WTH?! (What The Health?!) is a Scary Mommy series answering health questions relevant to moms and women that we don't talk about enough. Think: "What is this weird pregnancy symptom? WTF is happening to me postpartum? Are these signs of perimenopause?" Let's normalize these and other women's health issues by talking about them more in a relatable, less clinical, and no-BS way.
You're in your early 20s and go out bar hopping for a friend's birthday. After a few too many drinks, you finally head to bed around 3 a.m. You sleep in until 2 p.m., drink a cup of coffee, take a shower… and voilà! You're ready to do it all over again.
Fast forward 10-20 years later: You have a few glasses of wine and go to bed by 10 p.m. When you open your eyes the next morning, you have a pounding headache and realize your kids are standing over you. It's 6 a.m., and you think, "This is going to be a really long day." And this hangover — well, let's just say it goes way beyond what a cup of coffee and shower can cure.
Sound familiar? If it does, you're not the only one who feels like hangovers are getting worse as you get older.
Why Hangovers May Feel Even More Terrible As You Age
"[While] it isn't clear whether hangovers get worse for everyone as they age or just some people … it is common for people to report they feel worse the day after drinking excessively than when they were younger," explains Dr. Aaron White, leader of the epidemiology and biometry branch and senior scientific advisor at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Fatigue, headache, muscle aches, nausea, stomach pain, anxiety, and other hangover symptoms may feel magnified as you get past your 20s.
And there are a few possible explanations for it:
1. Your metabolism is slower.
This means you don't process alcohol as quickly. Alcohol causes tissue irritation, and as you age, it takes longer to get over that inflammation, says Dr. Brad Lander, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Addiction Medicine Unit.
When alcohol breaks down, one of the byproducts is called acetaldehyde. "Acetaldehyde is very toxic and makes you very sick. And a lot of the symptoms that we feel are this buildup of acetaldehyde because we haven't had a chance to break it down as quickly as we age," Lander explains.
He also says that our livers just aren't what they used to be: "In our 20s, our livers were much better at detoxifying than they are now."
2. Your lifestyle has probably changed.
This one really hits home for us. Gone are the days of sleeping the whole day to soothe a hangover. You probably have more responsibilities than you used to: waking up early with kids, driving them to sports and extracurricular activities, staying on top of work, and balancing everything else. "[This] could certainly contribute to next-day fatigue after drinking too much," White says.
3. Your sleep tends to get worse.
As we age, our sleep cycles change, including less deep sleep. "In our 30s and early 40s, we often begin to experience restlessness, waking more easily and often at night, and feel less refreshed in the morning," according to Psychology Today. This, combined with the effects of alcohol on sleep (it causes people to fall asleep faster but disrupts the quality and duration of sleep), can make you feel even more exhausted than usual the next day.
4. You develop more health conditions.
Many of these health issues may involve inflammation and/or pain. "Drinking enough alcohol to cause a hangover causes widespread inflammation and an increase in sensitivity to pain the next day, both of which could worsen existing discomfort," White explains.
5. You may be on more medications.
Certain medications may impact the effect of alcohol on the body. For example, many medications for kidney and liver problems, high blood pressure, edema, and glaucoma are diuretics and will further dehydrate you, Lander says.
How to Minimize a Hangover
There is no remedy that has been scientifically proven to cure hangovers.
"Like with a cold, there is no magic potion for beating hangovers, but there could be ways to reduce the misery while you wait for the body to recover," White says. Of course, the simplest — albeit obvious — way to avoid a massive hangover is to drink less. Barring that, there are a few other ways to make a hangover less awful, according to White and Lander.
1. Space out your drinks and stay hydrated.
A good rule of thumb: Drink a non-alcoholic beverage between alcoholic beverages.
2. Eat before and during drinking.
This slows the absorption of alcohol and could help reduce the intensity of a hangover the next day.
3. Consider the type of alcohol you're drinking.
Some people are sensitive to sulfites added to wine as a preservative and may get headaches from them. Some also may feel worse the day after drinking darker spirits like bourbon because they contain more congeners (compounds other than alcohol that occur naturally during the process of fermenting and distilling alcohol). If you're sensitive to these, clear alcoholic drinks that are low in congeners (such as white wine, light rum, and light beer) may be a better option.
If you do find yourself with a hangover...
The best thing you can do is drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. (We know, much easier said than done when you're a parent.)
Read our other WTH articles: