You’re only as old as you feel? Tell that to tequila.
To get to the bottom of this miserable and unfair phenomenon, BuzzFeed Life talked to neurobiologist George Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He says there are a few possible reasons for this adult-onset hangover hell.
“As you get older, the enzymes you use to metabolize alcohol don’t work as well,” Koob says. This means that a toxic metabolite from alcohol, called acetaldehyde, sticks around in your system longer without being broken down. “That can contribute to the lousy feeling,” he says.
As people get older, they tend to gain weight, Koob says — and much of that weight comes in the form of increased body fat. The higher your body fat percentage, the lower your body-water ratio…which leads to a higher blood alcohol content (BAC), even with the same amount of alcohol, Koob says.
This may seem a bit counterintuitive, because typically the heavier you are, the higher your alcohol tolerance. But we’re not talking about weight here specifically — we’re talking about body fat percentage. Body fat percentage is one of the reasons why women typically respond more intensely to alcohol than men do, Koob says — on average, women tend to have higher body fat percentages. Even if a woman and a man both weighed 150 pounds, for instance, the person with greater body fat percentage would have a slightly higher BAC after the same number of drinks.
“The biggest effect probably has to do what happens to your brain,” Koob says. He says that in your early twenties, your brain has a highly developed “reward system,” and a not-very-developed “stress system.” That means that your young-person brain gives you awesome and positive feedback when you do adventurous and fun things (like, yes, getting DRUNJJJ), but it doesn’t punish you (with hangovers and miserable body feels) so much after the fact — that “stress system” hasn’t fully developed yet.
But then, sometime in your mid-twenties, your prefrontal cortex finishes developing. With it comes all sorts of buzzkill attributes, like maturity, and the ability to make rational and appropriate decisions. YAWN.
As your brain develops, Koob says, the rewards become less rewarding, and the “everything hurts” part of the stress system begins to kick into high gear. “As you get into your mid-twenties and thirties […] you lose your reward function and you gain the stress function if you drink too much and overindulge,” he says. OK, GREAT.
Well, nothing can stop the inevitable onward march toward death, my friend. But if you’re just looking to experience somewhat more tolerable hangovers, Koob has this to say: “The best solution is not to get one in the first place.”
On a slightly more helpful note: “Drink plenty of water when you’re enjoying yourself, and don’t go to excess.” Also pay attention to what your body responds to. Certain alcoholic drinks have things called congeners in them (basically, chemicals that aren’t the alcohol), and some research shows that drinks with congeners in them can result in worse hangovers than when you drink just pure alcohol. Drinks with congeners can include some wines, bourbon, cognac, and other things.
Basically: If you notice that your red wine hangovers are the WOOORST but your vodka soda hangovers are a little less obscene… maybe lay off the red wine.
Or not at all, if that’s what it takes. Check out the NIAAA’s website Rethinking Drinking to learn what counts as a drink, if your drinking pattern is risky, strategies for cutting down, and more.