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Alcohol and Health

Alcohol and Fatigue: Why Do I Feel So Tired After Drinking?

Published:
July 19, 2023
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23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 19, 2023
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23 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 19, 2023
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23 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 19, 2023
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23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 19, 2023
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23 min read

If you’ve ever seen a plane full of people going on vacation to Cancun and then watched them go back home a few days later, you may have noticed a paradox — the passengers on the return flight seem more exhausted. What gives? Often, alcohol is the culprit responsible for the energy slump.

Many of us have been there — dancing the night away, sipping on our favorite cocktails — only to wake up feeling like we’ve been hit by a truck. The fatigue is real, and there’s science behind it! Let's uncover the mysteries of post-booze drowsiness.

The Science Behind the Slump

We all get fatigued, but what's actually happening in your body when exhaustion hits? It's not just a simple "battery running low" situation — there's a complex interplay of systems at work. 

At its core, fatigue is our body's way of signaling something is amiss — something physical, mental, or emotional. It’s a protective mechanism, keeping us from pushing ourselves too far.

  • Neurochemical balancing act. Our brain uses neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) to process information and regulate our mood. An imbalance of neurotransmitters — especially serotonin and dopamine — can result in fatigue. While serotonin promotes sleep and mood regulation, dopamine regulates attention, motivation, and reward. When these are out of whack, tiredness can creep in.
  • Mitochondrial matters. Mitochondria are organelles often dubbed the "powerhouses" of our cells because they produce energy. Science shows that if they're not functioning at their best, due to factors such as oxidative stress, our energy production can dwindle, leading to fatigue.
  • Overworked muscles. When muscles are overworked, they build up lactic acid, which can lead to soreness and fatigue, signaling the body to take a break.
  • Inflammatory responses. Chronic bodily inflammation due to autoimmune disorders or other chronic conditions can lead to persistent fatigue. The body, in its effort to fight off what it perceives as threats, expends energy, leading to tiredness.

Understanding the underlying mechanisms of fatigue can make it easier to pinpoint why we feel drained, especially after certain activities or routines. Adding alcohol into this mix can further complicate our body's response, making that morning-after feeling even more pronounced. Let’s explore 5 reasons behind alcohol-related fatigue and discuss ways to avoid it.

1: Alcohol Disrupts Sleep Patterns

Sleep is vital for almost every aspect of our well-being. It's our body's time to repair, rejuvenate, and prepare for the next day. But introduce alcohol into this equation, and the once smooth-sailing ship hits some choppy waters. 

  • The misleading sedative effect. On the surface, alcohol appears to be a sleep aid — we might drift off faster after a drink or two. But there’s a catch: the rest of the night often doesn’t go so well, and the sleep that we end up getting isn’t truly restful.
  • Disrupted REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is the dream stage of our sleep cycle. It's crucial for mental restoration, learning, memory, and mood regulation. Alcohol, however, can suppress REM sleep, especially in the first half of the night. The result? We miss out on the restorative phase and end up feeling groggy even if we clocked in our 8 hours.
  • Increased nighttime awakenings. Alcohol can lead to increased nighttime awakenings, especially in the second half of the night as its sedative effects diminish. This can mean more trips to the bathroom, tossing and turning, or periods of lying awake.
  • Exacerbation of sleep disorders. For those who already experience sleep disorders like sleep apnea, alcohol can exacerbate the problem. By relaxing the muscles of the throat, alcohol can intensify breathing issues, leading to more frequent interruptions in breathing and, subsequently, more disrupted sleep.
  • Altered sleep architecture. Sleep is structured, moving through various stages, from light sleep to deep sleep and then into REM. Alcohol can alter this architecture, leading to unbalanced, erratic progressions through these stages, ultimately impacting the restorative quality of sleep.

2: Alcohol Causes Dehydration

We've all had those nights out when it seems like we're visiting the restroom every other minute. It's not just our imagination — alcohol increases the urge to urinate. The reason behind this lies in its diuretic properties. 

  • Antidiuretic hormone (ADH) suppression. One of the primary ways alcohol acts as a diuretic is by inhibiting the secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) from the pituitary gland. This hormone plays a vital role in regulating the body’s water balance. Under typical circumstances, ADH signals the kidneys to conserve water, especially when the body senses dehydration. However, alcohol interferes with this process. With reduced ADH levels, the kidneys are directed to expel more water than they should, leading to increased urine production.
  • Electrolyte imbalance. As the kidneys release more water, they also excrete essential electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium. These electrolytes are crucial for nerve and muscle function, and an imbalance can lead to muscle cramps, weakness, heart irregularities, and fatigue
  • Effects on the bladder. Beyond its influence on the kidneys, alcohol also irritates the bladder, giving us the urge to go even if our bladder isn't full. This can compound the frequent trips to the restroom, exacerbating dehydration.
  • Counterintuitive thirst mechanism. While alcohol can leave us feeling parched, it also suppresses the body's natural thirst mechanism. So, despite needing fluids, we might not feel the urgency to drink water as strongly as we should, leading to tiredness.
  • Hangover woes. Dehydration is a primary culprit behind the dreaded hangover. Along with that pounding headache, dry mouth, and dizziness, the fatigue we feel after a night of drinking can largely be attributed to dehydration. The body is working hard to restore balance, and that takes a toll on our energy levels.
Tiredness caused by alcohol

3: The Liver Is Working Overtime

The liver works diligently to process what we put into our bodies. But toss alcohol into the equation, and this essential organ has to kick into overdrive. Let's explore the reasons why alcohol strains the liver and the implications of this for our energy levels.

  • Metabolizing alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin, requiring immediate attention to be metabolized and removed from the bloodstream. The liver, as the primary detoxification center, breaks it down using enzymes. This process converts alcohol into acetaldehyde — a toxic substance that’s even more harmful than alcohol!
  • Acetaldehyde breakdown. Thankfully, acetaldehyde doesn’t stay in our bodies for too long — the liver swiftly breaks it down into acetate with the help of another enzyme. Acetate is eventually converted into carbon dioxide and water, which the body can safely eliminate. However, if we’re consuming alcohol faster than our liver can process it, acetaldehyde builds up, leading to intoxication and potentially harming the liver.
  • Energy resource diversion. The liver plays a crucial role in energy production by regulating blood sugar levels. It stores excess glucose as glycogen and releases it when the body needs an energy boost. However, when it's busy processing alcohol, these energy-regulating functions can be compromised, leading to fluctuations in blood sugar levels and causing fatigue.
  • Production of reactive oxygen species. Metabolizing alcohol generates reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can damage liver cells and lead to inflammation, fatty liver disease, and cirrhosis over time. The energy required to combat these ROS and repair damaged cells can contribute to booze-related fatigue.
  • Nutrient depletion. The liver needs nutrients such as B vitamins and antioxidants to process and neutralize toxins. Alcohol can deplete them, hindering the liver's ability to function optimally and reducing our overall vitality.
  • Disruption of circadian rhythms. Recent research indicates that alcohol can disrupt the circadian rhythms of the liver, impacting its ability to regulate processes tied to the body's internal clock. As these rhythms fall out of sync, we feel tired, and our sleep patterns get disrupted even more. 

4: The Body’s Stress Response

It's a paradox: many of us turn to alcohol to relax or let loose, yet, deep within our bodies, alcohol sets off stress signals. Let's explore the sneaky ways alcohol interacts with our body’s stress response.

  • Activation of the stress axis. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis lies at the heart of our body's reaction to stress. Drinking activates this axis, leading to the release of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and eventually resulting in the secretion of cortisol, our primary stress hormone.
  • The double-edged sword of cortisol. Cortisol, in the right amounts and at the right time, is essential. It helps regulate metabolism, reduces inflammation, and controls the sleep-wake cycle. However, when levels are elevated — as they can be with alcohol consumption — cortisol can disrupt various physiological processes, leading to poor sleep quality, increased appetite, and yes, heightened fatigue.
  • Sympathetic nervous system arousal. The sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as our "fight or flight" system, can be stimulated by alcohol. The result? An increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a state of heightened alertness — not exactly a recipe for relaxation and recuperation.
  • Depletion of feel-good neurotransmitters. Alcohol can cause an initial release of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins — neurotransmitters that make us feel good. However, this is often followed by a depletion of these chemicals, leading to potential mood dips, anxiety, and fatigue.
  • Inflammation induction. Emerging research suggests that excessive alcohol consumption can trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Inflammation, especially when chronic, is associated with fatigue, as the body expends energy trying to combat the inflammatory agents.
  • Disrupted gut health. The gut-brain connection is a hot topic these days — science shows that our gut health can influence our mental well-being, including our response to stress. Alcohol can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, potentially affecting how we cope with stress and our overall energy levels.
  • Rewiring the brain. Chronic alcohol consumption can alter the brain's structure and function, making it more responsive to stressors and less resilient in the face of challenges. This heightened stress sensitivity can result in a more pronounced fatigue response when faced with everyday challenges.

5: Alcohol Induces a Sugar Spike

Alcoholic beverages — especially those sweet cocktails — can cause a spike in blood sugar. But what goes up must come down! As our sugar level drops, we might feel an energy slump.

  • Immediate blood sugar elevation. Many alcoholic beverages — particularly mixed drinks — contain a considerable amount of sugar, leading to an immediate spike in blood glucose levels when we drink. This initial surge can give us a short-lived boost of energy, only to be followed by a crash.
  • Impaired glucose production. While alcohol can lead to an initial spike in blood sugar, it also has the opposite effect in the longer term. The liver, which is responsible for producing glucose, prioritizes metabolizing the alcohol. This means the liver is less efficient at releasing glucose into the bloodstream, which can result in lowered blood sugar levels, especially if you drink on an empty stomach.
  • Hypoglycemia risk. With reduced glucose production and the initial sugar from alcoholic beverages being rapidly consumed for energy, there's a risk of hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar levels. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include dizziness, weakness, mood swings, and fatigue.
  • Insulin sensitivity alteration. Chronic alcohol consumption can impact how sensitive our cells are to insulin — the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. Reduced sensitivity (or insulin resistance) can lead to elevated blood sugar levels, causing a host of health problems, including increased fatigue.
  • Nutrient absorption impact. Alcohol can affect the absorption of certain nutrients vital for maintaining stable blood sugar levels. For instance, alcohol can hinder the absorption of thiamine (vitamin B1), which plays a key role in converting carbohydrates into energy. Thiamine deficiency, in turn, is known to cause fatigue.
  • Caloric content. Beyond the sugar, alcohol itself has calories. These “empty” calories can lead to weight gain over time, which further impacts insulin sensitivity and blood sugar management, creating a vicious cycle.

Riding the Sugar Rollercoaster

Here are some tips for navigating the blood sugar roller coaster and its energy-draining downsides:

  1. Eat regular meals and snacks. Consuming food at consistent intervals ensures a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, preventing drastic highs and lows. Aim for balanced meals and snacks every 3-4 hours.
  2. Prioritize complex carbohydrates. Foods like whole grains, legumes, and vegetables release glucose slowly due to their fiber content, ensuring sustained energy levels. Opt for quinoa, brown rice, lentils, or leafy greens over refined carbohydrates
  3. Pair carbs with protein and healthy fats. Adding protein or fat to a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack can slow the absorption of glucose. Think almond butter on whole-grain toast or a salad with grilled chicken and avocado.
  4. Limit sugary beverages. Drinks like sodas, sweetened teas, and most fruit juices can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Instead, opt for water, unsweetened herbal tea, or beverages with no added sugars.
  5. Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps increase insulin sensitivity, which means your cells can use available sugar more effectively. Incorporate both aerobic activities (like walking or cycling) and strength training exercises into your routine.
  6. Manage stress. Chronic stress can lead to elevated blood sugar levels due to the prolonged release of stress hormones. Incorporate stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga into your daily routine.
  7. Check blood sugar regularly. If you have diabetes or are at risk for it, regularly monitoring your blood sugar levels will help you understand how different foods and activities affect your levels. 

7 Actions Steps To Combat Post-Drink Fatigue

Finally, here are some ideas for keeping alcohol from sapping your energy levels.

  • Stay hydrated. Match every alcoholic drink with a glass of water. In addition to keeping dehydration at bay, this habit can help you moderate your alcohol intake.
  • Choose clear. Darker alcohols contain more congeners (byproducts of fermentation), which can exacerbate hangover symptoms. 
  • Limit sugary mixers. Opt for mixers that are low in sugar or sugar-free to avoid that blood sugar spike and subsequent crash.
  • Get quality sleep. While it's true alcohol can disrupt REM sleep, ensuring your sleep environment promotes restfulness can help. Keep the room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Consider earplugs or an eye mask.
  • Have a hearty breakfast. Eggs, avocado, whole grains — these are your new best friends the morning after. They can help stabilize blood sugars and provide energy to kickstart your day.
  • Move your body. While you might not feel like running a marathon, some light exercise, such as stretching or a brisk walk, can help boost your energy levels and shake off that groggy feeling.
  • Be mindful. Listening to your body is key. Recognize your limits and understand how alcohol affects your body. The Reframe app can be a handy tool to assist in moderating or quitting alcohol!

Facing Fatigue

As Craig D. Lounsbrough says, “It’s not about getting tired, as that’s inevitable. Rather, it’s about giving up once we’re tired, because that’s not inevitable.”

However, it’s also crucial to examine the reasons behind our fatigue and see the process as an opportunity to tweak our lifestyle in the way that lets us be the most vibrant version of ourselves. The road might be frustrating at times, but it’s well worth the effort!

Summary FAQs

1. Why does alcohol make me feel more tired even if I've had a full night's sleep?

Alcohol disrupts the natural sleep cycle, preventing you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep (like REM sleep) that are crucial for feeling rested. Even if you sleep for many hours, the quality of that sleep is compromised, leaving you feeling fatigued.

2. How does alcohol affect my body's hydration levels?

Alcohol acts as a diuretic, causing the body to produce more urine and leading to increased fluid loss. This can result in dehydration, which is a common cause of fatigue.

3. What's the connection between alcohol and my liver when it comes to energy levels?

Your liver processes alcohol as a priority since it's a toxin. This can divert its resources from other essential functions, like maintaining stable blood sugar levels, leading to fluctuations that cause tiredness.

4. Why do sugary alcoholic drinks make me feel especially drained?

Many alcoholic beverages, especially cocktails, contain sugars that can cause a rapid spike in blood glucose. This is followed by a potential drop, leading to energy crashes and feelings of fatigue.

5. Does alcohol actually stress out my body internally?

Yes! While you might feel relaxed after a drink, alcohol activates the body's stress response systems, including releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which can contribute to feelings of fatigue.

6. How does alcohol impact my gut health, and why does that matter for fatigue?

Alcohol can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. Since there's a strong connection between gut health and mental well-being, including our response to stress and energy levels, an imbalance can lead to increased fatigue.

7. Are there ways to minimize fatigue if I choose to drink?

Moderation is key. If you drink, do so in moderation and pair it with a balanced meal to stabilize blood sugar. Drinking plenty of water can help combat dehydration, and ensuring you get good sleep (both in terms of quantity and quality) can also mitigate feelings of tiredness.

Unlock Your Best Self With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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