Hangover Science
Hangover Science

If you can't get rid of recurrent alcohol abuse, learn to deal with the consequences. People react differently to alcohol and hangovers.

It's time for the Christmas parties and, for some of us, a seemingly inevitable hangover. Is there anything we can do to prevent this from happening?

Most of us have found ourselves in a similar position at some point. The head is splitting, nausea, vomiting, possibly still incomprehensible disturbing feelings. The hangover is not a very pleasant picture, but over and over again, especially during the holidays, we can not help but abuse.

Although a hangover has long been considered a well-known ailment, its anatomy is not well known to science. Very little is known about the psychology, effects, prevention and treatment of alcohol-related hangovers. While tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles are published on the serious consequences of alcohol intoxication, only a few hundred studies are devoted to the effects of hangovers. These articles provide controversial data on a range of factors that determine how we react differently to alcohol and hangovers.

It often feels like there are no hard and fast rules for understanding when a hangover occurs. We may be using knowledge based on other people's stories about individual factors (such as gender and age) and prevention and treatment strategies (not mixing drinks, using hangover remedies) to understand our hangover. But is there data beyond the different kinds of stories told? Can we use certain behaviors to circle a hangover during this holiday period, or is our destiny predetermined by the individual characteristics of each of us?

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Scientifically speaking, understanding what factors lead to a hangover can help us determine the psychological and behavioral basis of a hangover, as well as how best to prevent it or even get rid of it. Current evidence, including the narratives of others, focuses on individual factors and specific techniques that can influence our hangover experience. In this article, I will focus on two of the most popular practical factors: age and the type of drink consumed.


Many of us would argue that our hangovers get more intense and longer lasting as we age. For example, I’m convinced that I’m recovering longer from a long party now that I’m in my 30s than in my college years, when I was 20. Confirming evidence of the impact of age on how we handle hangovers allows us to draw certain conclusions.

Comparisons between adult drinkers and teenage drinkers show that hangovers and alcohol withdrawal symptoms are less common in adolescents than in adults. In addition, significantly more animal data suggests that young rats are less sensitive to the effects of hangovers on their anxiety as well as their social behavior. Young rats experienced less anxiety and were more active in social contact during a hangover than adult rodents.

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Even disregarding the differences between rats and humans, it should be noted that such studies are based on comparisons between young and adult drinkers. The contrast that does exist does not necessarily reflect changes in alcohol consumption in an adult’s life (eg, going to university, having children, career changes).

Of particular interest are large-scale studies recently conducted in Denmark on young and older drinkers, which indicate that the tendency of the onset of a hangover after rampant alcohol consumption decreases over the years. The study authors suggest that the difference in hangovers between young people and older people may reflect differences in the types of excessive alcohol consumption.

The authors of the study emphasize that younger and older participants had the same weekly alcohol consumption patterns, while its intensity was not taken into account. Therefore, it is possible that older people may consume fewer drinks during each single rampant binge than younger people, and as a result, they may have fewer hangovers and in a milder form.

Types of alcoholic drinks

Another commonly discussed factor regarding hangovers indicates that drinking a certain type of alcohol or limiting your choice to only one of them can prevent or reduce the negative consequences of a long meeting in a bar. One of the reasons for the appearance of different degrees of hangover after drinking different alcoholic beverages is the number of related compounds (congeners) in each particular drink.

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Related compounds are biological compounds that can be formed during alcohol fermentation or added during alcohol production. Some studies indicate that related compounds contribute to our intoxication and also increase the likelihood of a hangover.

For example, alcoholic beverages with fewer related compounds and higher ethanol content (such as gin and vodka) were found to cause less hangover than higher related beverages such as brandy or red wine. However, this study of related compounds in alcoholic beverages dates back to the 1970s. Have we gone further today in choosing the “perfect” drink to ease the hangover that occurs?

Research on related compounds has slowed significantly since the 1970s, but in recent years they have been re-drawn by researchers studying their effects on the neurocognitive effects of hangovers. A 2010 study of 95 heavy drinkers with a placebo control group to investigate the difference in exposure to vodka and Bourbon whiskey confirmed the findings in the 1970s.

Participants reported a more intense hangover after drinking Bourbon whiskey (high in related compounds) than after vodka (low in related compounds). However, these two drinks did not differ from each other in their effects on sleep, time sense, motor abilities, memory or attention the next day after drinking them. Therefore, we can conclude that drinking different alcoholic beverages can affect the hangover we feel the next day (how terrible we feel), but it will not necessarily affect our usual activities such as driving, reading or concentration of attention in general.

Advice to a young man
Advice to a young man


The reality is that we scientists know very little about the nature of alcohol-induced hangovers. It is this area of research that is clearly lacking in large-scale human experimentation. So what advice can I give to those affected by a terrible Christmas hangover?

Unfortunately, a systematic review published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 bodes badly for us. A review of eight randomly selected and controlled cases showed that there is no conclusive evidence that there is any traditional or complementary hangover prevention or treatment. This review concludes that the most effective way to avoid a hangover is to consume alcohol in moderation or to avoid alcohol altogether.

With regard to attempts to predict the onset of a hangover, then, apparently, there are no special achievements in this area yet, … alas! There is some hope, however, that as alcohol scientists there is still a lot to learn about hangovers, I’ll be very happy to share what we can find.

Sally Adams, PhD, is a lecturer in health psychology at the University of Bath. She studies cognitive and behavioral mechanisms under the influence of alcohol and tobacco.

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