Why do the symptoms of hangovers get worse as we get older?
After all, when you’re in college, recovering from a hangover is a piece of cake, right? Then a decade or two goes by and you wonder what the heck happened to your partying days?
Well, here’s the deal…
As you age, there are several different factors that make it a lot more difficult for your body to deal with alcohol and its damaging effects.
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, we first need to go over what causes hangovers in the first place.
The term “hangover” is essentially lingo for describing the after-effects of acute alcohol intoxication. It’s caused by several different mechanisms including:
1) Toxic by-products of alcohol metabolism.
When you drink, alcohol is metabolized by your liver. This means your liver breaks down alcohol to use it as an energy source.
This process produces toxic by-products such as acetaldehyde which is a highly reactive molecule.
Acetaldehyde breaks down to form “free-radicals” which reacts with the cells it comes into contact with, which results in inflammation and damage.
In circumstances when drinking within your limits, your has enzymes that break down acetaldehyde before it causes too much damage. Antioxidants produced by your liver also help neutralize free radicals before they cause problems.
However, in periods of over-indulgence, this system is pushed over the edge as acetaldehyde levels start to build and these toxic by-products of alcohol metabolism start to wreak havoc on your insides.
Alcohol is a diuretic. It blocks a hormone in your brain called antidiuretic hormone (ADH). This means that your kidneys start to flush out more water than they are supposed to.
You’re probably very familiar with needing to urinate a lot more frequently than usual when drinking and alcohols diuretic effect explains this.
As a result, you start to lose water at a faster rate than you are consuming alcohol which makes you more dehydrated.
Need something to help you bounce back after drinking?*
3) Congeners in alcohol
Congeners are by-products produced during the alcohol fermentation process such as methanol, tannins, and esters to mention a few.
Several studies have shown that congeners cause hangovers as they stimulate inflammation by different mechanisms.
4) Poor sleep quality
Alcohol is well-known to reduce sleep quality by stopping you from reaching the deepest stage of sleep, also known as the REM stage. This stage is essential for making you feel fully rested.
So, even though you may have slept the same number of hours, if you’ve got alcohol in your system, it’s not going to be the same.
Hangovers are caused by congeners in alcohol, toxic by-products of alcohol metabolism, poor sleep quality and dehydration which all contribute to why hangovers are worse with age.
Why are hangovers worse with age
The conundrum we all face, regardless of age, is that the body only has so many enzymes available to carry out these metabolic reactions.
Once you’ve “saturated” the respective alcohol-metabolizing enzymes with ethanol, the risk of hangover increases.
It might help to think of a hangover as the result of a bottleneck effect – you can pour as much substance as you want into a tiny bottleneck, but only so much can be filtered through at a time.
So in essence, hangovers are caused by your body trying to play catch up with the flood of alcohol it’s facing.
The fact of the matter is, as you get older, alcohol becomes more toxic as your body is unable to process and eliminate it. By this we mean, your liver doesn’t work as efficiently as it did when you were in your 20’s and therefore things work more slowly.
Furthermore, alcohol’s effects on your brain and hormonal system is a lot more powerful at smaller doses when older. This means it takes a lot less alcohol to feel the negative effects.
What does the research say?
Interestingly, a research group found that you perceive hangovers are worse with age due to added psychological factors.
When you get older, you 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 do the same when you have to deal with life responsibilities.
General stress levels and responsibilities when you are older have a big impact on how you perceive hangovers which contributes to hangovers getting worse with age.
Which alcohol is worse for you when you’re older?
As it stands, bourbon, scotch, and brandy are arguably the three worst alcohols to drink as we age.
Because they have the highest congener content of all alcoholic beverages.
There’s a working supposition that alcoholic beverages with higher congener content are worse for hangovers. Theoretically, any alcohol that makes a hangover worse is also going to be a poor beverage choice as we grow older.
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.
You should also be mindful of cheap homemade drinks that are made with methanol, sometimes known as “wood alcohol” or “wood spirit” since it was initially produced by distilling wood. Despite having very similar chemical structures, methanol is much more toxic than ethanol.
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.
This explains why some of us may experience 2-day hangovers once you reach your 30’s.
The same way alcohol is metabolized less efficiently when older, it also takes longer for your body to repair itself.
How to avoid hangovers after your 30’s
When it comes to hangovers, prevention is key. Taking all the steps required before the hangover sets in will help you avoid the worst hangover symptoms.
As mentioned earlier, with age your metabolism of alcohol slows down. Therefore taking time between each alcoholic beverage can go a long in way in reducing your hangover symptoms.
Try and stick to only one alcoholic drink every 60 minutes at the very least to give your liver the best chance.
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 having a glass of water between each drink. Better still, having a large glass of water with a rehydration sachet sometime during your night or straight after your last drink can make a big difference.
They contain electrolytes and essential minerals which help restore the balance.
Chose a lighter coloured drink
Sticking to a lighter colored drink like gin or vodka will help as they contain fewer congeners are should, in theory, give less of a hangover.
Eat before you go out
After rehydration, this is probably the most important factor in preventing hangovers when older.
Drinking on an empty stomach causes a rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration and therefore potentiates toxic damage and dehydration.
Stocking up on natural antioxidants to support your liver against some of the toxic damage caused by alcohols by-products could help.
At the end of the day, hangovers are a sign from your body that you’ve probably been drinking too much. By far the best way to prevent hangovers after your 30’s is just to drink less.
Drinking 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 that 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 help.