Why Do Hangovers Get Worse As You Get Older?
“I just can’t drink like I used to” is a common refrain among people pushing 30 and beyond. This is roughly the age when it starts getting harder to bounce back from a night of partying, and unfortunately, it keeps getting harder from there on out.
Even if you were the keg flip king or queen in college, consuming the same amount of beer at 29 that you consumed at 21 will likely have you guzzling Gatorade in bed the next day. It’s true that hangovers tend to worsen with age, and it’s not just because you have a lower alcohol tolerance from going out less. Age affects your body in various ways, and the way you process alcohol is one of them.
Because your body interprets alcohol as poison, your liver steps in to convert it into different chemicals that are easier to break down and eliminate from your body. As you get older, though, your liver produces less of the enzymes and antioxidants that help metabolize alcohol, according to a study from South Korea. One of these enzymes—called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)— has been called the “primary defense” against alcohol. It kicks off the multi-step process of alcohol metabolization by turning the beer or booze—or whatever you imbibed—into a chemical compound called acetaldehyde. Ironically, this substance is even more toxic than your tipple of choice, and a build-up of acetaldehyde can cause nausea, palpitations, and face flushing. It usually isn’t left in this state for long, though.
Another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) helps convert the bad toxin into a new substance called acetate, which is a little like vinegar. Lastly, it’s converted into carbon dioxide or water and expelled from your body. You’ve probably heard the one-drink-per-hour recommendation, which is roughly how long it takes for your liver to complete this whole process.
So what does this mean for occasional drinkers whose mid-20s have come and gone? To summarize: As your liver enzymes diminish with age, your body becomes less efficient at metabolizing alcohol. The alcohol lingers longer in your body, leading to prolonged hangover symptoms like headaches and nausea.
This phenomenon can also partly be explained by the fact that our bodies tend to lose muscle and water over time. People with more body fat don’t break down alcohol as well, and less water in your body means that the booze stays concentrated in your system longer, The Cut reports. This is one of the reasons why women, who tend to have a higher body fat percentage than men, often suffer worse hangovers than their male counterparts. (Additionally, women have fewer ADH enzymes.)
More depressingly, as you get older, your immune system deteriorates through a process called immunosenescence. This means that recovering from anything—hangovers included—is more challenging with age. "When we get older, our whole recovery process for everything we do is harder, longer, and slower," gastroenterologist Mark Welton told Men’s Health.
This may seem like a buzzkill, but we're not telling you to put down the pint. However, if you're going to drink, just be aware of your body’s limitations. Shots of cotton candy-flavored vodka were a bad idea in college, and they’re an especially bad idea now. Trust us.
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