What Is the Best Way To Avoid a Hangover?
If you have ever experienced a hangover — the physical and emotional effects that can happen after drinking too much alcohol — you know you want to avoid it in the future.
While the only sure way to avoid a hangover is to avoid drinking alcohol at all, science reveals how to potentially lessen the negative effects.
Before we look at ways to prevent hangovers, we should understand what a hangover is and what causes it.
What Is a Hangover?
When you say you have a hangover, it refers to the negative mental and physical symptoms that happen after drinking too much.
While everyone reacts differently to drinking too much alcohol, the most common symptoms of a hangover are:
- Dry mouth
- Muscle aches
- Nausea or vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Sensitivity to lights and sounds
- Anxiety or irritability
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
What Causes a Hangover?
Researchers are still discovering all of the effects alcohol has on the body. Some of these effects are discussed below.
Acetaldehyde — Alcohol’s Toxic Byproduct
Acetaldehyde is a toxic byproduct (metabolite) resulting from your body’s main pathway for breaking down alcohol.
Your liver breaks down alcohol in a two-step process. In the first step, a protein called alcohol dehydrogenase turns alcohol into acetaldehyde, which causes inflammation and damage to the parts of the body it comes into contact with. Acetaldehyde is also known to cause cancer (a carcinogen). Even though it is short-lived, acetaldehyde can cause damage to the body tissues it comes in contact with until the second step in the process takes place.
In the second step, another protein called aldehyde dehydrogenase turns the acetaldehyde into a harmless metabolite called acetate. Acetate is further broken down into water and carbon dioxide, which are easily eliminated from your body.
The more you drink, the harder it is for aldehyde dehydrogenase to keep up — increasing the damage acetaldehyde can do.
The short-term damage from acetaldehyde is probably related to the inflammation it causes. Many cancers — including liver, colon, and breast cancer — are linked to alcohol consumption and acetaldehyde.
Heavy alcohol use is linked to higher levels of inflammation. While moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease some types of inflammation, large amounts of alcohol can trigger more inflammation. This is especially true if you drink regularly for a long time.
Inflammation is the reason you feel sick when you have an infection, which might explain why having a hangover can make you feel like you are sick.
The mild dehydration that alcohol causes can contribute to hangover symptoms the next day. Alcohol can make you dehydrated because of its effect on your kidneys. Alcohol suppresses a hormone called vasopressin, the hormone that tells your kidneys to hold on to more water. When vasopressin is suppressed, your kidneys let go of more fluids causing you to urinate more.
Both alcohol and its metabolite, acetaldehyde, cause stomach upset because they irritate the lining of your stomach and intestines. The resulting inflammation increases the amount of acid in your stomach, causing stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
Lack of Sleep
Even though alcohol can make you feel drowsy at first, it actually decreases the overall quality of your sleep. Several hours after you drink, the effects of alcohol can increase levels of epinephrine, the body’s fight-or-flight hormone. This can increase your heart rate and make you feel more awake.
Alcohol increases feel-good endorphins and makes you feel more relaxed. As your body clears the alcohol in your system, it can be hard for your body to readjust to lower levels of endorphins, causing feelings of anxiety. The increase in anxiety the day after drinking is sometimes referred to as “hangxiety.”
A study on people with social anxiety disorder found that while anxiety decreased immediately after drinking alcohol, anxiety the next day was worse. Hangxiety can also be made worse by feeling physically unwell and lack of sleep.
Differences in the proteins that break down alcohol can make some people more sensitive to alcohol than others. If you have a slow or inefficient version of aldehyde dehydrogenase — the protein that gets rid of toxic acetaldehyde — it means that this toxic byproduct will stick around in your body longer and cause more damage.
People that have this different version of aldehyde dehydrogenase often get flushed and red-faced immediately after drinking alcohol from the effects of too much acetaldehyde.
8 Ways To Avoid a Hangover
People have been searching for a way to drink alcohol without the consequences since alcohol was discovered. If you are aware of what causes a hangover, it might be easier to avoid it.
1. Drink in Moderation
The only sure way to avoid a hangover completely is to avoid alcohol. If you are going to drink, it's a good idea to limit the amount you drink. The more alcohol you drink, the worse the consequences.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women.
One drink can look different depending on what type of alcohol you are drinking. One drink equals:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
Binge drinking is the most harmful kind of alcohol use. Binge drinking means drinking several drinks on one occasion. For men, it is 5 drinks, and for women, it is 4 drinks. Most people who binge drink aren’t addicted or dependent on alcohol.
Here are some strategies that may help you drink less:
- Keep track of your drinks
- Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks
- Mix it up with mocktails
- Participate in a fun activity (like dancing or playing pool) while you drink so you don't keep filling up your cup
2. Avoid Drinks High in Congeners
Congeners are chemicals produced in alcoholic drinks during the fermentation process. In general, spirits that are darker in color contain higher levels of congeners.
It’s unclear why congeners can worsen hangover symptoms, but it may be related to how your body breaks down these chemicals. Congeners compete with alcohol to get broken down. As a result, alcohol may stay in the body for a longer period of time.
There is also evidence that congeners can increase inflammation on their own, which can contribute to hangover symptoms.
Alcoholic drinks with higher congener content include:
- Red wine
3. Avoid Drinks High in Sulfites
Sulfites are preservatives that are added to food and beverages — such as wine. Sulfites are often blamed for the headache that occurs after drinking wine, but research hasn’t been able to prove that sulfites are the cause. People who are allergic to sulfites may have asthma symptoms, hives, or a runny nose while drinking wine.
Sulfites are usually higher in white wine than in red wine.
4. Stay Hydrated
Many symptoms of a hangover can be attributed to dehydration because it acts as a diuretic. Wine and spirits may have a stronger diuretic effect than beer. However, people usually drink a larger volume of beer, which can still result in more trips to the bathroom.
Make sure you are well hydrated before you start drinking to help stave off these effects. Check for signs of dehydration before you start drinking, such as:
- Feeling thirsty
- Dark colored urine
- Dry eyes
- Dry mouth
Although many people reach for sports drinks to replace electrolytes during a hangover, scientists haven’t found a relationship between electrolyte depletion and the severity of hangover symptoms. Sports drinks and other electrolyte replacements can help you to rehydrate. However, when drunk in excess, they can also cause diarrhea and stomach upset.
5. Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach
Drinking on an empty stomach allows alcohol to be absorbed into your bloodstream faster. This means you may feel the effects more strongly and quickly.
Alcohol also irritates your stomach and intestines. Food can help protect the lining of your stomach and small intestine from the irritating effect of alcohol.
To decrease the effects of alcohol on your stomach, try to avoid foods that can upset your stomach like fried or spicy foods.
6. Don’t Smoke
People that drink frequently or binge drink are more likely to be smokers. However, studies show that smoking cigarettes not only increases the risk of getting a hangover but also increases the severity of a hangover.
Avoiding smoking is a good decision for your overall health and your hangover.
7. Take a Supplement Before You Start Drinking
You can find countless supplements claiming to prevent or relieve hangover symptoms. Science hasn’t found a miracle hangover cure yet — evidence is lacking that any of these remedies actually work. However, some studies have shown positive effects of a few supplements.
One study found that people who eat more niacin and zinc in their diet may have less severe hangovers. This could be because they play a role in breaking down alcohol in the liver.
Supplementing with L-cysteine may decrease nausea, headache, and anxiety caused by a hangover.
8. Avoid Alcohol When You’re Tired
You may feel the intoxicating effects of alcohol more strongly when you're tired, sick, or jet-lagged. Many of the symptoms of fatigue are similar to hangover symptoms. When you go to bed to get some rest, the alcohol you drank early may make it harder for you to get a good night's sleep.
How To Treat a Hangover
If you wake up with a hangover, despite your best efforts to avoid it, there are some things you can do to feel better.
- Eat a good breakfast — Food will help alleviate some stomach upset, and eggs contain cysteine, which can help break down alcohol.
- Hydrate — Clear fluids offer the best hydration.
- Get some sleep — Alcohol can decrease the quality of your sleep, so you may need extra sleep to feel rested.
- Give it time — Your body needs time to get rid of the toxic byproducts of alcohol and heal irritated tissue so you can feel better.
What To Avoid When Drinking
Some of the common remedies for a hangover can actually be harmful. Here are the ones you should avoid.
Hair of the Dog That Bit You
This phrase refers to having an alcoholic drink the day after a night of heavy drinking to avoid a hangover. While it may reduce your hangover symptoms temporarily, this method only delays the inevitable and may even make your symptoms worse.
Pain relievers can help relieve the pain and headache a hangover causes. However, they can be dangerous when combined with alcohol.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause liver damage when mixed with alcohol. It is best to avoid acetaminophen while you are drinking.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) can irritate your stomach, especially if you haven’t eaten. This can make nausea and stomach upset worse.
Are Hangovers Harmful?
Hangovers from a night of occasional drinking are not typically harmful, just painful. However, there are some risks from drinking too much in the first place, including:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky sexual behavior
- Miscarriage in pregnant women
Hangovers can be more dangerous for people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes, liver disease, and alcohol use disorder. Additionally, alcohol increases your risk of many diseases such as:
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune system
- Dementia and memory problems
- Alcohol use disorder
Hangovers can be costly. If you skip work due to hangover symptoms, you could lose out on potential earnings. Hangovers also impact the economy. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that excessive drinking costs the United States more than $200 billion per year. Most of the cost is due to lost productivity. A survey in the United Kingdom found that more than half of people working in hospitality have shown up to work hungover.
Avoiding a hangover, especially drinking in moderation, can make you feel better the next day, benefit your overall health, and reduce costs from excessive drinking.