Why Hangovers Are So Much Worse in Your 30s Than in Your 20s

This is never a good look — or feeling. (Photo: Offset)

Hangovers are rough no matter how you slice it — but in our 20s, many of us could throw back multiple rounds of tequila shots, pop a couple of Advil the next day, and be relatively good to go. When you reach the big 3-0, just one too many glasses of wine (sometimes just one!) can leave you wanting to stay in bed and bleary-eyed the morning after. What gives?

Sadly, it’s simple. The older you get, the more your stamina and overall bodily function declines. “As you age, your ability to adapt to base stimuli goes down — for example, someone in their 30s probably won’t have the same muscular strength, circulatory response, and flexibility for physical activity as they did in their 20s,” says Marc Leavey, MD, a primary-care specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “In a similar vein, older people don’t have as much endurance to weather the toll drinking takes on their body. Because you have better physiological capacity when you’re younger, you can get away with more.”

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When it comes to booze, one of the main organs that suffer with age is your liver — particularly for people who like to get their happy hour on. “If you regularly consume more than one drink a day, you can damage your liver cells, eventually leading to fatty liver or cirrhosis,” says Sanford Vieder, DO, medical director and founder of Lakes Urgent Care clinics in Michigan. “And since the liver is responsible for processing toxins like alcohol, if it isn’t working efficiently, the effects of a hangover will be significant.”

The liver contains enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenase, which break down alcohol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. Then another enzyme (acetaldehyde dehydrogenase) works together with the antioxidant glutathione to metabolize the acetaldehyde. Next, they turn it into a neutral substance, acetate, which your body discards through urine and bowel movements. Drinking in excess of one beverage per hour overwhelms your stores of alcohol dehydrogenase and glutathione, and the poisonous acetaldehyde will flood your bloodstream, triggering headaches, vomiting, and many of the classic hangover side effects.

Not only do years of knocking back drinks damage your liver cells, so the organ isn’t able to operate at its peak, but your supply of glutathione decreases with age, further hindering your ability to detoxify alcohol. All of that adds up to deadly hangovers.

“In addition, older people are more likely to have medical conditions that can make it harder to recover from the effects of alcohol, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, or obesity,” Leavey says. “As a result, the challenge of handling a night of drinking is that much more difficult.”

So when you’re out for cocktails in your 30s, take extra precautions to buffer yourself from the toll it can take. One of the best things you can do is to eat while drinking — and luckily, at your age you probably gravitate more toward elegant dinners out with a bottle of cabernet, rather than pounding a six-pack at a sports bar. “You’ll drink less in quantity if you eat at the same time,” Leavey says. “And you will consume alcohol more slowly because you’re drinking over the course of the meal, which gives your liver a better chance to keep up with the pace of metabolizing it.”

A few key items to look for on the menu: “Eggs contain cysteine, an amino acid that aids in the production of glutathione,” Vieder says. “And bitter leafy greens, like kale or chard, stimulate the production of bile, which binds acetaldehyde and gets rid of it.”

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