The first thing you wonder after waking up after a Rough Night-style evening: Uh, how long does a hangover last again? (And why did I drink last night?!)
Typically, hangovers only last the morning (like, until you finally get around to eating breakfast)—at most 24 hours. But sometimes, those after-effects of a night of drinking stick around way past their welcome—like the dreaded two-day hangover which makes you realize, oh yeah, you're not in college anymore.
Just wondering...why are hangovers even a thing?
“Hangovers are somewhat poorly understood from a medical standpoint,” says Fred Goggans, MD, the medical director of McLean Hospital’s McLean Borden Cottage in Camden, Maine. For the most part, the symptoms are considered a form of short-term withdrawal and tend to be time-limited.
Your liver also has to work overtime to process alcohol. "The liver needs to first break down alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is toxic," says Anne Boris, RD, LDN, of Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital. "Then, it breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate, which is nontoxic." If a person drinks too much for their body, or if their liver isn't working efficiently, the body can't turn acetaldehyde into acetate quick enough—that's where a hangover comes into play.
Dr. Goggans also says that the strength and length of your hangover goes hand in hand with the amount of alcohol you had. Beyond that? “There are also some other factors that are speculated to influence the intensity and duration of a hangover,” he says.
How does alcohol affect the body, exactly?
“Drinking too much or binge drinking on a single occasion or over time can take a serious toll on your health,” says Valerie Agyeman, RD, a dietitian at Flourish Heights, who specializes in women's health. These are a few specific ways in which alcohol can impact different parts of your body.
Neurological function. Alcohol can reduce communication between your brain and your body. This makes coordination more difficult, and you may have a hard time with things like balance, memory recollection, and decision making.
Muscle pain. “Drinking alcohol may lead to muscle weakness and cramping,” says Agyeman.
Metabolism issues. “Drinking can damage the tissues in your digestive tract and prevent your intestines from digesting food and absorbing nutrients and vitamins. As a result, malnutrition may occur all of which may affect metabolism,” says Agyeman.
Reduced immunity. Drinking heavily (and due to the way drinking alcohol may interfere with your sleep) may reduce your body’s immunity, research suggests. This makes it more difficult for your body to fight off invading germs and viruses.
How much alcohol do you have to drink to feel hangover symptoms?
How much an individual can drink before they'll get hangover symptoms relies entirely on their own body and metabolism, according to Seattle-based registered dietitian Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of ChampagneNutrition.
“Some people's liver enzymes are able to detox alcohol from the body more quickly, so they'll be able to drink more. Others have impaired alcohol metabolism, often due to genetic factors, and they could get a hangover from a half-glass of wine or beer,” says Hultin. “This will also vary sometimes by sex because typically (though not always) women have lower levels of that liver enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase than men.”
To make the answer even more complex, bodyweight and size also make a difference in how you metabolize alcohol. "So there are many factors—so many, in fact, that you'll have to pay close attention to what works for your own body," notes Hultin.
How long should a hangover last in general?
Research shows that hangovers generally last for about 14 to 23 hours, with some extending up to about the 72-hour mark. But on average, a hangover should end about 12 hours after stopping drinking.
So why do some hangovers last an appropriate amount of time and others...don't? Here are eight possible reasons why.
1. You didn't drink enough water.
“Alcohol has a diuretic effect—heavy drinking may maximize that,” says Vincent Pedre, MD, author of Happy Gut. Drinking can dehydrate you—even more so if you’re vomiting or suffering from diarrhea. And this, on top of mineral imbalances (from the influx of booze and loss of fluids and electrolytes), can slow how fast your body detoxifies itself, he explains.
Ease the pain by staying hydrated—alternating every glass of booze with a glass of water, he says—and make sure to keep drinking water even when you really don't feel like it the next day.
2. You had a rough night's sleep.
You know that a good sleep can help you feel your best in the a.m. But you might not realize that while a few glasses of wine could put you to sleep, vino certainly won’t help you get your deepest snooze on. “People tend to have interrupted sleep following a drinking episode,” says Dr. Goggans.
And it all comes full circle: The more you drink, the worse you sleep, and then, the worse you feel the day after (and sometimes the day after that).
3. You drank a darker booze.
Meet congeners—they’re flavoring agents or byproducts of fermentation in booze, and they are linked to hangovers, says Dr. Goggans. “It seems like the congeners in the darker liquors and drinks are associated with a longer hangover,” he says.
Stay clear to keep yourself in the clear: Liquors linked to worse next-day pain include whiskey, rum, red wine, and brandy, says Dr. Goggans; those less likely to cause a hangover: white wine, vodka, and gin.
4. You're getting older (sorry, it's true).
If you’re 21, your ability to detoxify alcohol is different than if you’re 40 (or even 28), says Dr. Pedre. “As we get older, our cells age, and we might not be able to process toxins as we did when we were younger,” he says. So while three drinks was fine back in the dorms sophomore year, that amount may feel like double that 10 years later.
5. You have a sensitivity, but don't realize it.
Lots of people have sensitivities to certain food or chemicals they don't even know about. Beer, for example, is made with barley and hops (a.k.a., gluten); mixers can be super high in sugar; wine can have sulfites—all of these are things you can be intolerant to, says Dr. Goggans, which can really amp up your hangover (yes, even if you only have one glass).
6. You drank on an empty stomach.
Alcohol can irritate the lining of your stomach, which can make any hangover-induced nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting worse, says Boris.
Booze can also affect your blood sugar, says Chaun Cox, MD, family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health Systems. "Alcohol is a big surge of calories and simple sugars, it can spike your blood sugar then make it fall," he says, adding that not having food in your stomach before drinking can make those levels spike even more drastically.
The solution? Eating a little bit of something relatively hearty (think: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a garden salad) before drinking to slow alcohol's absorption.
7. You have your period.
Your body's already under a little bit of strain during your period, and since alcohol can dehydrate you, it can deplete your energy even more on your period, says Dr. Cox.
8. You're on medication.
Many medications are metabolized (meaning broken down) by the liver and kidneys—the same organs your body uses to metabolize alcohol, which can leave those two organs working overtime, and possibly not performing their best.
"Pain relievers like acetaminophen, antidepressants, cholesterol medication, and blood pressure medications are ones you want to be especially careful with," says Dr. Cox.
Antibiotics can also affect how your body processes alcohol, says Dr. Cox. While it's not an issue with all antibiotics, some can cause nausea, liver damage, and high blood pressure when combined with alcohol, says Cox—so it's best to check with your doctor to know if your specific medication interacts with booze.
Are there any legit quick and effective hangover treatments?
Unfortunately, because experts don't fully understand hangovers and what causes them just yet, it's pretty tough to develop hangover cures. All of those so-called hangover pills and drinks typically have electrolytes and vitamins and minerals that may help replenish nutrients you weren't consuming while you drank, while also helping to hydrate you. But they are not proven hangover cures. (Sorry!)
Recently, research published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that people who took the supplement L-cysteine after three hours of drinking alcohol reported lower levels of nausea, headaches, and anxiety the next morning compared to those who took a placebo. But much more research needs to be done to verify any supplement or intervention as a legit hangover cure.
Truth be told, these three tips are really the only surefire ways to feel at least a little less miz.
Eat breakfast. “Eating a good hearty and filling breakfast can help maintain your blood sugar levels, provide important vitamins and minerals, and reduce the symptoms of a hangover,” says Agyeman. Noted.
Rest up. Alcohol consumption may interfere with sleep, and a lack of sound sleep can contribute to hangover symptoms such as fatigue, irritability and headaches. "Getting rest is super important if you're experiencing a hangover," says Agyeman. Permission to nap all day, granted.
Drink water. “Drinking alcohol can cause dehydration, which may make some hangover symptoms worse," says Agyeman. "Staying hydrated with fluids may reduce hangover symptoms like thirst, fatigue, headache, and dizziness."
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