Even if you hung up your toga years ago, you can still feel like you woke up at Animal House after a night of drinking. "Alcohol impairs judgment -- add a crowd of friends who are also impaired, and your drinking behavior can be fueled by those around you," says John Brick, PhD, executive director of Intoxikon International, a Yardley, Pa. firm that consults on alcohol studies.
It's not just friends who can encourage a hangover. Glasses the size of fish bowls, generous refills, and libations that taste like desserts can all put you on a path to pain the next morning, even if you had the best of intentions.
Whether you're heading to happy hour, a wedding, vacation, or a party, here are expert tips on how to sip your spirits without them haunting you the next morning. "Hangovers are not a sign of health," Brick says.
With that in mind, none of the experts recommend overindulging, even if it is a special occasion. And with the decision to drink comes the responsibility to find a designated driver -- or a taxi --to stay safe. But when drinking is in your plans, you may want to keep these tips in mind.
1. Drink More ... Water, That Is
For every alcoholic drink you have, your body can expel up to four times as much liquid. The diuretic effect of alcohol and the dehydration it causes contribute to the discomfort of a hangover, explains Jim Woodford, PhD, a forensic chemist specializing in drugs and alcohol.
That's why Anthony Giglio, a wine expert in New York City and author of Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide, matches each alcoholic drink with a glass of water. "I drink at least 8 ounces [of water] with no ice to make sure I pace myself and don't overindulge," he tells WebMD.
Both Brick and Woodford agree that staying hydrated can reduce the negative effects of alcohol. "Alcohol dehydrates," Woodford says. "When you wake up with a headache and a generally icky feeling, dehydration is the cause." So replacing lost fluids with water combats dehydration and keeps you from drinking more alcohol in the meantime.
Granted, this advice isn't Nobel Prize research, but keeping a pitcher of water at your table or a glass of water next to your wine may make you feel like a genius in the morning.
2. Hit the Rocks
Giglio has another hangover-fighting strategy: "I order drinks that are on-the-rocks," he explains. "As the ice melts, the drink is diluted and I sip it slowly." Beverages like Manhattans and cosmopolitans are strained, so they stay just as potent as time goes by.
Taking your time with a drink also pays off. Your body absorbs alcohol quicker than you metabolize it. The faster you drink, the more time the toxins in booze spend in your body affecting your brain and other tissues -- and the more pain you feel in the morning, Brick says.
Metabolism depends on several factors (gender, weight, age, health), but in general, most people can metabolize roughly one drink an hour. So diluting it with ice or water will increase your time between refills and decrease your odds of a hangover.
3. Skip the Bubbles
Researchers at the University of Manchester have found that carbonated mixers increase the rate of alcohol absorption in the blood. The theory is that the gas in the bubbles is what speeds up the process. Instead, mix your liquor with fruit juice or water.
If you are going to drink something bubbly, alternate between alcohol and nonalcoholic beverages, suggests Kim Beto, a sommelier and vice president of Southern Wine & Spirits in San Francisco.
"Order a drink that looks the same as an alcoholic drink -- ginger ale in a champagne glass or Coke without the rum, for example," Beto says. The reason: You still have a glass in your hand and it feels like you're having a "real" drink, but you're not doing the same harm.
4. Pay Now or Pay Later
The saying "you get what you pay for" is often the case with alcohol. Researchers have found a link between drinking alcoholic beverages and congeners, the chemicals that contribute to the taste, smell, and color of alcohol.
In that study, people drank either bourbon or vodka with the same alcohol content. The next day, both groups reported hangovers, but the bourbon drinkers reported feeling much worse than the vodka group. The researchers attribute the difference to congeners -- bourbon has 37 times as many congeners as vodka.
In general, clear or light liquor contains fewer congeners than darker drinks, but that's not a hard and fast rule. The best rule of thumb, according to Woodford: Drink more expensive brands. The cheaper booze tends to contain higher levels of congeners than pricier versions, he says.
5. Put Your Mouth to Work
"Having a conversation is an easy way to pace your drinking," Brick says. If you're chatting, you're not guzzling, so you're slowing down the rate booze hits your blood.
But one of the best ways to occupy your mouth and reduce the odds you'll have a hangover: Eat something. "Eating slows down the absorption of alcohol so you have more time to metabolize what you're drinking," Brick tells WebMD.
What should you eat? "Fats and carbs will line the stomach and replace sugars that the body needs for fuel," says New York City nutritionist Keri Glassman, RD. The best options are whole grains and polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in certain fish -- including salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines --and some nuts and seeds (including walnuts and flaxseed).