Back in my 20s, I could sit at a bar and order drink after drink and still be totally fine the next day, ready to take down a greasy diner breakfast and plan my next night of drunken delinquency. Fast forward to the first time I drank too much in my 30s, and I was sick for two days straight. There goes my weekend. I know that I’m not alone in not being able to keep up with my former self.
It turns out there’s a scientific reason – or rather, a few of them – that most people struggle to process alcohol as they age. Thirty is the average age when most start to notice a marked difference in their ability to drink and feel well the next day, and I’m sorry to say that the research says it only gets harder with each passing year.
The first issue is that your body thinks alcohol is poison. That fact causes your liver to convert it into different chemicals that are easier to break down and eliminate, but as you get older, your liver produces less of the goodies that metabolize alcohol.
One of the essential enzymes for breaking down alcohol efficiently, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) is known as the body’s primary defense against alcohol and is responsible for starting the process of metabolization by turning the booze into acetaldehyde. Another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) then steps in and converts the acetaldehyde into acetate before the body converts the whole mess into carbon dioxide or water to kick it out of your body.
The whole process takes about an hour, which is where the recommendation of one drink per hour originally comes from – but if you’re older than 29, you’re going to need to give your poor, aging liver a bit more time. Because as your liver becomes less efficient, the alcohol lingers longer in your body and leads to prolonged hangover symptoms like headaches and nausea.
Another reason our bodies lag in our 30s is that we lose both muscle and water over time – people with more body fat don’t break down alcohol as well, and less water means the booze stays concentrated for longer. Our immune system are also starting to stutter-step by the ripe old age of 30, which means recovering from anything – including a night of too much indulgence – is more of a challenge.
Gastroenterologist Mark Welton confirms this for Men’s Health, saying that “when we get older, our whole recovery process for everything we do is harder, longer, and slower.”
Oh, and ladies? This goes double for us, because we tend to have higher body fat percentages to begin with, and also we come supplied with fewer ADH enzymes. Just another way the biological universe has tipped the scales in men’s favor.
At any rate, you can definitely continue to have fun into your 30s and beyond…you’re just going to want to schedule a sick day or two afterward. And stock up on the Gatorade.