Remember college, when you could go out Friday night, stay out as late as you wanted and still be able to wake up Saturday morning? Not only that, you’d go for a run, hit the library… and then do it all over again. Now when you go out, you hardly have the energy to reach over and hit snooze on your alarm the next morning, much less actually get out of bed. Yep, you’ve officially hit your mid-20s, when your hangovers hurt that much more. We took a look at why this happens.
Why do hangovers get worse as you get older?
Your tolerance is lower
Once you enter the real world, you aren’t surrounded by alcohol like you were in college. Those frat parties, formals and tailgates are suddenly replaced with the occasional glass of wine with dinner or casual drinks with friends. Yet, for some reason, you feel the effects of alcohol no matter how much you drink. This is because the less alcohol you consume, the less accustomed your body is to it, so when you do go out drinking, the resulting headaches and nausea are that much worse.
“Older people can be snowed by alcohol amounts that hardly touched them when they were younger,” says Dr. Peter Martin, director of the Vanderbilt Addiction Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Ashley*, a graduette living in Boston, explains the differences she noticed after drinking in college compared to the effects she feels now. “In college, I could have three mixed drinks and barely feel tipsy, just because we would go out Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” she says. “Now that I only go out about once a week, when I have a glass of wine, I feel like I’m drunk, and [I’ll] even wake up with a headache. Just after one drink! Coming from college, you might expect that you can drink just like you used to, but you really can’t.”
Your body changes
Hangovers happen because alcohol dehydrates you—which in turn causes the headaches and general misery you feel the morning after. As you age, your body retains less water, so the aftermath of a night of heavy drinking gets that much worse.
According to Dr. Reid Blackwelder, board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, “A lot of older people are borderline dehydrated. They have less body water just from the natural effects of aging.” And, unfortunately, your metabolism begins to slow down in your 20s, which causes your liver and kidney function to decrease. This, of course, does not help when you’re drinking lots of alcohol.
Sarah*, a college grad now living in New York City, noticed her metabolism gradually slowing over the last couple years. “In high school, I could eat whatever I wanted: candy, burgers, pizza … and not feel any effects,” she says. “Now, after a week of poor eating habits, I feel bloated and lethargic. Likewise, in college, I could drink whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted and be able to go out again the next night; maybe just with a slight headache. Now, not only do I get splitting headaches and feel nauseated, [but] since my body seems to take a longer time to process the alcohol, my hangover lasts twice as long.”
Luckily, there are a few ways to help those hangovers hurt less. Here’s how!
Before you start drinking, you need to…
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
If you want to prevent a headache in the morning, you need to hydrate before and while you drink alcohol. Since alcohol dehydrates you, you should alternate every other drink with a glass of water—you’ll thank yourself in the a.m.
Or, make yourself a drink that’ll do double duty. Try a wine spritzer—a mix of club soda and wine (it’s best with a citrusy wine such as sauvignon blanc) with a twist of lime tastes good and will help prevent that hangover.
Take your vitamins
Alcohol is a diuretic, so when you drink, you’re prone to losing nutrients and vitamins. The most important vitamin you need to replenish is Vitamin B12, as it is necessary for metabolizing alcohol. By taking Vitamin B12 supplements before going out, you’re preparing your body to break down the products of alcohol and help get rid of those terrible toxins in your system. Or, you can eat foods that are high in Vitamin B12, such as eggs, cheese and red meat.
If you already have a hangover, nurse it by…
Whether that pounding headache wakes you up at 5 a.m. or 10 a.m., take ibuprofen immediately (or at least one hour before you have to be productive). Be sure to avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol)—combined with alcohol, it can be damaging to your liver. Although you shouldn’t rely on ibuprofen every time you drink, if you have a splitting headache when you wake up, it should do the trick.
After a night of drinking, you need to keep hydrating your body, even if you had plenty of water while out. Have something with electrolytes: Sports drinks, fruit juice or coconut water will jump-start the recovery process and keep you hydrated.
Amy*, a graduette living in Houston, swears by her hangover remedy. “No matter what time I get home, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. to wake up and take Advil, drink a bottle of water and then go back to sleep for another few hours,” she says. “When I wake up, I reach for a Gatorade and surprisingly feel ready to be productive. If I don’t rehydrate, I feel terrible and will stay in bed all day.”
In college, you likely ended your night with some kind of post-drinking binge eating. Whether it was pizza, ramen or fries, eating late-night food was a regular habit. Now, you’re probably not heading to the nearest 24-hour fast food restaurant to fill up on chili cheese fries after a night out.
Although you’re right in avoiding greasy foods (they may be too heavy and make nausea and vomiting that much worse), eating after you drink can help prevent hangovers. Stick with salty foods; they help you retain moisture by restoring the levels of sodium and water in your body, which will help metabolize and flush out toxins, which in turn helps you feel better in the morning. Try a bowl of soup; it’s easy to make no matter how tired you are and isn’t heavy enough to make you feel even more sick.
Nothing cures a hangover better than sleeping does. However, while it may seem like alcohol puts you right to bed, it can actually be disruptive to your sleep cycle. Even if you feel exhausted, you’re not getting quality sleep, and for some, it can be hard to sleep in late after a night out drinking. If this is the case for you, try taking melatonin, a natural sleep aid.
Until there’s a magic pill that can cure hangovers, the only true cure is time, since your body needs it to make a full recovery. These tips, however, are the best ways to help speed up the recovery process and fight that hangover if (or when) it does come. You may not be able to drink like you did during your college days (and you probably don’t want to, either!), but getting older doesn’t mean you can’t go out and have a few drinks and enjoy yourself. Just learn how to take care of yourself before and after the fact, and you’ll still be able to get up the next morning and have a productive day.
*Names have been changed.