What causes a hangover?

It’s more than just dehydration. Alcohol irritates the stomach and small intestine, which can lead to stomach upsets. It causes an imbalance in electrolytes, and when we break down alcohol, we produce a toxic chemical called acetylaldehyde. This can be responsible for the racing heart, the sweating and the nausea.


Do some drinks give you less of a hangover than others?

We’re not sure. One study found that dark-coloured drinks like red wine and bourbon seem to give worse hangovers than light-coloured drinks like gin and vodka, but the effect was subjective. Although people said they felt different, they didn’t act any different. I think it’s more about the volume you consume rather than the type of drink.

A scientist’s guide to life: how to survive a hangover © Michael Haddad
© Michael Haddad

Why do some people get worse hangovers than others?

The severity depends on lots of things, including your weight and what you’ve eaten that day. Genetics also plays an important role.

Do hangovers get worse with age?

Possibly. There’s some evidence to suggest that as we age, the body becomes less effective at metabolising alcohol, perhaps because our liver mass decreases. Also, the way we drink is different. As we age, heavy drinking episodes tend to be less frequent so you become less tolerant to the effects of alcohol.

Need to know...

  1. Some of us may be destined to get bad hangovers, thanks to genetics.
  2. It might be boring, but the only way to avoid a hangover is to drink in moderation.
  3. Stay away from the hair of the dog – it only prolongs the inevitable.

What’s the best way to avoid a hangover?

Drink in moderation. That’s the only way. Eating a fatty meal before you go out drinking might also help because it can slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

What’s the best way to banish a hangover?

There is no cure, but you can treat some of the symptoms. Water can aid with the dehydration, painkillers can help to calm an irritated stomach, and sports drinks can help restore the balance of electrolytes. Alcohol consumption also affects sleep quality, so getting some extra shuteye is a good idea.

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Hair of the dog, a fry-up, or a workout?

Hair of the dog prolongs the inevitable. It’s not a good idea to treat a hangover with more booze. Fry-ups might aid with metabolising alcohol. Eggs and bacon contain an amino acid called cysteine, which helps to break down the acetylaldehyde that is produced. There’s no evidence that exercise can help a hangover. What might happen is that you become more dehydrated, which could make you feel even worse.

One message for our readers?

Even when the alcohol’s out of your system, you’re still impaired. We make poorer decisions when we’re drunk, but research shows that we continue to make bad decisions when we are hungover. People with hangovers struggle with attention, memory and motor skills, so even if you think you’re fine to drive a car, go to work, or look after the kids, you might not be. Drink in moderation and be careful the next day.



Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.