Holiday Blues

Hangover science: 3 things to know before indulging in drinking

How to prepare yourself for a (virtual) holiday party hangover.


The pandemic hasn’t slowed down drinking, except among some college students. In September, Nielsen’s market data showed that online alcohol sales boomed in the wake of Covid-19. Meanwhile, Drizzly, a home-delivery service for alcohol, saw increases in demand by about 350 percent in 2020.

The pandemic may be the immediate end of the in-person holiday party, but it’s not the end of the hangover.

There's no way to completely skip over a hangover, save for limiting your drinks or not drinking at all. That’s mostly because scientists still don’t fully understand why they even happen, explains Sally Adams, a professor at the University of Bath. Adams studies the psychopharmacology of alcohol.

One competing idea, she explains, is that hangovers are the result of the body attempting to break down booze into water, which is eventually expelled. As that happens, alcohol transforms into a substance called acetaldehyde – which is is about 10 to 30 times as toxic as alcohol.

“We think that [acetaldehyde] might underlie some of those really interesting symptoms like throwing up or having your heart race and you're sweating,” Adams tells Inverse.

Really interesting, indeed. Still, the rest of the hangover picture is a mystery likely caused by a variety of factors. Scientists have proposed that hangovers are signs of an immune system reaction, for instance. But that’s complicated by the fact that drinking disrupts our sleep patterns and can lead to dehydration the next day. It’s difficult to pinpoint the central cause of the hangover, given the number alcohol does on the body.

Avoiding alcohol is the only way to entirely combat hangovers. However, we can attack hangover symptoms one by one by making choices the night before that blunt the next day’s agony. These choices hinge on three components:

  1. Your patterns of drinking.
  2. What you drink.
  3. What and when you eat.

In-person holiday parties may not be happening, but alcohol sales have soared in 2020.

Filippo Bacci/Getty Images

Consider what you drink normally – In 2020, a team of scientists appropriately called the Hangover Research Group convened to discuss a critical point: How much do you have to drink to actually get a hangover?

Earlier, in 2010, the answer the group arrived at involve specific parameters: Once someone reaches a blood alcohol level of 0.11, they can expect to feel pain in the morning. In action, that means downing six drinks in under two hours.

But in 2020, the Hangover Research Group argued it’s time to retire that number. When the team dug deeper into several past studies data, they found that plenty of non-college students tend to have hangovers if they have blood alcohol levels below that amount.

The percentage of college students reporting hangovers according to blood alcohol level. The Hangover Research Group reanalyzed data on 2,822 students and found that many still report hangovers at lower blood alcohol levels.

For instance, a study on 307 men in Greece analyzed the hangovers of men who intended to do a nine-mile hike and drank the night before. In turn, 176 of the men had moderate hangovers after drinking that night and consequently were more exhausted post-hike. But the estimated blood alcohol levels of the men in the hangover group was just .03.

The study's authors suggested these hangovers may have occurred because the men simply drank more than usual, even if it wasn't a huge amount compared to studies measuring how much college students drink. The men in the study group typically only drank about 5.9 drinks per week, equating to less than one drink per day, but they had about three drinks on average the night before their hangovers.

This suggests that any time you’re breaking your normal drinking pattern, like consuming “two or three times as much while on holiday” you may be risking a hangover, the Hangover Research Group argues. Adams is inclined to agree.

“The more you drink, the more likely you are to experience a hangover,” she cautions. A good measure is to notice how much you’re deviating from your normal pattern.

The role of drink choice – Aside from the pure amount of alcohol consumed, there are some ways to play with the marginal pain of a hangover. One promising modification can be drink choice.

That’s according to a 2009 study conducted by scientists at Brown University, conducted on 95 college students. The students were given either vodka, bourbon, or tonic water mixed with Coke. The students drank until they had a blood alcohol level of about 0.10; scientists observed their hangovers the next day.

Hangover severity was worse for the students in the bourbon group compared to the vodka group. The scientists say this was likely due to the presence of congeners, complex organic molecules imparted during the fermentation process.

“There are more congeners in dark drinks, such as red wine, or bourbon, and there are less of them in light color drinks, such as gin and vodka,” Adams explains.

Importantly, the congeners didn’t affect other tasks the students performed the next day – both alcohol groups were two percent slower on tasks performed the next day. All it did was play a small role in making them feel even worse.

Use food to your advantage — Drinking itself can set off a cycle of eating, but eating before drinking may help limit the damage of a hangover. The adage that “lining your stomach” may help isn't far off, Adams says.

"I think that can definitely help to make sure that you have eaten something."

That's true in part because drinking on an empty stomach can irritate the stomach lining when it collides with stomach acid, and even speed up the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. On the flip side, there’s evidence having food in your stomach can slow down the absorption of alcohol and impact blood alcohol levels.

Several studies suggest the presence of food in the stomach can affect how fast alcohol enters the blood. A 1994 study conducted in Sweden, for example, found that eating breakfast before drinking (as opposed to drinking while fasted) lowered the peak blood alcohol level reached while drinking and limited how drunk participants felt.

“I think that can definitely help to make sure that you have eaten something,” she says.

The takeaway — While scientists hope to develop a hangover cure, the bottom line, for now, is that hangover cures don’t tend to work. Doing things the next day, like trying to recover from sleep loss, or drinking water to soothe dehydration can help address the symptoms, but the actual hangover will remain.

“It's difficult to find a cure or a treatment when we don't fully understand all of the mechanisms are at play,” Adams says.

The closer we get to understanding a hangover, the closer we’ll get to a legitimate cure. For now, easing some symptoms and suffering through others is the best we can do.

Related Tags