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When Should I Stop Drinking to Avoid a Hangover?

It's way before they start playing Journey at the karaoke bar.

Kristen Dold

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.

The scenario: What started as a casual afternoon beer has escalated into a crawl to the nearest karaoke bar—and you've been dying to belt out some Temple of the Dog. But then you remember that your good-for-nothing boss booked a 9 am staff meeting tomorrow. 

The plan: As long as you pull the plug by early evening, you'll have enough time to sober up, chug a few glasses of water, and stay two steps ahead of a hangover.

The reality: Depending on how much you've had to drink, it's going to take at least four or five hours for your body to metabolize all that booze—and for the hangover to set in. That's because a hangover begins right around the moment your blood alcohol level drops back down to zero; it's almost like a mini withdrawal syndrome, says George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Once that unpleasantness starts, it could take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours for the headache, nausea, shakes, and fatigue to stop, depending on your size, gender, and genetics, not to mention the poison you picked. So your timing, alas, is not going to be a surefire way to avoid a miserable Monday morning.

The science: A hangover isn't just about dehydration, otherwise we'd all comply a hell of a lot better with that rule about drinking a water with every beer. Not long after you've set down your last pint, the feel-good neurotransmitters that booze unleashes in your brain drop back down, your stress and inflammation response shoots up, and toxic substances in alcohol (called congeners) that are produced during fermentation worsen your head, stomach, and body aches. The higher your BAC climbs (which we know happens faster for women and those with a lower body weight), the longer it's going to take to recover. "It really does not matter when you stop drinking, but it does matter what your BAC is when you stop," says Raymond F. Anton, scientific director of the Alcohol Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Theoretically, if you only have a drink per hour (which is about how fast the body metabolizes alcohol), you could stay out late and still feel fine the next day. 

The prescription: Throw back a couple drinks fast to get a buzz, then be done with it so your BAC doesn't climb into hangover territory. We probably don't need to remind you that eating something before drinking (which causes your body to absorb booze more slowly), staying hydrated, and sipping slowly make a winning strategy. Choosing clear alcohol like vodka, which has few of those toxic congeners, compared to the brown ones like cognac and whiskey, which have a bunch, can help too. 

The sooner you stop drinking, the sooner you'll feel better—but nobody can pin it to the hour, so go by your past history. Getting to bed early helps because exhaustion makes hangover symptoms worse, but there's surprisingly little research-backed evidence about what you can do to make life suck less the next day. (In other words, there's no proof your greasy bacon, egg, and cheese bagel is doing anything to help the cause.) Stick with ibuprofen for the aches, water or Gatorade for hydration, some carbs for quick energy, some fresh air, and a cup of coffee if it helps you feel alert and not insane. Then take a breath mint for the meeting.