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When you were in your early 20's, recovering from a hangover was easy, right? A greasy breakfast and some water were all it took to bounce back.
Then you hit your 30's and everything changes. Going out becomes, almost, not worth it anymore because the aftermath is too difficult to handle. 2-hour hangovers turn into 2-day hangovers!
Well, here’s the deal
As you age, there are many different factors that make it a lot more difficult for your body to metabolize alcohol efficiently.
In this article, we aim to uncover all the reasons why hangovers get worse with age, based on the current research.
What causes hangovers?
To understand why hangovers get worse with age, it's important to understand the cause of hangovers. The science of hangovers is complicated and involves many different pathways:
Alcohol is metabolized (broken down) by your liver into acetaldehyde. After this, it's broken down again into acetic acid.
The problem is that acetaldehyde is a highly toxic intermediary compound that readily breaks down to form charged particles called "free radicals". These react with your cells which ultimately leads to cellular inflammation.
In normal circumstances, acetaldehyde levels are kept to a minimum as your liver enzymes quickly convert it into harmless acetic acid. But during periods of overindulgence, acetaldehyde levels build-up which fuels the inflammatory process.(1)
Alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes your kidneys flush out water. It does this by blocking the release of a hormone called vasopressin from the pituitary gland. This hormone is essential for water regulation via your kidneys.
3. Congeners in alcohol
Congeners are by-products that are formed when alcohol is produced. More specifically, they are formed during the fermentation and aging process. Congeners include methanol, tannins, and esters to mention a few.
Some of these congeners are responsible for the taste and aroma of alcoholic beverages. And darker-colored drinks such as whiskey and wine naturally contain a higher concentration of congeners.
Unfortunately, several studies have shown that congeners make hangovers a lot worse because they are biologically active. That means they react with your cells and exacerbate the inflammatory process. That's why red wine hangovers are so bad.
4. Poor sleep quality
Alcohol is well-known to negatively affect sleep quality by blocking the REM stage. This is the stage where dreams happen and is essential for waking up fully rested.
So, even though you may have slept the same number of hours, if you’ve been drinking even a small amount of alcohol, it's not going to be as restorative.
Why are hangovers worse with age?
The conundrum we all face, regardless of age, is that the body has a finite amount of enzymes to metabolize alcohol and its by-products.
Once the enzymes have been “saturated” (i.e working at full capacity), there's a build-up of alcohol, acetaldehyde, and congeners that wreak havoc on your insides.
The fact of the matter is, as we get older, the efficiency of our body to process all these "metabolites" reduces. In addition, the restorative capacity of our cells diminishes with age.
Furthermore, alcohol’s effects on our brains and hormonal systems are a lot more powerful at smaller doses as we age. This means it takes a lot less alcohol to feel the negative effects.(2)
What does the research say?
Interestingly, a research group found that we perceive hangovers are worse with age due to added psychological factors.(3)
As we age, we naturally have more responsibilities such as work assignments, children and family commitments, and bills to pay which all make the hangover seem a lot worse than it may be.
In your earlier years, sitting in front of a TV and eating pizza all day is an acceptable way to spend your time. Whereas, it would be very difficult to get away with that in our 30s and beyond!
Which alcohol is worse for us as we age?
As it stands, bourbon, scotch, and brandy are arguably the three worst drink choices to have as we age.
Because they have the highest congener content of all alcoholic beverages.
Remember, an intrinsic part of aging is that our metabolism starts to become less robust. Overloading your system with a ton of alcohol congeners will only make it harder for your liver to break down those chemicals and eliminate them from the body.
That's not to say that alcohol with a low congeners concentration won't give you a hangover. Too much of any type of Ethanol (alcohol) is, by far, the primary cause of hangovers.
But generally speaking, lighter-colored drinks may make a small overall difference.
Why do hangovers last longer when older?
The effects of dehydration, poor sleep, and toxic damage are felt a lot harder as you age because it takes equally longer to recover from them.
In the same way, alcohol is metabolized less efficiently when older, it also takes longer for your body longer to repair itself.
How to avoid hangovers as we age
When it comes to hangovers, prevention is key. Taking action before the hangover sets in is essential if you want to avoid the worst symptoms. Aside from drinking less alcohol, here are some other things to consider:
As mentioned earlier, with age your metabolism of alcohol slows down. Therefore allowing more time to pass between each alcoholic drink is important.
Try and stick to only one alcoholic drink every 60 minutes, at the very least, to give your liver the best chance to process and eliminate alcohol and its by-products.
We all know that rehydration is key to hangover recovery. It’s even more important the older we get as our kidneys can’t regulate our fluid balance as well.
The best way to rehydrate is to have a glass of water between each drink. Other than this, you could also consider investing in rehydration mixes that contain an ideal ratio of electrolytes and sugars that facilitate rapid hydration.
Eat before you go out
Drinking on an empty stomach causes a rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration and therefore potentiates toxic damage and dehydration.
It's always best to make sure that you've had something to eat before you start drinking. Food massively reduces how fast alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream.
Before we get into this section, it's important to mention that the ingredients mentioned below have only been examined in small studies. From a scientific perspective, it is not proven that they have any benefit because a lot more research needs to be done first. It's always advisable to speak to your physician before trying new supplements.
With that said, a number of natural ingredients have been shown in studies to potentially reduce hangover severity via various mechanisms:
Hangovers as we age - Final words
That brings us to the end of our look at the reasons why hangovers get worse with age.
If there’s one crucial theme that you’ve hopefully picked up on by now, it’s that the amount of alcohol you drink is what matters most. You can drink just about any alcoholic beverage in modest amounts without getting a hangover, no matter how old you are.
Hangovers getting worse with age is just an inevitable part of life. That being said, there are many practical steps you can take to support recovery.