Q: Are hangovers linked to sugar in wine?—Margaret, Gig Harbor, Wash.
A: A hangover is the unpleasant combination of headache, nausea, fatigue, general malaise and more that people often experience after drinking too much alcohol, usually the morning (and in severe cases, the entire day) after a night of overconsumption. The root causes and exact biological mechanisms of hangovers still aren’t well understood, but doctors have established that excessive consumption of alcohol itself is the most significant cause of hangovers by a large margin.
Could sugar play a role in hangovers? It’s worth remembering that most wines are dry, meaning they contain very little, if any, residual sugar. Unless you’re drinking a sweet wine (such as Port, Madeira or Tokaji), your glass probably doesn’t contain much sugar at all.
Dr. Jason Burke, an anesthesiologist and the founder of Hangover Heaven, a Las Vegas company that offers pills, IV drips and other products to prevent and treat hangovers, says that “ultimately, drinking too much alcohol [is the cause of hangovers].” While we still don’t clearly understand how dehydration, inflammation, oxidative stress and other biological processes linked to alcohol consumption interact to cause hangovers, it’s clear that how much you drink, and not how much sugar you consume, is the primary culprit. Dr. Burke points to a study that gave people both alcohol and sugar, then measured their alcohol intoxication and hangover severity. The study found that “neither fructose nor glucose had any significant effect on the intensity of alcohol intoxication and hangover.”
That said, there is some evidence that consuming sugar—whether in wine, in a mixed drink, or in food—may deplete B vitamins. According to Dr. Burke, “B vitamins are [important] for metabolizing the breakdown products of alcohol consumption. So, if a person consumes a lot of sugar, this will consume their available B vitamins, thus leaving fewer vitamins available to metabolize the breakdown products of alcohol.”
Dr. Burke hypothesizes, however, that the quality of alcohol consumed may be a factor in the frequency and severity of hangovers. Many inexpensive spirits, for instance, are distilled fewer times than more expensive ones. This makes them more likely to contain impurities, including methanol. Bartenders may cover up cheap spirits with sugary mixers, which could lead people to blame their hangover on sugar when, in reality, it’s the booze that bit them. Many spirits—especially those, like whisky, that are aged in charred wood barrels—also contain high levels of congeners, chemicals that have been shown to contribute to hangovers.
Dr. Burke adds that wines made in an oxidative style, such as Sherry and tawny Port, contain elevated levels of acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol metabolism that is believed to contribute to hangovers. While some of these oxidative wines contain quite a bit of residual sugar, it’s likely the extra acetaldehyde—not to mention high alcohol levels—that drinkers should look to when they wake up feeling less than their best. Some studies have also suggested that wine’s tannins may contribute to glutamine rebound, a neurochemical process responsible for the racing heart, shaking, sweating and anxiety that often accompany hangovers.
However it happens, being hungover is a drag. What can drinkers do to curtail the nasty effects of a glass or three too many? Dr. Burke says there’s no silver bullet: “Everyone thinks there’s a single ingredient grown on some mountaintop in Borneo that’s a magical cure for hangover, but that’s not the case.” Beyond drinking moderately and consuming plenty of water, he recommends multivitamins, an NSAID, milk thistle and curcumin. As always, talk to your doctor about incorporating alcohol into a healthy—and if you’re lucky, hangover-free—lifestyle.—Kenny Martin