No hangovers = problem?
I never get hungover, yet I am a light female. You guys say that this is a sign of a serious problem, please explain.
— Hangover Free
Dear Hangover Free,
You may just be one of the lucky ones! Factors such as genetics, age, sex and weight, or even what you ate that day can all impact how a person reacts to alcohol and whether or not they get a hangover. A hangover refers to symptoms—both physical and mental—that results approximately ten hours after someone’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) peaks. The timing of hangovers is connected to when the BAC approaches zero. Symptoms of a hangover typically include headaches, thirst from dehydration, nausea or vomiting, decreased attention and concentration, decreased sleep, and more. Generally, as the amount and duration of alcohol consumed increases, so does the likelihood of a hangover and so too does the severity of hangover symptoms.
One factor that may be contributing to your lack of hangovers is genetics. When people drink, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) metabolizes alcohol in the body by breaking down ethanol. As this process occurs, acetaldehyde (a poison and carcinogen) forms. Acetaldehyde turns into acetate and then carbon dioxide and water. After this process is complete, the acetaldehyde that remains in the body contributes to the feeling of a hangover. However, certain genetic variants of the ADH enzyme can affect how quickly alcohol is broken down. Therefore, the slower the process, the greater likelihood and severity of a hangover; the quicker the breakdown of alcohol, the lower the likelihood of experiencing a hangover at all.
Age has also been found to have an impact on the frequency and severity of hangovers. One study found that the older a person gets, the less frequent and severe their hangovers become. One potential explanation for this could be that alcohol tolerance tends to increase with age, meaning older people would have to consume higher levels of alcohol to feel the same effects as younger people drinking less. The study also found that because older people tend to have more experience with drinking and hangovers, they’re able to more accurately anticipate the severity of their hangover symptoms. This is in contrast to younger folks, who tend to overestimate the severity of their hangover symptoms. Personality may also factor into the severity of hangovers, as folks who focus more on symptoms of distress are more likely to report experiencing bad hangovers.
Another factor that can impact the frequency and severity of hangovers is weight. Having a lower body mass can cause you to start feeling the effects of alcohol after drinking even a small amount. This may lead you to drink less alcohol on average since it has the same impact on you that a larger amount has on those who weigh more. In short, because hangover severity tends to increase with the amount of alcohol consumed, drinking moderately may help reduce the odds of waking up with a hangover.
A few more factors that decrease the likelihood of a hangover include:
- Eating before, during, or after alcohol consumption, as food slows down the absorption of the alcohol
- Drinking water between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated
- Pacing yourself while drinking alcohol by drinking smaller amounts less frequently
- Not combining any medications with alcohol
- Choosing drinks with less congeners—a compound that occurs in alcoholic beverages as a result of the distilling and fermentation process—may reduce your chance of experiencing a hangover. Congeners are typically found in higher quantities in dark colored alcohols.
List adapted from the Mayo Clinic
Simply not having hangovers isn't necessarily a sign of a serious problem—in fact, between 2 and 23 percent of the population are also lucky enough to have never experienced a hangover! However, among this group of people, some may become heavy drinkers—consuming more than four drinks a day for men and more than three drinks a day for women—since hangover symptoms don’t serve as a deterrent to drinking less or less often. If you are a heavy drinker, then your lack of hangovers could be a sign that your body has developed tolerance to alcohol. Although you may not experience hangover symptoms after drinking alcohol, you may feel physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol for any period of time. If this is the case, you may consider meeting with a counselor or health care provider to discuss how to manage drinking habits.
Originally published Mar 21, 2008
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