Ugh! That nauseated, headachy, I’ve-been-sucking-on-an-old-sock feeling that follows a night of immoderate imbibing is all too common at this time of year. Is there a way to avoid feeling like crud after a night of celebrating without going completely alcohol-free?
Well, you can start by picking the type of alcohol you drink very carefully. That’s because some types are more likely to leave you sickly the next day, thanks to substances called congeners, a byproduct of some types of fermentation that gives dark alcohols, like bourbon, brandy and red wine, their dark colour.
The more congeners an alcohol has, the more likely you are to feel sick after over-indulging. And if you mix dark alcohols? You’re giving yourself a dose of different types of congeners, so beware — you’re likely to feel even sicker. Distilling helps clear out some of the congeners, so if you’re going to indulge in dark alcohols, stick to the more expensive stuff, it tends to be distilled more times than run-of-the-mill well liquor.
Of course, don’t think that sticking to clear or light-coloured alcohol gives you a get-out-of-hangover-free card if you end up drinking too much. Congeners aside, too much alcohol of any type isn’t a good thing. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means drinking a lot of it leaves you dehydrated and depletes your stores of potassium and magnesium, which makes you headachy and tired.
And lest you assume that combating dehydration with water is all you need to do, there’s even more. Metabolizing alcohol causes your liver to produce a substance called acetaldehyde, which is actually more toxic than the alcohol itself. Acetaldehyde can be broken down if you pace yourself, but the substances that do that job can quickly be overwhelmed if there’s too much alcohol in your system, meaning that acetaldehyde builds up, leaving you headachy and (yuck) prone to vomiting.
Be cautious with the type of mixture you choose, too. Anything carbonated can speed up your body’s absorption of alcohol, getting you drunker faster than you expected. Sugary mixers can make you feel worse the next day, and, because they mask the taste of alcohol, can cause you to drink more than you might intend. Ideally, stick to water or soda water as a mixer.
How much is too much? That depends on your weight, your gender and, for some, your ethnic heritage. Generally, though, if you’re a light-to-moderate drinker (up to three drinks per day for a man and one for a woman), five to seven drinks over a four-to-six hour period will leave you feeling a little iffy the next day.
So, what should you drink to avoid a hangover? Of course, drinking too much of anything is a bad idea, but if you’re going to drink, even moderately, here are some good and not-so-good choices, from best to worst.
This clear alcohol has virtually no congeners, so if you drink it sensibly, it’s less likely to leave you feeling yucky the next day. Beware, though — its mild flavour makes it easy to forget you’re drinking it, especially combined with a highly flavoured mixer. Stick with plain soda with a squeeze of lime or lemon for a smarter drink.
Beer’s relatively low alcohol concentration means you can draw out your drinks more easily: a pint of beer (usually) goes down much slower than a Jack-and-coke. The yeast and other ingredients also slow down the alcohol absorption in your stomach.
Another clear alcohol, gin is almost on par with vodka — as long as you pair it with soda or sugar-free tonic. Juniper, a key flavour ingredient in gin, can also act as a diuretic, so offset that effect with regular glasses of water and follow up your drinking with coconut water or a sports drink.
Here’s where we start to get into potentially problematic territory. White wine doesn’t contain congeners, but it does cause your stomach to secrete more acid, leaving you feeling nauseated. White wine may also contain sulfites, a term used for sulfur dioxide, which is used as a preservative. People who are sensitive to sulfites may find themselves wheezy after consuming wine that contains them.
Bubbly is fine, but be aware that those bubbles can speed up alcohol absorption and make you feel drunker faster than you expect. If you choose a sweet champagne, you could be setting yourself up for a potentially miserable morning — sugar makes the dehydrating effects of alcohol worse.
Here we get into congeners territory. Along with those, some red wines are high in tannins, which are naturally occurring compounds in grape skins and stems that give some varieties their characteristic dryness. Folks who are sensitive to tannins may develop headaches after drinking red wine. Not sure if tannins are your downfall? Brew a cup of really, really strong black tea — which is also high in tannins — and see if you get a headache.
Congeners, congeners. Now we’re getting into liquors that are shown to promote worse hangovers than clear alcohol. Proceed with caution.
Same as dark rum. Studies have shown that bourbon is twice as likely to cause hangover symptoms as the same amount of vodka.
Definitively the worst alcohol in terms of its potential to cause a hangover, as it contains the highest level of congeners. Thankfully, brandy isn’t usually a spirit that people tend to binge drink.