Nov. 11, 2021 — Blackout Wednesday, the unfortunate nickname for Thanksgiving eve, is the busiest bar night of the year. With college students home for the holidays and distant friends and family coming together for a long weekend, the appeal of socializing sometimes overpowers the nightmares of a hangover, especially when you sleep it off with midday turkey-induced naps.
But when the consequences set in, many curse themselves and the splitting headaches they acquired. Well, there is a reason why you experience hangovers, and it’s not far from science and genetics.
In fact, “about 50% of the differences between people and how they get hangovers is driven by genetics,” says Puya Yazdi, MD, chief science officer of SelfDecode, a company that uses DNA and lab tests to offer personalized health care recommendations.
The Science and Genetics Behind Hangovers
“Hangovers are more complex than you may think. Genetics can have an impact on how you experience a hangover, and so can many other factors,” says Serena Poon, a community health nurse and reiki master in Los Angeles.
Thanks to these variations in genes, some people just deal with alcohol better and have less severe hangovers than others.
In fact, “a genetic variation that affects the way alcohol is metabolized may make some people have less severe hangovers than others,” says Grace Yoon, an herbalist in New York City and South Korea.
Yoon, founder of Qi Alchemy, an herb and Eastern medicine marketplace, says, “drinking on an empty stomach, mixing alcohol with other drugs, and not sleeping well after drinking” could also increase your chances of getting a horrible hangover.
There are a few genes that are responsible for how people experience hangovers: CYP2E1, ADH1B, and ALDH2.
The CYP2E1 gene codes for the enzyme that breaks down alcohol compounds. When there is a slight change in its structure, people clear alcohol out of their systems faster.
Variants in the ADH1B gene make the enzyme work faster. Generally this gene encodes part of the ADH enzyme, which breaks down alcohol in the liver.
ALDH2 normally encodes part of the ALDH enzyme, which helps clear things out of your system. Variants make the enzyme less effective, causing toxins to remain in your system longer.
Interestingly, some people are allergic to alcohol because they don’t have the genes to digest it.
“Some Asians have genetic variants that impairs their ability to break down alcohol. Sometimes they display extreme reactions like flushing, vomiting, and an exhilarated heartbeat, just after a few drinks,” Yazdi says.
Besides these changes in genes, your inflammatory response can affect your hangover. “The more you drink alcohol, the more severe these inflammatory responses are and the worse your hangover symptoms,” he says.
The Darker the Drink, the Worse the Hangover
“Science figured out that this old wives’ tale, ‘the darker the drink, the worse the hangover,’ turned out to be true,” says Yazdi.
“These darker drinks contain a substance called congeners, which gives alcohol its flavor. This is why people say light drinks like vodka and gin are flavourless while brandy and whisky have more flavor.”
“Darker liquors, such as rum and whiskey, contain more congeners than lighter liquors. When your body metabolizes these congeners, the process can create toxic substances that can increase the severity of your hangover,” says Poon.
Some examples of these congeners include “methanol and tannins, which are chemicals from the fermentation process that gives alcoholic drinks their distinctive flavor.These darker drinks contain higher concentrations of congeners, which will definitely cause more severe hangovers,” says Yoon.
What Your Age Has to Do With Hangovers
“Although we all feel as we get older, hangovers get worse, scientifically, it may not be true,” says Yazdi. “What happens is your tolerance for alcohol may have reduced because you don’t consume alcohol as much as you did when you were much younger.”
Basically, you have more energy and stamina when you’re younger than when you get older, which also includes the vibe to take alcohol.
Also, Yoon points out, “your liver may become slower to metabolize alcohol as you age, prolonging the effects of a hangover.”
However, a study that Poon quotes says that as you get older, your pain sensitivity decreases, hence you may not feel the effects of hangovers compared to your younger self.
Home Remedies and How to Avoid Hangovers
“The best way to avoid a hangover is to moderate alcohol consumption and hydrate as much as possible while you’re drinking. Avoid sugary drinks as they can disrupt your blood sugar and may decrease the amount of sleep you get,” says Poon.
“Experts usually recommend switching to water 3 to 4 hours before going to bed to allow for restful sleep. Your body heals while you sleep, and it can use extra rest while it is working to process and eliminate alcohol from your system.”
Yoon advises us to use red ginseng to reduce inflammation when you drink alcohol.
“Red ginseng has beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” she says. “In Korea, red ginseng has been used as a traditional medicinal plant for reducing inflammation, which helps with hangovers.”
Alcohol dehydrates your body and can cause low blood sugar levels.
Yoon says that “red ginseng extract in particular has short-term eﬀects on ethanol metabolism and helps to reduce blood ethanol concentration, inhibiting inflammation and increasing antioxidant capacity in cells. It also helps improve blood sugar levels.”
In cases where you don’t want to drink alcohol at all, Yoon advises people try an alternative fermented tea drink called kombucha, which has very low alcohol content and beneficial probiotics.