Picture this: It’s Saturday morning and you’re 21 years old. You spent Friday night with friends and the drinks flowed freely. You should have a hangover, but instead you’re ready to take on the day with a clear head and tons of energy.
Now picture this: You're 32. It’s another Saturday morning after a long, fun night of drinks and dancing. And you feel awful — like a construction worker is jackhammering your skull. Ready to take on the day? Ha! You aren’t getting out of bed.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
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The problem is that no one can quite figure out why hangovers get worse with age.
"Many parameters have been examined, including blood chemistries, minerals, glucose, hormones, inflammatory factors...and nothing has really popped up," Dr. Willenbring told Self. Willenbring led the division of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism from 2004 to 2009. He was also responsible for supervising research on alcohol use disorder at U.S. universities.
"The relationship between the amount and frequency of drinking [and hangovers] isn’t even clear."
That said, there are a few theories as to why it hangovers get worse with age.
Possible reasons why hangovers get worse with age
First, a little science lesson: When you drink alcohol, about 20 percent gets absorbed in the stomach and 80 percent goes on to the small intestine, where its absorbed into your bloodstream.
Your liver then works to break down — or metabolize — the alcohol with liver enzymes. These liver enzymes help break down the alcohol molecules down to water and carbon dioxide, which is then eliminated from the body.
The whole process takes about an hour for every serving of alcohol you drink.
It’s often theorized that younger bodies are better equipped to do this because liver enzymes decrease as we age — and the longer it stays in the body, the more likely hangover symptoms (like headaches and nausea) are to show up.
Another possible reason hangovers get worse with age? Research suggests that our immune systems gradually weaken as we age, meaning that we don’t heal quite as fast as we did as youngsters.
Am I actually hungover from 4 glasses of wine??? I hate being old— Sophia 🦄 (@mommasophs) February 5, 2018
"Alcohol is a toxin and your body sees it as a threat when its consumed," John Mansour, pharmacist and co-founder of the pre-drinking supplement drink B4, tells Metro. "Drinking puts your body into overdrive as it tries to flush out the toxin. When you’re younger, your body — and liver — are less damaged and have a quicker rebound rate."
Increased body weight can also be a factor. "Muscle helps to process alcohol, whereas fat stores it, increasing your blood alcohol concentration," said Mansour. "Muscle tissue is about 75 percent water while fat is only 10 percent. Alcohol in water is absorbed quicker, meaning higher fat percentages leads to a higher risk of dehydration which contributes to hangovers."
Then there’s the idea that our lifestyles change (meaning, they get busier) as we get older, so we don’t have the time to lounge around like we did in our younger years. Also, tolerance for alcohol goes down because older adults often don't drink as much.
"When you’re drinking less frequently than when you did when you were younger, your body doesn’t know to store the essentials that it needs and is less prepared for big nights," said Mansour. "The bodies of young adults who are drinking regularly prepares and adjusts in order to store more of the minerals, vitamins and what else it needs to process alcohol."
Unpopular opinion: No, hangovers don’t get worse with age
Dr. Michael Mulick, DO, a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist, tells Metro that the research shows younger people actually experience worse hangovers. Researchers analyzed data from 274 participants and found that the older drinkers were the stronger ones when it comes to hangovers.
"There was no difference between the severity of hangovers for men vs. women," Mulick, who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Metro. Here’s the key: "The hangovers were worse with higher amounts of alcohol consumed."
Another study published in 2013 looked at data from over 50,000 men and women between 18 and 94 and found that hangovers are less likely as time goes on.
And it could be that you simply just forgot about how bad those hangovers — and the head-in-the-toilet vomitting — were back in your teens and 20s.