In college, we'd stay out until 2 a.m. and wake up for an 8 a.m. lecture with hardly a headache. Now, a few drinks the night before plus an early wake-up call is a recipe for cotton-mouthed, head-pounding disaster.
No, you're not just imagining it: Mornings after are getting worse as you get older. The culprit (besides too much tequila): your slowing metabolism, the source of most age-related tricks and fun.
Breaking It Down
There's a reason you always felt pretty great in college—biologically, we're operating at peak capacity, says Constance Scharff, Ph.D., director of addiction research at Cliffside Malibu, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in California. We can treat our bodies as less than a temple and bounce back pretty quickly.
But as we get older, our bodies become less and less efficient, Scharff says. Your metabolism plays a big role in working alcohol through your liver, and, based on your DNA and diet, it starts slowing down over time. So while your liver may have been able to clear alcohol's byproducts out of your system in an hour or two in your early 20s, as you age, it takes more and more time (how long exactly depends on the individual).
The science behind hangovers is still pretty hazy, Scharff says, but it comes down to our mitochondria easing up as we age. Essentially, the fewer "oxidative enzymes" you have (which mitochondria use to get rid of acetaldehyde and acetate, the toxins alcohol deposits in your blood), the more you're going to feel that hangover, says Michael Oshinksy, Ph.D., program director of Pain and Migraine at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and author of a 2010 study on hangover headaches. Acetate causes alcohol hangover headache in rats. Maxwell CR, Spangenberg RJ, Hoek JB. PloS one, 2010, Dec.;5(12):1932-6203. And people have less of those key enzymes as they age, Scharff says—lessening the liver's ability to handle what you're giving it. Effect of betaine administration on metabolism of hepatic glutathione in rats. Kim SK, Kim SY, Kim YC. Archives of pharmacal research, 1999, Feb.;21(6):0253-6269.
The Drink Disconnect
As Joey Tribbiani discovered, getting older happens to all of us. But another factor that could be making the morning after even worse is not feeling the effects of alcohol as much the night of, Scharff says. Most people gain weight as they get older (thanks again, metabolism), which means they probably don't feel the effects of one drink as much, because the alcohol is spread across a greater body mass, Scharff says.
Drink a few more beers or glasses of wine, and you'll start to feel it—but the problem is, your liver hasn't caught up, Scharff says. If anything, it's slowed down (see above). "Now you’ve drunk much more than you intended, and there's a delay in the metabolization. And now you get a more brutal hangover."
The facts are grim, and alcohol-induced dehydration makes everything worse. The only surefire way to cut your chances of a horrible hangover is to go one for one: Follow one drink with one glass of water, and stick to one alcoholic drink per hour, Scharff says.
If the damage is done, Oshinksy recommends reaching for a cup of coffee the next morning—the caffeine is scientifically proven to block the effects of adenosine, a headache-causing compound, which is why it's great for treating hangovers. Caffeine and headaches. Shapiro RE. Neurological sciences : official journal of the Italian Neurological Society and of the Italian Society of Clinical Neurophysiology, 2007, Aug.;28 Suppl 2():1590-1874. (These foods and drinks may help too).
Oddly enough, while there's evidence supporting that hangovers get worse as we get older, there have also been conflicting studies, showing that hangovers are actually worse for younger people. Does the severity of hangovers decline with age? Survey of the incidence of hangover in different age groups. Tolstrup JS, Stephens R, Grønbaek M. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 2013, Sep.;38(2):1530-0277. An event-level investigation of hangovers' relationship to age and drinking. Huntley G, Treloar H, Blanchard A. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, 2015, Aug.;23(5):1936-2293. However, the amount and ways the different age groups drank weren't specified, so it's possible people developed a tolerance or cut down drinking as they got older, says Damaris Rohsenow, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. In sum: Science is still working on it, but hangovers are great for no one.
As we get older, our metabolism naturally slows down and our liver's decreased efficiency lessens our ability to bounce back from alcohol's toxins. Increased body weight can also play a role, so while you may need to drink for that same tipsy feeling, your liver isn't game—and you'll feel that the morning after.