Why Do I Get a Hangover?


In this week’s Ask the Critics: Booze Edition, we turn our reader’s question over to our resident expert on all things potable, Chantal Martineau.

Bobby S. asks: Why do I get a hangover sometimes and other times I don’t?

Dear Bobby: Let’s call this the age-old question among us imbibers. Of course, without giving you a full physical — which, incidentally, I’m not offering to do — it’s impossible to know why your body reacts to alcohol one way or another on a given day. However, here are a few general guidelines on how to enjoy a good bender without having to pray to the porcelain god the next day.

1. Line your stomach. When I was in college in the U.K., we used to say, “Eating’s cheating.” But then, we were young and, in most cases, British. If your aim isn’t to get blotto, get your body ready for a night out with a decent meal. It provides something of a padding between the booze and your bloodstream. Vitamin B-rich foods can help prevent or recover from a hangover, as can coating your belly with milk or olive oil.

2. Mix with caution. We’ve all heard the old “wine before beer” adage. So where do spirits fit in? A rule of thumb is to start light and increase your proof over the course of the evening. In other words, begin with a lower-alcohol cocktail or champagne. If you order a martini before dinner, get it with vermouth, for god’s sake. Extra-dry is so passé. You can end your night with hard liquor, but don’t go back to pre-dinner cocktails. Drink something aged and neat instead, like whiskey (but not too much — brown liquors are more often associated with hangovers). If you start with beer, you can go to wine (you’ll feel fine). But if you start with wine, especially red, you’re pretty much stuck with it all night.

3. Spring for the good stuff. Anyone who drinks well gin and tonics all night then complains of waking up feeling queasy should get no sympathy. Regardless of studies about sulfites and impurities, drinking from the top shelf will always improve your chances of avoiding a hangover — if not for the quality of the drink, then for the fact that you can’t afford to drink as much of it. If you care about where your figs and duck hearts are sourced from, then you should be concerned with who made your tequila or Pinot Noir. When it comes to spirits, look for small producers instead of big, flashy brands that come with ambassadors and skull-shaped packaging. For wines, look for natural or traditional producers who avoid additives and extraneous winemaking techniques. 4. Save the sweets for dessert. Many a hangover can be attributed to sugar, whether it’s from fruity cocktails loaded up with juices and syrups, or fruit-bomb wines. Champagne, for example, is associated with hangovers, probably for the fact that it’s almost always “dosed” with sugar at bottling. So if you’re going to assault your body with the toxicity of alcohol, don’t make it worse by giving yourself a sugar rush as well.

5: Drink water. This goes for before, during, and after. You should have a glass of water for every drink over the course of the night. But seeing as that plan never quite seems to pan out, drink a couple of glasses before you hit the bar. Then, make yourself have a couple more before you go to bed. If you wake up with a mouth that feels like the inside of a sandpapered shoe, then you’ve probably not hydrated enough over the course of the night and will likely end up spending the day battling the Irish flu.

Having said all that, ultimately, if you’re getting a hangover, it’s probably because you’re drinking too much. Moderate, dear Bobby S., and you’ll do better in the morning.

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