The Best—and Worst—Types of Alcohol to Prevent Hangovers
Here at EatingWell, we firmly believe that all things can fit into a healthy eating pattern, and alcohol can be included in that. In fact, a nightly glass of wine might even provide some benefits to your heart, your gut and your mood. On the other hand, the negative effects of overdoing it are well-documented—both in the research and from personal experience. And since you can't really eat or drink your way out of a hangover, it's best to just avoid them altogether.
But do certain types of alcohol lend themselves to nasty symptoms, like headaches, fatigue and dehydration, more than others? And can what type of booze you choose actually affect how you feel the next day?
Everyone's tolerance to alcohol is different, and some people find they respond to certain alcohols in different ways. Whether or not you're sipping alongside some snacks can also impact how your drinks affect you. And just like with food or other drinks, people have preferences around what they do and don't like. Ultimately, there are a lot of factors to consider. We dove into the research to learn more.
What about Alcohol Causes Hangovers, Anyway?
In the fermentation and distillation process, yeast converts sugars into ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol. Ethanol determines the "strength," or alcohol percentage, of a beverage. But ethanol isn't the only compound made when yeasts break down the original carbohydrates in a beverage. All other compounds created in fermentation and distillation of alcohol are called congeners. The amount and type of congeners present depends on the carbohydrate used for fermentation, like grains for beer, grapes for wine or potatoes for vodka. The distillation process also can influence how many congeners are left in the final beverage. Congeners can influence flavor, aroma, appearance and other drink characteristics.
Congeners' role in hangovers
One notable congener compound is methanol. A high concentration of methanol (or congeners in general) is thought to contribute to hangover severity and symptoms. A robust study from 2013 theorized that congeners like methanol might compete with alcohol to be metabolized, thus extending the time alcohol is present in the body. The longer alcohol is in the body, the more likely there is to be inflammation—which can increase hangover severity. However, more recent research is finding the connection might not be so clear.
A study published in 2017 tested urine methanol concentration for 36 healthy social drinkers. Half of the group reported having "regular" hangover symptoms, while the other half claimed to be hangover-immune (meaning they did not experience hangover symptoms). They found both groups had significantly higher urine methanol concentrations on hangover days than control days, but that a higher urine methanol concentration didn't necessarily lead to more hangover symptoms (aside from vomiting).
Additionally, a 2021 study found that participants who drank congener-free vodka still had congener metabolites, including methanol and propanol, in their urine. This is important because propanol is typically tested via blood samples in cases involving drunk driving.
Another 2019 review in Alcohol and Alcoholism concluded that several factors, including congener metabolites, inflammation and neurotransmitter dysfunction, all contribute to hangover severity.
The Best Types of Alcohol to Prevent a Hangover
Several factors can influence whether you have a hangover and how severe it might be. The main factor is how much alcohol you drink, regardless of the type of alcohol it is. More research is needed to clarify the role of congeners in hangovers. But we do know what types of alcohol have more or less congeners. Here are the types of alcohol with the fewest methanol congeners present, in milligrams per liter:
- Beer (≤27 mg/L)
- Wine (≤151 mg/L)
- Vodka (≤170 mg/L)
The Worst Types of Alcohol to Prevent a Hangover
Alcohol that has higher amounts of congeners doesn't always mean it will give you a worse hangover, but research shows it might be a contributing factor. Here are the types of alcohol with the most methanol congeners, in milligrams per liter:
- Brandy (≤4,766 mg/L)
- Whiskey (≤328 mg/L)
- Fortified wine (≤329 mg/L)
While rum has a relatively small amount of methanol congeners (up to 131mg/L), it has about 3,633mg/L of propanol congeners, the highest amount of propanol of any alcohol on this list. For this reason, it can be one of the worst types of alcohol for a hangover.
The Bottom Line
Let's be very clear: drinking more than the recommended amount (one to two drinks per day) can lead to negative health consequences. And regardless of what you drink, if you overdo it, you will likely feel the consequences the next day. But compounds like congeners found in alcohol might contribute to your hangover's severity. Choosing types of alcohol with fewer congeners, like beer, vodka and wine, might reduce your hangover symptoms compared to alcohols with higher congeners, like brandy, whiskey and rum. But the best way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation. And if you don't already drink, there is not a strong science-based reason to start.