Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Hey Kate, When friends and I go out for after-work beers, I usually have about three, total. Some mornings, I wake up feeling totally find the next day, other times, I feel so hungover. Is it the different brands of beer themselves? I’m not ordering 12% barrel-aged stouts, usually I stick to regular IPAs. Is it the particular hops? I hate this hangover Russian roulette.
As much as we want to find some iron-clad explanation for our hangovers, the truth is, the only explanation for them is that we drank too much. Yes, there are contributing factors—some of which I’ll get into below—but the bottom line is: The less alcohol we drink, the less likely we are to be hungover.
Some of the factors that affect your body’s absorption of alcohol include: whether you ate before drinking, whether you’re a man or a woman (even at the same weight, men and women process alcohol differently because of our body composition), and even, if you’re a person who menstruates, which point you’re at in your cycle. So if you had the same number of drinks yesterday as you did a few weeks ago, but you ate differently or drank different amounts of water, your body could process that alcohol differently.
Then, of course, there’s the variability in the alcohol content of the IPAs you’re drinking. Are they all 5% ABV? 7%? The difference between a 5% and a 6% beer might not seem like much, but as beer writer Joe Stange noted in this piece for DRAFT Magazine, each small bump in alcohol content has a cumulative effect over the course of two to three beers. It’s worth reading his whole piece, and not just for the BAC graph drawn on a bar coaster.
The question is not as simple as “X amount of alcohol gets you X amount of drunk,” either. Dr. Martin Plawecki, who has studied alcohol and its effects on the body at the Indiana University School Of Medicine, tells The Takeout there’s a core distinction between dosage (how much you drank) and absorption (how much your body actually has to process). He says if you arrived at his lab for blood-alcohol content testing on the same day of the week, having eaten the same meal, having consumed the same amount of alcohol, your peak BAC would have “substantial variability.”
“That source of variability is really in your gastrointestinal tract,” Plawecki says. “The amount of transit time from your stomach to your small intestine is variable and depends on your meal and even your emotional state. She’s standardizing the dose, but unfortunately her gut is not exactly the same every time.”
He says the phenomenon you’re describing is quite common and well documented. He shows me the results of a study he and colleagues published this year in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical And Experimental Research. In this study, each participant was given a “carefully controlled, individualized oral dose” of alcohol precisely calibrated to their body-water composition. Even under those carefully controlled conditions, they found an “unavoidable 2- to 3-fold range of peak breath alcohol content and latency to peak breath alcohol content.” In simpler terms, there’s a huge range in how people’s bodies process the exact same dose of alcohol, and how long it takes them to do so.
That’s right, not only do alcohol-exposure rates vary within the same person from day to day, but they vary substantially from person to person. So my experience drinking three beers isn’t likely to mirror your experience drinking three beers.
Plawecki concludes: “You can standardize the drink, but not the drinker.”
Thus, his medical advice is the same as most: He suggests hydration and moderation if you want to mitigate the negative effects of alcohol. And he cautions against using prior experiences with a certain quantity of alcohol as your yard stick. Just because you felt okay after once drinking a full six-pack doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
“From a safety perspective, just because you were fine once doesn’t mean you’ll always be fine at that dose.”