If you’ve ever cracked open your eyes the morning after a boozy night, wondering why it feels like malicious elves with jackhammers are drilling through your skull, you know how dreadful hangovers can be. You may have also started to feel like your hangover symptoms are getting worse with age, which adds an extremely rude cherry to the top of this headache-filled sundae. But do hangovers actually get tougher to bear as you get older? Possibly, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
Let’s just take a moment to talk about the grab bag of pure awfulness that makes up your typical hangover symptoms.
Here are common hangover symptoms, which might sound familiar if you’ve enjoyed a drink or two in your life:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Excessive thirst and dry mouth
- Muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Feeling dizzy or like the room is spinning
- A hard time concentrating
- Mood issues like depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Rapid heartbeat
Alcohol affects your body in multiple ways, according to the Mayo Clinic, which is why the hangover symptoms are so diverse. For instance, you can blame fatigue, weakness, shakiness, and mood disturbances on the way alcohol can make your blood sugar dip below a healthy threshold. Booze also expands your blood vessels, which can lead to headaches, and it hikes your urine production, which can cause dehydration that might make you want to drink all the LaCroix in a 10-mile radius. Then there’s the way alcohol prompts your body to produce more stomach acid but also slows how quickly your stomach empties its contents, which can lead to nausea and vomiting. Alcohol is clearly an excellent multi-tasker when it comes to affecting how your body functions, both when you’re drinking and the day after.
If you’re finding it harder to suffer through hangover symptoms with every passing birthday, you’re probably chalking it up to your body’s ageing process. It might be a little more complicated than that.
There are all sorts of theories on why hangovers get worse with age. Perhaps you’ve cursed your liver enzymes, which have duties like metabolizing alcohol, after reading that they don’t do their job as well as you age. And that may be true, as your liver does get worse at its job over time. Or maybe you’ve wondered whether it’s all about your body composition—as you age, you have less total body water, which some experts posit can lead to a higher blood alcohol concentration when you drink.
The catch is that science hasn’t yet pinpointed these kinds of processes as being explicitly related to worsening hangovers with age. While there’s a ton of research into the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol on health, research on hangovers is limited. Studies that attempt to shed some light on whether hangovers actually get worse with age—and why—have, so far, fallen short of a definitive answer, addiction psychiatrist Mark Willenbring, M.D., tells SELF. Basically, the scientific jury is still out.
“Many parameters have been examined, including blood chemistries, minerals, glucose, hormones, inflammatory factors…and nothing has really popped up,” says Dr. Willenbring, who led the division of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism from 2004 to 2009 and was responsible for overseeing research on alcohol use disorder at universities around the United States. “The relationship between the amount and frequency of drinking [and hangovers] isn’t even clear.”
One thing experts do know, however, is that your perception and memory of hangovers can change wildly as you age, making them seem so much worse than they used to be.
Richard Stephens, Ph.D., senior psychology lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom, has tested the hypothesis that hangovers change with age. After undertaking a cross-sectional study of over 50,000 men and women aged 18 to 94 years old, he and his fellow researchers concluded that you’re actually less likely to get hangovers as you age—and that’s precisely why you might feel like they’re worse.
The research found that, overall, people drank about the same amount in their late teens and twenties than they did in middle age and beyond, but there was a dip in drinking behaviors in people who were in their 30s and 40s, Stephens tells SELF of the study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research in 2013, which found that people who were 18 to 29 and 50+ actually drank around the same amount.
“Drinking alcohol tends to tail off during the 30s and 40s, which is when people are most likely to have responsibilities, such as [a] career and kids, that take priority over regular heavy drinking,” Stephens says. If you’re in this age range and feel like you get monster hangovers, it could be due in part to the fact that you’re not drinking as often—higher alcohol tolerance can reduce the likelihood of having hangover symptoms, the study explains.
And, as Stephens notes, another difference is that younger people are more inclined to binge drink(defined in the study as having five or more drinks on the same occasion), typically on weekends, while older people exhibit the less hangover-prone style of drinking steadily throughout the week. It might just be that because older people tend to drink more sensibly, thus avoiding frequent hangovers, it surprises them when they do get a hangover, leading to the perception that their symptoms are worse than they were when they were younger.
Memory biases may also be at play, Stephens says: “It’s possible you have simply forgotten how bad your hangovers were when you were younger.” He relates this to pain recall, citing people who “forget” the pain of childbirth after time passes as an example.
Additionally, when you’re younger, you have fewer commitments and are more likely to have the luxury of sleeping off a hangover (or spending all day in bed watching the latest true crime docuseries until you feel better). When you get older, you have various responsibilities that require you to “live through the hangover,” Stephens says.
Although many aspects of hangovers remain a mystery, it’s clear that they’re no fun and definitely worth preventing.
“All we really have is the unfortunate collective experience of millions or billions of people worldwide that, basically, confirms that hangovers suck,” Dr. Willenbring says. “Best to avoid them.”
It’s easier said than done, but these (admittedly optimistic) tips from the Mayo Clinic may help:
- Eat before and while you drink, since your body absorbs alcohol more quickly on an empty stomach.
- Stay hydrated by alternating between drinking alcoholic beverages and drinking water.
- Consider opting for light drinks over dark ones—they tend to have fewer congeners, which are chemical substances that help give booze its flavour and might exacerbate hangovers.
- Stay within the bounds of moderate drinking, which is technically up to one drink a day for women and two for men (one drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits), or at least as close to moderate drinking as you can.
- Try to have just one alcoholic drink per hour so you reduce the chances of getting completely sloshed.
Listen, we know you might scoff at these tips. But if you want to avoid that so-hungover-my-brain-has-actually-liquefied-and-I’m-never-drinking-again feeling, they’re really worth following.
Taken from Self. Read the original here.