Why Hangovers Get Worse As You Age

By Dorri Olds 08/04/16

It's not your imagination. Hangovers definitely worsen with age and it has a lot to do with your immune system and metabolism.

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Why Hangovers Get Worse As You Age

Oy, horrid mornings of debilitating dizziness, massive headaches, nausea, vomiting and the shakes. Light and noise hurt so much I’d beg the universe to just shoot me like a wounded animal. Whenever I think about drinking again, my mind snaps back to the mornings from hell. To me, it’s just not worth it. 

But, say I did go for it—a rowdy night on the town like the ol’ days of six or seven rum and Diet Cokes—I would most likely wake up to the worst hangover yet. Know why? Age. Yes, that’s right. Hangovers worsen with age. That isn’t your imagination. 

The most common reason is weight gain—and who among us hasn’t gotten a little pudgier over the years? We lose muscle as we age, which can increase stored fat. When you were a young whippersnapper, your muscle cells could quickly bounce back whenever damaged but, along with your taut skin, that is a thing of the past. And, if you’ve consumed two drinks a night, year after year, you probably have a fatty liver. Fat is not very good at absorbing alcohol.

Alcohol metabolism is a two-step process in the liver, where enzymes first break the alcohol down into acetaldehyde, a highly toxic substance and known carcinogen. Then, that is further metabolized into acetate. Acetate is broken down into water and carbon dioxide, and your body disposes of it. So, if your body is not up to the task, toxins are poisoning you and that is why you feel so horrid. FYI, your liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol per hour, depending on a variety of factors like body mass and liver size.

According to the Smithsonian, “Hangovers could also be driven by the way alcohol messes with your immune system. Studies have found strong correlations between high levels of cytokines—molecules that the immune system uses for signaling—and hangover symptoms. Normally, the body might use cytokines to trigger a fever of inflammatory response to battle an infection, but it seems that excessive alcohol consumption can also provoke cytokine release, leading to symptoms like muscle aches, fatigue, headache or nausea, as well as cognitive effects like memory loss or irritation.” 

Google “age” and “cytokines” and over 11 million links pop up, so there’s that. Another reason is that as the years go by, perhaps you’re taking medications that screw things up further.  

The bottom line is: everything gets harder as you age. Think of your body as a car. At the beginning it purrs, but over time it wears down.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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