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Does Beer Before Liquor Really Make You Sicker?

From The Champion's Corner | March 2021
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Almost everyone out there has heard it: beer before liquor, never been sicker, liquor before beer, never fear (or, "you're in the clear," depending on which version you've heard). But how true is that? When you wake up after a long night and your head is pounding, your mouth feels like it's full of cotton and your stomach could use (but really doesn't want) a pile of greasy breakfast food, is it because of the order you drank your booze in the night before? Is there something else behind it? 

Does it really make a difference whether you start with beer, wine, liquor or spirits? New studies claim that this old motto might just be a myth after all. Let's check out whether beer before liquor really does make you sicker, or whether you might just want to think about what you’re drinking in general before downing your next shot. 

Where Did This Come From?

The truth is, nobody knows where the old adage came from or how old it is. It seems like it's been around forever — certainly for generations, in any case. It's very likely that it came about as an old wives' tale (or old partiers' tale, more accurately) that was just related to people's individual experiences. Someone noticed that if they had a beer or two and then switched to hard liquor, they tended to get way sicker the next day than if they just stuck with the brew all night. Of course, there are also multiple explanations for why this may be, so regardless of where the adage began, it's time to explore the science behind it so you can party informed! 

Quality Over Quantity?

The first thing we need to get out of the way is that how much you drink is going to have a much greater effect on you than the combination of booze you take in. It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that drinking too much isn't a good idea, but many of us are willing to live with the consequences (at least until the next morning). But what could make for an even worse time for you is precisely what you're drinking, more so than the combination of different types of alcohol.

Consider sparkling wines and beer, for example. What do they have in common? They're carbonated! Carbonation tends to bubble around in your stomach, irritating the stomach lining, and that allows your body to absorb alcohol at a faster rate. For this reason, when you start with a carbonated beverage (potentially even nonalcoholic soda), you might get drunk faster after you add something with more horsepower on the back end.

In truth, however, this is probably of very little consequence — the rate at which the alcohol absorption will increase is minuscule. Taking in your alcohol with food, on the other hand, can slow down how fast your body absorbs alcohol, meaning you won't get as drunk as fast and, more importantly, you're likely to feel less sick in the morning.

People Who Drink Liquor … Stop Drinking Beer

Another, and even more likely, reason why people get sicker when they switch over to liquor after starting with a few beers is that people who drink liquor tend not to drink any more beer! Naturally, since they switched over from beer, they tend to assume that it must have been the switch from beer to whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, or wine that caused it. The truth, however, is less complex. The fact is, liquor tends to have a lot more alcohol in it than beer (even high ABV craft beers), and the more alcohol you consume, the sicker you're going to be when the chickens come home to roost.

It's Science!

There's even been a scientific study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that backs up the idea that what order you intake has little to no effect on the hangover the morning after. The study looked at 90 participants who were separated into three groups, and then they all started drinking. The alcohol consumed was identical: a 5% lager followed by a 2015 white wine at 11.1%. The first group drank beer first, then wine. The second group drank wine first, then beer. Members of the third group could choose between the two but drank only beer or only wine. 

One week after the initial round, everyone came back and had to repeat the test, but in the opposite order, or to switch beverages in the case of group three. The Acute Hangover Scale, or AHS, was used to rate the severity of the aftermath.

Yes, there is an actual Acute Hangover Scale.

The end of the study demonstrated that the order of the drinks, or whether one drank just one kind, made no difference. The pain and discomfort of the aftermath were the same either way. One interesting result, however, was that women tended to have worse hangovers overall than the men did. Of course, this was a very small-scale study, but it does tend to support the idea that the "beer before liquor" adage is a myth.

So, What Contributes to a Hangover?

There's the million-dollar question: if it's not the order, is there anything besides the amount of alcohol you drink that makes your hangover better or worse? Experts agree that yes, there are a few factors that can contribute to your hangover beyond the amount of alcohol you drink. First, as we mentioned earlier, is whether or not you ate before drinking. Laying down a base can slow down how fast your body absorbs alcohol, which means you don't get drunk as fast, and consequently, you probably won't have as bad a hangover.

Next, how frequently do you drink? If you're a daily or even weekly drinker and you tend to party hard, your blood alcohol is likely to get concentrated and spike faster than those who drink only occasionally. In short, heavy drinkers tend to get drunker faster (even if they might not feel it) and will also suffer worse hangovers. Smokers, too, tend to have more frequent and more powerful hangovers than those who don't smoke.

Next, there's the science-y stuff. Alcoholic beverages have compounds in them called congeners. These compounds are present in all alcohol, but certain types of beverages may have more than others. If your beverage has more congeners, your hangover might be worse. To avoid congeners, watch out for dark liquors like brandy, bourbon dark beer and the like. Last but not least, your genetics can have an effect on how you metabolize alcohol. In that case, there's not much you can do about it except drink less!

Beer Before Liquor Before Beer: It Doesn't Matter!

There you have it. It doesn't matter whether you start with liquor or beer. If you want to be in the clear, the best bet is to avoid getting really drunk. It's the amount of alcohol you drink, whether you ate, how often you drink, if you're a smoker and your genetics that influence it all in the end. Now you have something you can use to sound smart the next time one of the bros claims, "Liquor before beer; I'm in the clear!"  

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