The science behind your hangovers

Does mixing drinks make you drunker?

It’s the Saturday morning after a big night out in the city. The light streaming through the window is way too bright, your eyeballs feel heavy, you’ve got a splitting headache. The thought of both food and alcohol makes you die a little inside. Suffering through the bitter consequences of binge drinking, you say to yourself: “Surely there must be some way to drink and avoid a hangover…”

Experienced drinkers often offer the same advice: “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear …  Never mix the grape and the grain … Beer before whiskey, always risky. Whiskey before beer, never fear!” So, who do we believe?

First, let’s dismiss the biggest myth of all. A hangover is not simply the result of dehydration. The only symptom of a hangover associated with dehydration is your eye-gouging headache. That all too familiar nausea on the other hand is caused by inflammation of the stomach lining and overproduction of gastric acids due to alcohol consumption.

A hangover may also be, in part, an immune system response. One study found elevated levels of cytokines, a molecule secreted by immune cells, in people with hangovers, suggesting that the symptoms arise as part of an inflammatory response to excessive consumption of alcohol. Some studies have also found that cytokines could disrupt memory formation in the brain — that explains all the snapchats you don’t remember sending as well.

Everyone knows the more alcohol you drink, the more severe the hangover. But how does that explain those nights when you don’t drink that much but still wake up in the ninth circle of hell? This can be blamed on “congeners”. These are by-products of fermentation. They’re produced in varying amounts depending on the type of alcohol.

Red wines and dark liquors like bourbon, whiskey, and tequila, produce much higher concentrations of these toxins than white wine and clear liquors like rum, vodka, and gin. So a night spent on Jack Daniels and Woodstock is going to give you a worse hangover than a few fruity Cruisers and Smirnoff Ice.

So, does it really matter if you mix drinks? The answer is no. While many people will swear mixing drinks leads to trouble, there’s no hard evidence to suggest that this is the case. Perhaps those who mix drinks are more likely to end up drinking something with a higher congener concentration, simply by having a wider range of drinks. Another possibility is that, if you start with spirits followed up with beer, your judgement may be impaired earlier on, causing you to drink much more heavily.

Next time someone warns you against mixing drinks, screw it — chances are you’re getting hungover either way.