Your Hangovers *Are* Getting Worse As You Get Older & Here’s Why

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by vodka. Seriously, have anyone else’s hangovers gotten significantly worse after the age of 25? It used to be as easy as going out, throwing back a nauseating amount of jungle juice and cheap liquor, and bouncing back after a greasy breakfast sandwich and a quick power nap. Now, it’s two glasses of wine and a headache for the next three days. I used to pride myself on the fact that I wasn’t a “puker”, but after I hit my mid-twenties, just a couple rounds of skinny margs would be followed by hours of holding my hair back the next morning. What gives? Are we just getting weaker in our old age, or is it possible that we’ve forgotten how bad our hangovers really were when we were younger?

Looking back at old Snapchats from college, all we see are the blurry videos of the nights of our youth, and not the mornings after that we spent throwing up and vowing to never drink again. So is it us, or is it science? As it turns out, there are valid medical reasons for why we can’t stomach our hangovers as well as we used to, excuse the pun. In addition to my own personal “research” (drinking), I reached out to some medical experts to provide some much-needed insight on why hangovers feel worse as we get older. 

Hangover Hell

Even if you don’t drink, it’s pretty safe to say that everyone is familiar with what a hangover is. Generally, it’s a day of sickness, complaining, and overall misery that follows a night of heavy drinking. But what are hangovers, medically speaking? I spoke with integrative physician Dr. Taz Bhatia, who broke down the science behind hangovers. Dr. Taz says, “The technical name is veisalgia and refers to a syndrome of symptoms post-alcohol—headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and focus issues.”

I don’t know about you, but I always feel more justified when I can put a medical term to my woes. Saying “I have veisalgia!” sounds way more serious than just saying “I’m hungover,” and therefore warrants more sympathy instead of judgment from your friends and family. Dr. Taz adds, “Many of these symptoms are most likely from detox pathways getting overworked along with leaching of key nutrients like B vitamins and amino acids.”

Have you also noticed that, as you’ve gotten older, regardless of what or how much you’re drinking, your hangover the next day is exceptionally dreadful? Take solace in knowing that you’re not alone, and that you’re not imagining this; your hangovers really are getting worse as you’re getting older. I’ll give you a moment to go yell “I told you so!” at whoever mocked you for being a wimp during your last hangover. Dr. Jason Burke, hangover specialist and founder of Hangover Heaven IV Hydration, says, “Yes, hangovers are getting much worse as we age. I say that when people are 20 years old, hangovers last one hour, when you get to age 30 they last all day, and once you become over 40, they become a multi-day experience.” So, something to look forward to. Yay. 

Age And Alcohol 

So why do hangovers get worse as we get older? “Because the body’s reserves are worn down—and there is often not the nutrient reserve, immune reserve, and given time—a greater accumulation of toxins that stress liver function,” says Dr. Taz. Yet another reason to begrudge getting older, enzyme activity in your liver decreases as you age; therefore, your body might not be metabolizing alcohol as well as it did when you were younger. And as we get older, our percentage of body water also decreases, which can increase our blood alcohol concentration (even when we drink less), thus giving us worse hangovers the next day. Furthermore, Dr. Burke explains, “As people age, their ability to rebound, heal, and recover becomes less. As your body ages, it loses its regenerative functions. A hangover is a physical insult to your body. This is why you feel so bad. So, when you are 20 years old you rebound from anything faster, including hangovers. Unfortunately the only thing that gets better with age is wisdom.” Ironically, I think I need a drink to help come to terms with this bitter fact.

Ready to resent your hangover and men, even more? In addition to getting worse with age, studies have also suggested that women experience more severe hangovers than men. To add even more salt to the wound (sans the tequila), Dr. Burke says that women may begin dealing with harsher hangovers at around age 27 or 28, whereas men may not start to experience issues until age 30 or 31. So I guess alcohol is sexist now, too. As to why women have more intense hangovers, Dr. Taz says, “There are studies that show that women have slower detox pathways and therefore don’t metabolize alcohol as well.” I seriously feel betrayed by my body right now.

Dr. Burke adds, “Women experience worse hangovers than men, mainly due to nausea and vomiting. This can be incapacitating. Women tend to get more nauseous and men tend to get more headaches with hangovers. Most people can function to a certain degree with a bad headache, but if somebody is vomiting uncontrollably, there is really nothing else to be done.” Sad, but true. Personally, I recommend aiming your vomit at a guy so that they can be just as upset and miserable as you are. Balance restored. 

How To Help Your Hangover

Just because you can’t stop yourself from aging doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are still preventative steps you can take to help ease the severity of your inevitable hangover. For starters, the type of alcohol you choose can play a role in how much you suffer the next day. We probably all know this already, but in case you don’t, Dr. Burke advises, “Darker alcohols definitely cause worse hangovers than clear alcohol. And cheap alcohol causes worse hangovers than high-end alcohol.” Sounds like top shelf shots all around! Dr. Taz also recommends loading up on B vitamins, vitamin C, and staying hydrated. So, while you might not be able to fully prevent a hangover, you can still do your best to soften the blow. 

Additionally, Dr. Burke relays, “The best way to not end up feeling like death warmed over the next morning is to have a plan when you go out. Especially if you are near age 30 or older.” Basically—and I know nobody wants to hear this—know your limits. You can’t expect to drink five vodka sodas and miraculously feel fine the next day, no matter how much vitamin B you pound. Sorry!

As for drinking an abundance of water as a means of warding off a hangover, Dr. Burke says it can help, but only to a small degree: “If you have had 12 shots of Jagermeister, you can drink all the water you want and you will still feel like death in the morning. It will help somewhat, but it does not resolve the neuro inflammation, nor the oxidative stress.” Harsh, but fair. I mean, drink the water; you’re probably dehydrated anyway. Just don’t expect it to work a miracle.

On the chance that you find yourself in a situation where one drink turned into five and you didn’t take any pre-drinking precautions, don’t beat yourself up. It’s going to happen. Just go for any of your tried-and-true hangover hacks and try and remember that this feeling won’t last forever. Hydrate yourself with electrolytes, and sleep it off knowing that your hangovers are getting worse as you age, it’s just science—sorry!

Image: Space_Cat /

Why Wine Makes You Hungover

We’ve all been there: you wake up from a long night and too many glasses of wine with a splitting headache, thirsty, and desperate to blame the hangover on anything other than your actual, ahem, drinking. “It must’ve been the sulfites,” you think to yourself while reaching for a bottle of coconut water. Not so fast, sister. Sulfites are one of the most misunderstood components in wine, and contrary to what you might believe, they probably don’t have anything to do with your massive hangover. We talked to Orsi Szentkiraly, editor of the forthcoming book from National Geographic, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, to set the record straight about the role sulfites play in winemaking and whether or not they’re actually bad for you. We also chatted with Dr. Michael Roizen, author of What to Eat When Cookbook, about a more likely reason for your wine headache, and what to do to prevent it in the future. 

What Exactly Are Sulfites, And Why Are They In My Wine?

Sulfites are sulfur-based compounds that are commonly used as preservatives in a variety of different foods. However, they’re more notoriously known for the role they play in winemaking. Szentkiraly explained that sulfites have been used in the winemaking process for centuries as an antibacterial and antioxidative tool. “Because wine barrels are so porous, effective cleaners like sulfites are needed to sanitize them properly,” she said. Sulfites are also used to prevent oxidation of grapes. In simpler terms, “just like you would squeeze lemon juice over a sliced apple to prevent browning, sulfites help grapes maintain freshness and color,” Szentkiraly explained. These naturally occurring compounds have been an essential aspect of the winemaking process for centuries and continue to demonstrate their benefits in modern vineyards today. In fact, their antioxidative properties are part of the reason so many of the wines we love are available today. The surprising thing? Szentkiraly says that “sulfites exist in almost every bottle of wine, whether you happen to notice the label on the back of the bottle or not.”

Can Sulfites Affect How I Feel?

That depends! “Sulfites will only affect you if you have severe asthma or a preexisting sensitivity to them, and if you do have a genetic sensitivity, you’ll know about it before drinking a glass of wine,” Szentkiraly says. That’s because sulfites are used in a huge variety of foods, from dried apricots to frozen french fries, and ingesting those will likely aggravate you just as much or more than the wine will. If you do have a sensitivity, consuming sulfites would give you respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, trouble breathing and a possible asthma attack. It would NOT give you a headache. Therefore, even if you did have sensitivity to sulfites, the symptoms do not resemble those of a hangover. Thus, Szentkiraly says you cannot blame a wine headache on the existence of sulfites. “The worst thing in wine is alcohol,” she says, “not sulfites.”

The most surprising part? Szentkiraly notes that less than 1% of the population actually has a legitimate sensitivity to sulfites. Mind. Blown. 

If It’s Not The Sulfites, Why Do I Have A Headache?

If you’ve gotten to this point in the article, you probably realize that sulfites aren’t the reason for your headache. Let’s say it real loud once more for the people in the back: if, (and that’s a big if) sulfites make you feel anything at all, they certainly will not make you feel the symptoms of a hangover. But that’s not to say that other things in wine can’t exacerbate your heavy head, swollen sinuses, and stuffy nose. We spoke to Dr. Michael Roizen about the other components in wine that might contribute to a nasty morning after drinking. Dr. Roizen says “a more likely offender is the histamines in red wine, rather than the sulfites.” Histamines are an organic compound that are present in a variety of fermented products like sauerkraut and cheese, and are particularly prevalent in red wine. Roizen says that histamines affect a much larger number of people and can absolutely cause headaches and a stuffy nose. Unfortunately, he notes that the best way to prevent histamine headaches is to avoid the foods that bother you. Bummer! “Wine headaches are almost entirely due to alcohol and dehydration,” says Dr. Roizen. His hangover solution is one we know all too well and seem to forget all too easily: stopping dehydration in its tracks by following every glass of wine with a glass of water. 

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid of the “contains sulfites” label on the back of a wine bottle unless you have a legitimate preexisting condition. If you notice that a certain bottle of wine bothers you more than another, just pop it back on the shelf and follow Dr. Roizen’s advice: more water, less hangover. 

Images: Kelsey Knight / Unsplash