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Why do hangovers seem so much worse as we get older?

Revelers clink beer glasses and enjoy themselves during an all day party at historic McSorley's Old Ale House March 17, 2004, in New York.
Revelers clink beer glasses and enjoy themselves during an all day party at historic McSorley's Old Ale House March 17, 2004, in New York.Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Sometime tomorrow, around the time your alarm clock rings, you will hate yourself for trying to keep up with your college self this St. Patrick's Day. You used to be able to bounce right back from hangovers; now, if you have more than two pints of Guinness tonight you know you'll feel it in the morning. What happened?

It's not your imagination. Our bodies really do start to lose the capability to process booze as we get older, an alcohol expert explains.

"The critical enzymes for breaking down booze are somewhat diminished in efficiency as we age," says Jim Schaefer, an alcohol metabolism expert and an anthropology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. The enzymes your body depends on to break down booze are alcohol dehydrogenase, or ALDH, and aldehyde dehydrogenase, or ADH. Excuse the alphabet soup, but ALDH breaks down ethanol (booze) into acetaldehyde, and then ADH breaks down the acetaldehyde into a non-toxic substance called acetic acid. "It has been suggested that acetaldehyde is one of the key toxic chemicals that influences the severity of a hangover," Schaefer says. "So any deterioration in ADH levels would contribute to worse hangovers."

Whiskey sales boom lifts Irish spirits

Another reason not to chase your college years tonight: Cheaper booze also tends to intensify hangovers. Inexpensive beer, wine and liquor are more likely to have higher congener content -- congeners are the "chemical soup" that results from the fermentation or distillation process, Schaefer explains. "The more expensive liquors are often filtered and triple or more distilled -- thus, cleaner alcohol, less junk," he says.

"As we age, we may be unable to avoid chemical changes that could be wrecking the efficiency of our liver, and we should avoid lousy intoxicants, as they are guaranteed to cause digestive or metabolic discomfort," Schaefer adds.

Let's review: If you are past your college drinkin' days, don't throw back a bunch of green-tinted Miller High Lifes. If you must imbibe tonight, stick to the fancy stuff, and your pounding headache Friday morning will be at least a little less pound-y.

Do you feel your hangovers have gotten worse as you've aged? At what age did you notice it? Or, do you generally avoid drinking enough booze to cause a hangover?

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