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Do Different Types of Alcohol Cause Worse Hangovers?

liquor types hangover

We’ve all woken up one Sunday morning to a crippling headache and an upset stomach. Other mornings we’re plagued by only a little brain fog. Some of us drink the same amount Friday and Saturday night, but the Sunday morning hangover may seem much worse or tame. Certainly, there are many different variables which affect the severity of a hangover. Drinking on an empty of full stomach, drinking while dehydrated, and not getting enough sleep to name a few. But can drinking different types of alcohol reduce hangover symptoms?

Congeners and Hangovers

There is some truth to claims that some types of alcohol can cause more severe hangovers than others, and this is due to substances called congeners.

Congeners are different substances formed during the fermentation process. Congeners are the root cause of the taste and smell of distilled alcoholic beverages. They contribute to only the taste of non-distilled alcohol.

Congeners are made up of small amounts of many different chemicals such as:

  • Fusel alcohols
  • Acetone
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Esters
  • Aldehydes

One of the chemicals listed above, acetaldehyde, greatly contributes to hangover severity. Research shows acetaldehyde is up to 30 times as toxic as alcohol and is widely believed to be the main cause of hangovers. [1]

A study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental research supported the notion of congeners causing more severe hangovers. [2] The study observed 95 healthy alcohol users. All 95 participants were given one night to “acclimate” to drinking.

The next night they were given either vodka or whisky. They were given enough alcohol to place their BAC around .10. They were given a placebo drink which did not contain any alcohol on the third night. The participants were asked how they felt each morning, their sleeping patterns were monitored, and they completed concentration tasks.

The participants who drank whisky reported much more severe hangover symptoms including headache, nausea, thirst, and fatigue when compared to the vodka drinkers. Whisky also contains a far greater number of congeners.

Alcohol Types and their Congener Levels

Research published in the British Medical Journal found a direct link between the amount of congeners in an alcoholic beverage and the severity of the hangover caused by that drink. [3] Their ranking from best to worst is as follows:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • White Wine
  • Dark Rum
  • Red Wine
  • Brandy

A general rule of thumb is that the darker the alcohol, the worse the hangover.

Interestingly, despite congeners worsening hangover symptoms such as headaches and nausea, evidence suggests they do not decrease mental acuity or disrupt sleep. The study stated that “While people felt worse, they didn’t perform worse on concentration tasks”. Furthermore, levels of sleep disruption were no worse in either group.

The reason for this has to do with the way alcohol affects your brain. After alcohol reaches your bloodstream, it quickly starts to affect your brains chemistry. Brain cells communicate with each other through use of electrochemical signals called neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers which affect behavior, emotion, and thought processes. Alcohol increases levels of GABA and decreases levels of Glutamate in your brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. As levels of GABA rise you become more calm and your heart rate slows. At extremely high levels, you lose motor control, speech becomes slurred, and your inhibitions decline. Glutamate is a excitatory neurotransmitter. As levels of Glutamate fall, you become sedated even further.

These effects limit the amount of time you spend in REM sleep. This disrupts sleep and decreases sleep quality. Then you wake up in the morning tired and feeling foggy.

Since alcohol with different levels of congeners doesn’t affect your brain differently, it would make sense that different types of alcohol have the same effect on sleeping patterns and concentration.

Reducing the Effects of Congeners

For those who enjoy alcoholic beverages which are high in congeners, there are supplements you can take which help your liver break down the toxins at a quicker rate:

Glutathione - Glutathione plays a crucial role in the metabolism and removal of acetaldehyde from the body. Without enough Glutathione your liver will have a very difficult time breaking down acetaldehyde. Heavy drinking rapidly depletes Glutathione levels, [1] so if you drink often you should take it as a supplement.

Dihydromyricetin (DHM): This supplement is a naturally occurring plant extract. For centuries the Chinese have used it to treat and prevent hangovers. Research suggests DHM has many interesting alcohol-related effects:

  • DHM enhances the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). This causes your body to break down alcohol and acetaldehyde at a quicker rate which reduces hangover symptoms.[5]
  • DHM lessens the effect alcohol has on GABA receptors in the brain which improves sleep quality and minimizes brain fog.[5]
  • DHM lessens the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and seizures.

Drinking alcohol with low levels of congeners isn’t enough to eliminate hangover symptoms, but will cause your hangovers to be less severe than if you had consumed high-congener spirits.

Cited Studies

  1. Binding of acetaldehyde to a glutathione metabolite: mass spectrometric characterization of an acetaldehyde-cysteinylglycine conjugate.
  2. Whisky hangover 'worse than vodka', study suggests
  3. The Claim: Some Types of Alcohol Cause Worse Hangovers Than Others
  4. Acetaldehyde Toxicity
  5. Dihydromyricetin As A Novel Anti-Alcohol Intoxication Medication

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