In the harsh light of the morning, your head throbbing, you might not care whether a set of genes is causing you pain or the vat of beer and liquor pooling in your stomach. But new research from the University of Missouri-Columbia says understanding how people are predisposed to hangovers could shed light on alcohol addiction, too.
The new study was able to untangle which effects were the result of environmental influences and which stemmed from genetics alone with the help of the Australian Twin Registry. Lead researcher Wendy Slutske and her colleagues found that among nearly 4,000 twins pulled from the registry, survey results showed genetic influence accounted for roughly 45 percent of hangover sensations in women and 40 percent in men.
"With drinking alcohol, it is not 'one size fits all,'" Slutske told Live Science. "People are different in their ability to consume alcohol without experiencing adverse consequences, such as having a hangover."
Other factors play a role. How much people drink, how fast they drink, and how much they’ve had to eat before drinking all account for how severe the next day’s hangover will be. To account for these differences, the research team asked a variety of questions related to people’s hangovers. They asked about frequency and severity concerning both twins, and compared the results to one another. The patterns that emerged suggested twins were going through similar experiences much of the time.
"We have demonstrated that susceptibility to hangovers has a genetic underpinning. This may be another clue to the genetics of alcoholism,” said Slutske, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism, in 2012 some 17 million people over the age of 18 suffered from an alcohol use disorder, or an AUD. Only 1.4 people, however, received treatment for that AUD. Just shy of 90,000 people die each year from an alcohol-related cause, making it the third-most preventable cause of death in the U.S.
Several details need ironing out before researchers can make any claims about the genetics of hangovers and alcoholism. First, the study was conducted as a survey. Self-reported measures are notoriously unreliable, let alone when it comes to recent hangovers. Plus, the survey had no way of looking at the genes specifically. The best Slutske and her team could do is rely on the respondents’ word to draw their conclusions.
To arrive at more hardline findings, follow-up tests would need to observe the genes directly. In the meantime, Slutske advises people to monitor their alcohol consumption like they normally would. "It is not a good idea to try to pace your drinking to the people around you,” she said, “because you might be more susceptible to hangover than the other people that you are drinking with.”
Source: Slutske W, Piasecki T, Nathanson L, Statham D, Martin N. Genetic Influences on Alcohol-related Hangover. Addiction. 2014.