With Christmas party season on the horizon, you’d be forgiven for feeling apprehensive about the onslaught of hangovers. So, is there any way to avoid an absolute killer of a headache (or worse) while boozing through December?
You have some obvious options: steer clear of alcohol altogether, drink less, eat to try and absorb some of the alcohol, and have a glass of water between your bevvies (your mum wasn’t wrong!). But there might also be a scientifically-backed way to avoid an even worse hangover – and, interestingly, it’s all to do with the colour of your drink.
While research around hangovers is rather limited, we do know the higher the count of congeners in your booze, the worse your hangover is likely to be. Congeners are a byproduct of fermentation and distillation during the alcohol production process. Some types of booze have far higher concentrations of congeners than others – and this tends to correlate with the colour of your drink.
Researchers at Brown University followed 95 people aged 21 to 33 years old, who were all classed as “healthy, heavy drinkers” across two nights of drinking.
The first night, participants in the study drank either bourbon (which has a higher number of congeners) or vodka (which has a lower count). On the second night they had a placebo. The study revealed that hangover severity was associated with a high congener count – bourbon was more likely to cause the mother of all hangovers compared to vodka.
If you apply this to a wider number of drinks, it’ll probably go some way to explaining why darker beverages like red wine, bourbon, brandy, beer and whisky can leave you with a banging head, compared to lighter (or clear) beverages like gin, vodka and white wine.
The research did not show links between congener levels and different types of hangover – the ‘feeling sick’ type, the banging headache one, or the hangover where you’re just more tired than you’ve ever been in your life.
It’s probably a good idea to shun darker boozy beverages at the work party and hope for the best. But Alexis Willett, who is the author of Drinkology: The Science of What We Drink and What It Does to Us, says there are actually many factors at play when it comes to hangovers – and we need to be mindful of them all.
“You’ve got quite a lot of individual variations,” she explains. “You’ve got people who don’t metabolise alcohol very well – people who flush and go very red after drinking – and often those people have very bad hangovers the next day. You’ve got people who are very sensitive to alcohol, and people who aren’t at all.” Not to mention the fact that hangovers do get worse as you get older.
This isn’t even getting into different types of drinks, says Willett, who references the Brown University study only to say the jury’s still out: “Some people feel that these [congeners] may be in some way responsible for hangovers, but the results are really inconsistent and other people don’t think this is the case.”
There are other chemicals present in alcohol such as histamines – and different types of alcohol contain varying amounts of them. “They can cause headaches as well as a runny nose and itchy eyes,” explains Willett. “You get quite a few of those in red wine and Champagne, but less in other types of drinks – so there might be something going on there.”
Histamines are common in a lot of foods we eat – cheese, processed foods, tomatoes – so you might have eaten those in the day and then your histamine levels have been building up, and alcohol is what tips the scales, causing you a banging head.
Sulphites, which are used as a preservative, could also be to blame. Sulphite sensitivity can cause symptoms such as dizziness, wheezing, itching or an upset stomach within minutes of drinking wine or beer. It might also explain why some people get worse hangovers the next day – however there’s no concrete proof just yet.
The Institute of Alcohol Studies estimates that hangovers cost the economy up to £1.4bn a year – which is reason enough for a sore head. With as many as 89,000 people in the UK turning up to work hungover or under the influence of alcohol every day, more research is clearly needed. “At this point, we still don’t know what exactly causes hangovers,” Willett adds. “So there’s a lot we need to find out about.”