Had one too many mornings when you tell yourself you're never going to drink another vodka soda again? Here's what's happening.
When it comes to smart drinking, you totally know the drill: Water between cocktails and no sipping on an empty stomach. So why can't you seem to skip the next-day hangover, ever—even if you follow the rules?
Hangovers (or veisalgia, if you want to get all medical) are caused by many different factors, including your body size (the bigger the person, the more water available to dilute the alcohol and its effects) and the quality of the liquor you're drinking, says Zachary Abbott Ph.D., CEO and founder of ZBiotics. (You guessed it. Top-shelf clear liquor such as vodka or silver tequila won't do as much damage as, say, a certain cinnamon-flavored whiskey.)
But the cold-hard truth is that some people are just biologically better able to handle alcohol. If you were to go shot-for-shot with a friend similar to you on all counts (body size, liquor quality, water intake), you still might hate her the next morning when she's ready for brunch and you're ready to swear off drinking for life, says Abbott. Here's why life's not always fair when it comes to hangovers:
The body tackles alcohol with a two-step process. First by breaking it down into acetaldehyde—a super toxic, naturally forming relative of formaldehyde. Then, acetaldehyde gets turned into the relatively harmless combo of acetate and water. Abbott says that first step is responsible for getting you drunk and, depending on how much acetaldehyde sits in your system and for how long, it's also responsible for making you feel like crap. (Pounding head? Here's What to Eat, Drink, and Do to Cure a Hangover.)
While your liver gets the credit for churning out enzymes that do the heavy lifting in this process, it's actually a team effort. All the cells in your body, including the bazillions of good bacteria—a.k.a. your microbiome—pitch in to produce the enzymes that help you metabolize alcohol and determine the amount of acetaldehyde that's still accumulating.
"Some people are just naturally able to produce more or better quality of this enzyme," he says. "It's not yet fully understood why. These are just human differences." Studies say there is a significant Asian population, who, due to a genetic mutation, can't produce the enzymes to break down acetaldehyde, like, at all—which results in wicked hangovers often along with a flushed, red face.
Abbott points out that individuals have completely unique microbiomes, which are constantly evolving based on lifestyle factors such as activity level, diet, and sleep patterns. And this could be why you and your friend went toe-to-toe last night and only one of you is regretful the next day. (When you failed to prevent that awful next-day feeling, hop on this One-Day Cleanse Hangover Cure.)
OK, so can you make more enzymes or make those you already have work harder? Unfortunately, there's no way to do that—yet. "But it's a lot easier to prevent hangovers than to deal with them the next morning," says Jason Burke, M.D., an anesthesiologist and founder of Hangover Heaven, a Las Vegas-based mobile clinic that uses IV hydration and vitamin therapy to treat hangovers. He suggests prepping for a big night out similar to how you might prep for big workouts, which means loading up on water, sleep, and vitamin and antioxidant supplements.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that a hangover is just dehydration, but that's far from the truth," says Burke. "You also have inflammation and free radicals, destructive particles that harm cells and DNA, wreaking havoc." One study found that antioxidants found in the milk thistle plant (available to you in supplement form) could act as a shield against the damaging effects of free radicals produced from alcohol consumption in rats. And Burke says he's seen similar affects from antioxidants (coupled with other remedies) in people, too.
"Similar to finding out what kind of liquor you prefer, you may need to experiment to find what vitamins or supplements work for you," he says. "But there's often something that will make the next day a little more pleasant." At the very least, you can try popping a couple vitamin B supplements, which have been shown to help hangovers, before you head out for the night.
"This is an imprecise field," says Abbott, "but we're understanding more and more, and scientists are working on a cure." A cure for hangovers? We'll drink to that!