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It started as an innocent Bachelor Monday. Some cheese, a couple of glasses of red wine and Matt James’ dumpster fire of a season. I went to bed a little tipsy—nothing obscene!—but I woke up with a raging hangover that left me struggling as I worked from bed the next day. There I was, embarrassed at my inability to rally the way I could a few years back. Did I really drink that much? Or do hangovers just get worse with age?
In college, I was able to throw back several shots of New Amsterdam peach vodka and still feel fine enough to head to a darty (daytime party, duh) the next morning. Now, I’m plagued with a dreadful 48-hour hangover at the ripe age of 25. If I exceed four drinks, I can’t leave my bed the next day. Sometimes, even just a glass of wine is enough to leave me a throbbing headache and unquenchable thirst!
I know my tolerance isn’t what it used to be, but there has to be a reason why I’m so debilitated by a few drinks—and I can’t be the only one dealing with this. So, I turned to Dr. Colleen Tewskbury, a dietician at Penn Medicine, for a little insight.
Much to my dismay, Dr. Tewskbury let me know that the research on hangovers and what causes their severity is minimal. “We do have a few hypotheses as to what could be driving it,” she says. “Unsurprisingly, a lot of it is driven by someone’s overall health and their body’s ability to break down alcohol.”
The way the body processes alcohol works like this: Digestion and absorption begin in the stomach and alcohol will immediately go into your bloodstream. From there, it goes to the liver for processing, where the brunt of the alcohol breakdown happens. If the liver isn’t able to keep up with the initial amount, alcohol will continue to circulate through the rest of the body and the rate at which you’re drinking and how much food you’ve eaten will both impact your blood alcohol content.
Any additional waste from that liver breakdown is then excreted by the kidneys. Dr. Tewksbury explains that, as we age, we expect these abilities to slightly decline over time, primarily based on one’s health status. Basically, she let me know I wasn’t the only one finding it hard to rally. Despite the limited research, she’d had other patients express similar concerns with worsening hangovers as they aged.
While there’s no medical confirmation of whether or not age impacts the severity of a hangover, there are some things we can do before, during and after drinking alcohol to reduce how painful our hangovers will be—but again, results will vary from person to person.
It may seem obvious, but low-quality beverages that are surgery and high-calorie will make you feel pretty crummy afterwards—even if they don’t contain alcohol! Dr. Tewksbury recommends avoiding sugary mixed drinks as well as lower-quality liquor, beers and wines—so reach for the Grey Goose and skip the Burnett’s.
Also, consider reassessing your drink of choice. Certain kinds of alcohol can affect people differently (For me, I swear tequila is the only thing that won’t give me a hangover!) so figure out which ones gets you buzzed without inflicting a massive headache by morning.
Before you even start drinking, you should always make sure you have something in your stomach—eating while you’re drinking is even better, if possible. And of course, Dr. Tewksbury adds that being generally healthy and exercising regularly will also make rebounding from a night out that much easier.
When it comes to handling the actual hangover, it’s all about symptom management. Identify if you have painful headaches, fatigue, thirst, a seemingly bottomless stomach, vertigo or whatever else. Then, consider what you can do to treat it ASAP.
“Alcohol can cause low blood sugar, so many people have the drive to eat sweet carbohydrates or really complex carbs like bread products the day after,” says Dr. Tewksbury. This is basically why you might have the urge to stuff your face with chips and bagels to feed your never-ending hunger.
She explains that these bread products are beneficial because they’re high in thiamine, which alcohol abuse is linked to a deficiency of. With this in mind, Dr. Tewksbury recommends eating something that’s soft on the stomach, but still has some nutritional value to it, like whole-grain bread, bagels and oatmeal. If you’re feeling queasy, crackers can be your best friend.
Dr. Tewksbury has also seen success with treating hangover symptoms with higher-protein foods like eggs, which contain cysteine, an amino acid the body uses to make glutathione. The body’s stores of glutathione can decrease with alcohol, which can make it harder to break down the toxic byproducts that occur as alcohol metabolizes.
Finally: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Alcohol is extremely dehydrating—which leads to some nasty headaches—so it’s important to have water before you drink. You can also alternate alcoholic beverages with water to stay hydrated while you’re out—and remember to chug liquids the day after drinking, too. If you have trouble keeping anything down, Dr. Tewksbury suggests small amounts of carbohydrate and electrolyte-rich drinks like Pedialyte or Gatorade to help.
When it comes to your specific needs, there’s really only one golden rule. “Listen to your body,” Dr. Tewksbury says. “Many times your body will tell you, but that means you have to be listening to it.” Bottom line? We’re not too old to drink—we just need to get smart about our hangover prevention prep.