Hint: it has nothing to do with water.
Richard Stephens at Keele University, the lead researcher of the Psychobiology Research Laboratory, is the real deal when it comes to understanding hangovers — he’s even part of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group. One of the timeless mysteries about drinking is how some people can down tequila shots with no consequences, while others have a couple beers and wake up with a pounding headache the next morning.
How do these “hangover-resistant” people do it? It might surprise you that nearly a quarter of people report being able to avoid hangovers after a night out, even after drinking heavily, recent studies find.
Perhaps even more surprising may be the fact that drinking lots of water after a night out won’t save you from a hangover either.
Most people will say that’s nonsense, because water is the saving grace when it comes to hangovers after all, right? The logic is that when people drink a lot, they pee more, which results in a greater loss of fluids. Yet evidence to date shows that dehydration only plays a minor role in hangovers.
The biggest culprit? The chemistry of our go-to drinks.
Those who love vodka sodas may fare better than those who can’t stay away from the whiskey or rum. Darker drinks contain more toxic by-products called “congeners” as a result of the fermentation process, and congeners slightly poison our tissue. This may also explain why mixing drinks is a terrible idea, because a variety of booze will fill your body with a variety of congeners, leading to worse hangovers.
What happens next is that the alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde and then acetate a few hours after binge drinking. The process is necessarily for metabolizing the alcohol, but these noxious “metabolites” trigger sickness, racing pulse, and sweats.
Alcohol and the congeners also provoke inflammation, which could play a role in the gnarly headaches. “When we have a bad hangover, we have that puffy feeling — that’s to do with the inflammation,” Stephens told David Robson in an interview with BBC Future. To make it worse, this inflammation combined with low blood sugar and lack of sleep can often stir up that awful mood that accompanies the physical pain of a hangover.
However, since 23 percent of people claim to never suffer from hangovers, researchers speculate there may be more to the hangover puzzle. One explanation could be genes — studies of twins have shown that those lucky “hangover-resistant” folk may just have been blessed with some kind of anti-hangover gene that runs in the family.
Genetics aside, research has also shown that personality can play a role in hangovers. An old study from the early 90s found that neurotic people were more likely to suffer from hangovers than those who are more down-to-earth. This could easily be explained by the fact that emotions tend to contribute to the experience of pain — guilt, depression, and anxiety can truly amplify feelings of physical pain.
While you’re likely not contemplating the intricacies of your personality or your genes while you’re out at the bar, Stephens does have some advice on how to steer clear of those hangover blues the next morning: pace yourself. A bit anticlimactic, yes, but research has shown that people could drink the same volume of alcohol, but about 80 percent of the so-called “hangover-resistant” people had paced themselves to avoid passing a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 0.10%, thus dodging the nasty hangover the next day.
“It’s a very commonly held perception that we suffer worse hangovers as we get older, but there’s no evidence for it,” Stephens told BBC Future. “Hangovers are largely a young person’s problem.”
Stephens advises to drink moderately and in a good pace, but if that seems out of the question for you, Stephens says to go with some ibuprofen and a greasy fry-up the next morning. The ibuprofen will take care of the headache and some of the inflammation, and the eggs and bacon may help restore your glucose levels.
Perhaps a dreadful hangover is necessary at times in order to keep us in check with the potential damage that we’re doing to our bodies. But Stephens raises a good point: “Alcohol can be demonised, but we get a lot of pleasure from it,” he says. “So it’s all about controlling what you drink.”
Bottom line: slow and steady wins the race.
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