Curious How Mindful Drinking Can Help You Thrive? 🎉🙌
Click Here
A hangover person surrounded by alcohol
Alcohol and Health

Why Do Hangovers Get Worse With Age?

October 31, 2023
21 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 31, 2023
21 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 31, 2023
21 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 31, 2023
21 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
October 31, 2023
21 min read

The sun pierces through the curtains, there's a throbbing in your temples, and the world feels like it's spinning just a little off-kilter. Anyone who has indulged in too many drinks knows the discomfort that often follows — the dreaded hangover. 

But have you noticed that hangovers don’t feel quite the same as they used to back in the day? The throbbing headache, the waves of nausea, the general sense of doom … they seem to hit a little harder now. It’s not just your imagination! Hangovers really can get worse as we age. But why is that? The answer isn’t just “you’re getting old” — there’s science behind it.

The Morning After: Demystifying Hangovers

In scientific terms, a hangover is the collection of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that occur after the blood alcohol content (BAC) begins to drop and eventually reaches zero. It's the body's reaction to alcohol intoxication, and it can be influenced by a number of factors:

  • Dehydration. As a diuretic, alcohol encourages the body to lose more water than it takes in, leading to headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Alcohol's byproducts. As the liver processes alcohol, it produces several byproducts, including acetaldehyde — a toxic compound that contributes to hangover symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
  • Digestive disruptions. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining and increases acid production, leading to gastritis or inflammation and resulting in nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting.
  • Blood sugar fluctuations. Alcohol affects the levels of glucose in your blood, leading to mood disturbances, fatigue, and general weakness.
  • Sleep disruptions. While alcohol often makes us drowsy, it disrupts the REM cycle of sleep. This means that even if you've slept for a long duration, your sleep quality might be poor, leading to fatigue and mood disturbances.
  • Immune system response. Evidence suggests that excessive alcohol consumption can trigger an immune system response, leading to memory problems, decreased appetite, and concentration issues.

Hangovers are not a one-size-fits-all experience: genetics, overall health, hydration status, type and amount of alcohol consumed, and even the rate of consumption can influence the severity and type of our hangover symptoms.

Hangovers Through the Years

Now that we've unpacked the mystery of hangovers, it's time to delve deeper into a puzzling phenomenon: why do hangovers seem to intensify as we age? There are 6 main reasons for this frustrating tendency.

1. Slower Metabolism

As we get older, our metabolism — the chemical processes that occur within our bodies to convert the food we eat into energy and eliminate waste — decelerates. An older body processes alcohol more slowly than a younger one, which means that the alcohol stays in the system longer, intensifying hangover symptoms.

When it comes to alcohol metabolism in particular, keep a few things in mind. Once it enters the bloodstream, it affects nearly every system in the body. However, it's primarily our liver that breaks it down and eliminates it by producing enzymes that ultimately convert it into harmless water and carbon dioxide. Alcohol metabolism is a two-step process. The enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) starts the process of converting ethanol (the alcohol we drink) into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. Another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), then quickly breaks down acetaldehyde into non-toxic acetate.

How does age factor into all of this? As we age, our bodies produce enzymes less efficiently. There's a reduced production of ADH and ALDH, so alcohol and acetaldehyde linger in our system longer.

Moreover, as we age, the volume of water in our bodies decreases. Alcohol is water-soluble, meaning it distributes itself throughout the body’s water. With less water available, alcohol concentration in the bloodstream increases, leading to stronger and prolonged effects.

2. Decreased Liver Efficiency

The liver is our detox superstar! It produces bile to aid digestion, processes nutrients from the food we eat, and filters harmful substances from our blood. However, as we age, our liver becomes less efficient, making it slower to process booze and leading to more prolonged and severe hangovers.

Moreover, as we age, our liver's capacity to regenerate and repair itself decreases. Factors such as long-term alcohol consumption, exposure to toxins, and certain health conditions can lead to an even more rapid decline in liver function and efficiency. This reduced efficiency means the liver can't process alcohol as swiftly or effectively as it once did.

A less efficient liver leads to an accumulation of acetaldehyde, the toxic intermediate product in alcohol metabolism. Acetaldehyde has been associated with many of the unfavorable symptoms we recognize as a hangover, including nausea, vomiting, and headache. 

Finally, with age, the volume of liver enzymes can be reduced. With fewer enzymes available, metabolizing alcohol becomes a more prolonged process. Thanks to the longer processing time, alcohol and its byproducts linger in our system.

Diagram about the reasons why hangovers get worse with age
3. Less Resilient Body

Over the years, our body loses some of its resilience to external stressors, such as alcohol. This makes recovering from anything — including hangovers! — a bit more challenging. 

Physical resilience — our body's ability to adapt, recover, and bounce back from stressors — is influenced by our cellular health, immune function, hydration status, and overall vitality. While it might seem like nature's cruel joke, there are some real scientific reasons behind its age-related decline:

  • Diminished immune function. Our immune system becomes less robust with age, making our bodies less adept at purging the toxins associated with alcohol and its metabolism.
  • Dehydration. Aging affects the body's water balance. Our ability to recognize thirst diminishes, and our kidneys don't concentrate urine as efficiently, so older adults are more prone to dehydration. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, causing us to lose more fluids. With age, this can exacerbate dehydration, leading to intensified hangover symptoms.
  • Tissue and muscle loss. As we grow older, our muscle mass decreases while our body fat often increases. Because alcohol is water-soluble and not fat-soluble, a higher fat-to-muscle ratio can lead to higher blood alcohol concentrations.

All these age-related changes affect how our bodies process and react to alcohol:

  • A weakened immune response might make us feel groggier and more sluggish after drinking.
  • Enhanced dehydration can lead to headaches, dizziness, and fatigue — common hangover symptoms.
  • The shift in body composition can make us feel the effects of alcohol more intensely and for longer periods of time.
4. Medications and Alcohol Don't Mix

Stepping into middle age and beyond often means carrying a few more pill bottles with us on a daily basis. Whether we’re controlling blood pressure, managing cholesterol, or ensuring bone health, medications can become part of our daily routine. These medicines act on specific biological pathways, and their effectiveness can be influenced by numerous factors, including the presence of alcohol.

What happens when we mix that evening drink with our meds?

  • Metabolism overload. Just like alcohol, many medications are metabolized by the liver. When consumed together, they compete for the liver's attention, resulting in slower processing of the medication and potentially diminishing its effectiveness or causing it to build up to toxic levels in the body.
  • Enhanced sedation. The effects of many medications, especially those with sedative properties (such as sleep aids, anxiety medications, and some pain relievers), can be amplified by alcohol. This amplification can lead to excessive drowsiness, dizziness, or even life-threatening respiratory depression.
  • Drug interactions. Certain medications have direct and potentially dangerous interactions with alcohol. For instance, some antidiabetic medications, when mixed with alcohol, can increase the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

For someone taking medications, introducing alcohol into the mix can intensify hangover symptoms.

  • If a drug causes dehydration, pairing it with alcohol — a known diuretic — can amplify thirst, dizziness, and headaches.
  • Medications that cause drowsiness, when combined with alcohol, can lead to prolonged fatigue, making the post-alcohol morning even more challenging.
5. Hydration Matters

It's no secret that water is essential for our survival. As we age, our body's ability to retain water decreases due to several changes in our hydration dynamics:

  • Reduced thirst sensation. As we age, our body's ability to sense thirst decreases, so we might not drink water even when we need to.
  • Compromised kidney function. Our kidneys’ efficiency in concentrating urine and retaining water diminishes. This can lead to increased urine output and, subsequently, a higher risk of dehydration.
  • Decreased total body water. With age, the total amount of water in our bodies decreases due to a reduction in muscle mass (which holds a lot of water) and an increase in fat (which holds less water).
  • Alcohol is a diuretic. it prompts our bodies to produce more urine. Drinking can lead to a net loss of fluids, tipping the hydration balance toward dehydration. For older adults, this diuretic effect combined with the age-related hydration changes can spell trouble.

Dehydration can amplify many symptoms commonly associated with hangovers:

  • Headaches. Dehydration can cause the brain to contract slightly, pulling away from the skull. This can result in a dehydration-induced headache.
  • Fatigue. Water is essential for optimal cell function. Without it, our cells struggle, leading to tiredness and lethargy.
  • Dizziness. A drop in hydration can lead to reduced blood volume, causing a drop in blood pressure and dizziness.
  • Dry mouth and thirst. These telltale signs of dehydration commonly accompany hangovers.
6. Lifestyle Factors

When we’re younger, we might be more active and consume a healthier diet. Both these factors can influence how our body processes alcohol. As we age and become less active or make different dietary choices, our bodies might not be as well-equipped to bounce back from a night of drinking.

Moreover, in different life stages, our priorities shift. A young adult might prioritize social outings, while someone in their 50s and 60s might lean into family commitments or career pressures. These lifestyle changes influence various aspects of our health and well-being.

  • Sleep quality declines. As we age, our sleep patterns shift. Deep sleep — a phase that’s necessary for physical and cognitive recovery — can become elusive. With alcohol in the mix, the result can be an intensified hangover.

    Besides, alcohol itself can cause fragmented sleep. Combine this with age-related increases in nighttime awakenings, and it’s a recipe for a fatigued morning. Disrupted sleep combined with a hangover? That's a double whammy!
  • Nutrition takes a hit. Age can decrease our body's ability to absorb certain nutrients efficiently. Alcohol can exacerbate this by irritating the gut lining, potentially leading to nutrient malabsorption.

    Moreover, as we grow older, our dietary patterns might change. Eating substantial meals before alcohol can slow its absorption, potentially reducing hangover severity. However, erratic eating habits could have the opposite effect.
  • Sedentary habits. Regular physical activity improves cardiovascular health, metabolism, and overall vitality. Someone who maintains an active lifestyle might recover from the effects of alcohol more swiftly. With age, some lean towards a more sedentary lifestyle, which can impact metabolic rate and overall resilience against external stressors, including alcohol.
  • Stress hormones. Chronic stress from work or personal pressures can lead to prolonged elevated levels of cortisol in the body. This stress hormone, when combined with alcohol, can magnify hangover symptoms. The mental toll of chronic stress combined with alcohol's depressive effects can amp up sadness or anxiety during a hangover.
  • Perceived hangover severity. Research has shown that our perception of hangover severity might be influenced by our beliefs about drinking and aging. That’s right — believing that we "should" be feeling worse because we're older can actually intensify our hangover experience! Moreover, as we age, responsibilities often increase. The mental and physical burden of handling a hangover while juggling work, family, and other commitments can make the experience more challenging.

Your Action Plan: 7 Steps To Navigate Hangovers as You Age

  • Mindful drinking. If you choose to drink, do so mindfully. This means being aware of your intake, pacing yourself, and listening to your body's cues. You're not 20 anymore, and that's okay!
  • Water is your BFF. Follow every alcoholic drink with a glass of water. This helps counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol and potentially reduces the severity of your hangover.
  • Eat before you drink. Having a meal before drinking can slow the absorption of alcohol, giving your liver more time to process it.
  • Go for lighter drinks. Darker alcoholic beverages contain more congeners, compounds that can exacerbate hangover symptoms. Opt for lighter-colored drinks if possible.
  • Review your medications. If you're taking any medications, review them with your healthcare provider to know which ones might interact with alcohol and adjust accordingly.
  • Prioritize rest. If you know you'll be drinking, try to get a good night's sleep afterward. Maybe this means heading home a little earlier or ensuring your bedroom is a sleep-friendly environment.
  • Natural hangover helpers. Consider natural remedies like ginger for nausea, honey for low blood sugar, or a banana to replenish lost electrolytes.

Embracing Change

In the end, dealing with worsening hangovers as you age is about understanding changes in your body and making informed choices. Every stage of life comes with its own set of joys and challenges. Embrace them, understand them, and learn to navigate them with grace.

Recognizing that our bodies might not process alcohol the same way as before can be empowering. It helps us set realistic expectations and encourages healthier drinking habits. Our focus can then shift from quantity to quality — enjoying social interactions, savoring the moment, and making choices that prioritize well-being.

Summary FAQs

1. What exactly is a hangover?

A hangover is a collection of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that occur after the blood alcohol content begins to drop, especially after it reaches zero. It's a combination of dehydration, alcohol's byproducts, digestive disruptions, blood sugar fluctuations, sleep disturbances, and immune system responses.

2. How does metabolism play a role in worsening hangovers with age?

As we age, our metabolism tends to slow down. This means that alcohol remains in our system longer, intensifying the hangover effects. The body doesn't process the toxins from alcohol as swiftly, leading to prolonged and often more severe symptoms.

3. Does liver efficiency change as we get older?

Yes, with age, the liver's efficiency in processing toxins (including alcohol) can decrease. A less efficient liver might struggle to quickly break down alcohol, causing more pronounced hangover effects.

4. Why is my body less resilient to hangovers now?

Over time, the body's ability to bounce back from stress, including the stress of alcohol consumption, can diminish. This reduced resilience is due to factors like decreased immune function, wear and tear on the organs, and cumulative cellular damage.

5. Can medications impact the severity of my hangovers?

Absolutely! As we age, we often take more medications. Some of these can interact negatively with alcohol, magnifying hangover symptoms or even posing more severe health risks.

6. Do lifestyle factors influence the severity of hangovers?

Yes, factors like diet, sleep quality, stress levels, and overall health can play a significant role in how we experience hangovers. For instance, poor sleep can exacerbate hangover symptoms.

7. Is it true that as I age, I might experience worse hangovers even with lesser alcohol?

It can be. As we age, factors like decreased body water, enzymatic changes, and impaired recovery can mean that even with less alcohol, the hangover's aftermath can be quite pronounced. This shift underscores the importance of understanding our body's changing dynamics and making informed decisions about alcohol consumption.

Ready To Say Goodbye to Hangovers? Try Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

Call to action to download reframe app for ios usersCall to action to download reframe app for android users
Reframe has helped over 2 millions people to build healthier drinking habits globally
Take The Quiz
Our Editorial Standards
At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
Learn more
Updated Regularly
Our articles undergo frequent updates to present the newest scientific research and changes in expert consensus in an easily understandable and implementable manner.
Table of Contents
Call to action for signing up reframe app
Relevant Articles
No items found.
Ready to meet the BEST version of yourself?
Start Your Custom Plan
Call to action to download reframe app for ios usersCall to action to download reframe app for android users
5 Star Reviews
Downloads (as of 2023)
a bottle and a glass
Drinks Eliminated

Scan the QR code to get started!

Reframe supports you in reducing alcohol consumption and enhancing your well-being.

Ready To Meet the Best Version of Yourself?
3,250,000+ Downloads (as of 2023)
31,364 Reviews
500,000,000+ Drinks eliminated
Try Reframe for 7 Days Free! Scan to download the App