentration than you'd have otherwise.
2. You Have Less Total Body Water
"For the majority of our lives, the percentage of our body weight that's comprised of water is roughly 50 percent," Dr. Korraa says. "However, this starts to decline as we age, due to the overall body composition changes we experience."
We tend to develop more body fat as we age, which contains less water than lean muscle. It hasn't been proven, but some medical experts believe this can lead to there being a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream, which could contribute to worse hangover symptoms.
3. You’re on Medication
Alcohol is broken down by the liver and so are many medications.
"As we get older, we have less liver enzyme activity, so being on medications while also drinking alcohol creates a competition for these enzymes," Seema Bonney, MD, founder and medical director of the Anti-Aging & Longevity Center of Philadelphia, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This combination may contribute to more significant hangover symptoms."
Consuming alcohol while taking certain medications can also put you at risk of developing more serious health conditions, due to alcohol getting in the way of your medications breaking down properly: Sedatives become more potent, blood pressure meds aren't as effective and blood thinners can increase the risk of serious bleeding, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
4. You’re More Sensitive to the Effects of Alcohol
Odds are, you booze it up less often compared to when you were younger, thanks to an uptick in career, family and social obligations.
"Consuming alcohol less regularly might cause your body to process it slower," Dr. Korraa says. "A reduced alcohol tolerance, combined with a less productive liver, could potentially worsen hangover symptoms in older individuals."
5. Your Hangovers Might Only Seem Worse
"Because you're likely to drink less than you did when you were younger, your memory of past hangovers may be skewed," Dr. Korraa says.
Hangovers of yore may have been just as brutal as the ones you experience now, but because they're not a series regular in your life anymore and you're no longer used to them, you might perceive them as being more catastrophic.
How Long Do Hangovers Last?
The specific combination of symptoms and how severe they are vary from person to person, but hangover symptoms (headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, irritability, anxiety and depression) typically peak when the blood alcohol concentration in the body returns to around zero, with the symptoms lasting roughly 24 hours or longer, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
How to Avoid Feeling Hungover
Unfortunately, the only foolproof way to avoid a hangover is — you guessed it — not drinking.
"There's no absolute prevention for hangovers if you choose to drink," Dr. Moday says. "However, there are certain things to keep in mind if you do decide to imbibe."
Read on for steps you can take to make hangovers more manageable — and maybe even avoidable.
1. Choose Your Drink Wisely
In terms of which alcohols may cause more hangovers, this is somewhat individual. But generally speaking, some people are sensitive to the natural tannins in red wine (chemical compounds derived from the skin, stems and seeds of grapes), as well as the added sulfites (which preserve the freshness of wine and protect it from oxidation), Dr. Moday says.
(Quick note: Some people blame sulfites for the day-after wine headache, but they're actually more likely to cause allergy and asthma-like symptoms in people who have a sulfite allergy.)
If your hangovers seem to be especially monstrous after having wine, opt for low-tannin wines like merlot, pinot noir or zinfandel, or varieties that don't contain sulfites.
Prefer liquor or beer? Avoid darker drinks, which tend to contain more congeners — chemicals produced during the fermentation process.
"Higher amounts of congeners can be found in drinks like brandy, bourbon and dark ales," Dr. Korraa says. "Lighter drinks, such as gin, vodka and light beers typically have less of this chemical and are thought to be easier for the body to process, lessening the symptoms of a hangover."
2. Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach
If you eat before and while you drink, your body won't absorb the alcohol as quickly as it would on an empty stomach.
"The majority of alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine," Dr. Korraa says. "If you consume a hearty meal before drinking, the alcohol will stay in your stomach longer, which means it'll be absorbed more slowly and alleviate some of the hangover side effects."
3. Space Out Your Drinks
Drinking alcohol faster than your body can process it can overwhelm your system and lead to a worse hangover the next day. Spacing out your drinks might mean the difference between a mild headache and feeling like you've been hit by a bus.
"A healthy liver can process one drink per hour maximum," Dr. Moday says, so consider reading the label on your drink du jour or eyeing the volume of your glass to avoid going overboard.
One drink equals:
- 5 ounces of wine (12.5% alcohol)
- 12 ounces of beer (4-5% alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (80-proof)
4. Alternate Between Booze and Water
When you drink alcohol, you may have noticed that you have to go to the bathroom more than normal.
"Because alcohol's a diuretic, you often end up expelling more liquid than you take in when you're drinking," Dr. Korraa says. Cue dehydration, which increases the odds you'll experience a bad headache, fatigue, weakness and more the following day.
For every alcoholic bevy you have, have a non-alcoholic one to balance the scales. "Doing so will increase your body's water content, which will lower your alcohol concentration," Dr. Bonney says. "It doesn't counter the absorption of alcohol but does slow it down."
5. Get a Jump on Nursing Your Hangover
While there's no guarantee, there are a few steps you can take right after drinking to potentially lessen your chances of a bad hangover the next day.
First up, do your best to finish drinking at least four hours before you go to bed. You might fall asleep faster with alcohol still in your system, but once the alcohol starts to metabolize and the sedative effect wears off, you risk waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep.
You should also start the process of replenishing your body with fluids. "Be sure to drink a tall glass of water before going to bed," Dr. Korraa says. "You can also drink a sports drink to give your body a boost of electrolytes."
And even if the thought of eating something makes you queasy, it might be a good idea to get something bland in your system to help absorb some of the remaining alcohol in your stomach, Dr. Korraa adds. Try eating at least a plain piece of toast before calling it a night.
6. Take It Easy
You should continue to rehydrate the following day. Tired of plain water? Guzzle some Gatorade or Pedialyte for a one-two punch of H2O and electrolytes.
Do your best to resist any ravenous cravings for greasy foods — it's probably your blood sugar talking. Instead, opt for a breakfast that contains protein, carbs and healthy fats to bring your blood sugar back into balance.
"A nutritious breakfast with eggs, spinach, toast, bananas, avocado or oatmeal will be kinder to your stomach and may help reduce your hangover symptoms," Dr. Korraa says.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. Take time out to legitimately rest after your night of debauchery. "There's no cure for a hangover, and you truly just have to let it run its course," Dr. Korraa says. "Be kind to your body and know you'll be back to normal soon."
Is This an Emergency?
- Cleveland Clinic: “Are Your Drinks Getting Stronger, or Are You Just Getting Older?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Drink Up: Dehydration is an Often Overlooked Health Risk for Seniors”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Hangover”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Why You Should Limit Alcohol Before Bed for Better Sleep”
- Current Drug Abuse Reviews: “The Alcohol Hangover Research Group Consensus Statement on Best Practice in Alcohol Hangover Research”
- Current Opinion In Gastroenterology: “Aging and Liver Disease”
- Sleep Health Foundation: “Caffeine, Food, Alcohol, Smoking and Sleep”
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Hangovers"