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Alcohol and Health

Symptoms of Hangovers and How To Deal With Them

Published:
January 13, 2023
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21 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.
January 13, 2023
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21 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.
January 13, 2023
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21 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.
January 13, 2023
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21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
January 13, 2023
·
21 min read

In the book of shared human experiences, the chapter on hangovers could fill volumes. Picture it: a gleeful night out with friends, laughter resonating through the air, glasses clinking, and everyone in good spirits. Yet, the morning after, we are met with an unwelcome visitor. This uninvited guest — the hangover — brings with it a suite of discomforting presents: a pounding headache, a stomach that seems to have embarked on a rebellion, and an overall feeling of exhaustion that clings to our being like a damp blanket. As we lay there, staring at the ceiling, there's a universal question that bubbles up: why does this happen to us, and is there a way to avoid this experience? This blog post aims to shed light on these questions.

The Science Behind Hangovers

A hangover is the body's response to excessive alcohol consumption. They consist of a variety of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms that seem to manifest the next morning. Why does this occur now? Let's look more closely.

Alcohol disrupts the brain's communication pathways, impacting the way our brain functions. This explains why getting drunk may cause us to lose our coordination, react slowly, or forget things. But when the amount of alcohol in our system starts to decline, the dreaded hangover starts to play out. To our dismay, it usually reaches its peak when our blood alcohol content (BAC) hits zero.

But that's not all. Alcohol is a potent diuretic, which means it promotes urine production. This can lead to dehydration, a common accomplice of the hangover that often manifests as a throbbing headache and a parched mouth. Alcohol also triggers an inflammatory response from our immune system, leading to difficulty focusing, memory problems, and decreased appetite. If you've ever had an upset stomach after a night of drinking, it's because alcohol irritates the stomach lining, increases stomach acid production, and slows down stomach emptying. This trio can cause stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting — the last things we need while nursing a hangover.

The Moderation Mantra: Less Is More

Hangovers are often viewed as an inevitable aftermath of a good night or a badge of honor signifying a night well-spent. However, there is a simple, time-tested strategy to minimize or completely sidestep hangovers: drinking less. It's important to note that alcohol affects people differently, but as a general principle, the more alcohol we consume, the higher our chances of having a hangover and the more severe it's likely to be.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. Several scientific studies have demonstrated a clear correlation between the quantity of alcohol we drink and the severity of hangover symptoms. When we limit our alcohol intake, our body gets a chance to metabolize it more effectively. This reduces the likelihood of waking up with a full-blown hangover. So, it's not about giving up the fun; it's about changing to a more responsible, moderate drinking style that supports our general wellbeing.

Social Drinking: It's Okay To Say No

It can be difficult to refuse another drink when social drinking is almost a ritual. However, as people who value our health and well-being, it's crucial for us to understand that it's perfectly okay to say no. Rejecting another serving of alcohol doesn't make us party spoilers or buzzkills. Instead, it portrays us as responsible adults who comprehend the importance of moderation.

It's critical to keep in mind that our true friends and companions respect us for who we are, not for how much we can drink. In the larger scheme of things, choosing a non-alcoholic beverage or a glass of water over yet another alcoholic drink may draw a few weird looks, but it sets a good example and might even inspire others to modify their drinking habits.

Moreover, setting personal boundaries around alcohol consumption contributes to a healthier social environment. It takes courage to stand up against peer pressure and choose what's best for us. The choices we make today will reflect on our health and wellness in the future.

Hangover Symptoms

If you’ve ever dealt with a hangover, you know firsthand how awful the symptoms can be. They usually begin 6-8 hours after the last drink, peaking around the 12-hour mark. While the after-effects of a heavy night of drinking vary from person to person, here are the most common symptoms you can expect.

Fatigue

One of the most universally felt hangover symptoms is a profound sense of exhaustion, regardless of the seemingly restful hours we spend in bed. Why does this happen? While alcohol might initially make us drowsy and induce a feeling of sleepiness, it wreaks havoc on our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep — the phase responsible for deep, restorative sleep. As a result, we might spend several hours sleeping but wake up feeling anything but refreshed. This fragmented sleep pattern translates into feelings of weariness, sluggishness, and a day in which even simple tasks seem daunting.

Thirst

Have you awakened absolutely parched after a night of drinking, like you haven’t had water in days? That’s because alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine production. As a consequence, vital fluids and electrolytes leave our system faster than they’re replaced. Our overpowering thirst is our body’s way of attempting to restore balance. 

Headache

The pounding headache that often accompanies a hangover isn't just a result of dehydration; it's also a consequence of alcohol's effect on our blood vessels. Alcohol causes vasodilation, an expansion of blood vessels, which can increase the pressure inside the skull, resulting in a throbbing headache. For those predisposed to migraines, this vascular change can act as a trigger, turning the typical hangover headache into a full-blown, debilitating migraine.

Muscle aches

It might seem puzzling to wake up feeling sore after a night of merely lifting drinks rather than weights. However, the science behind this discomfort is clear. Alcohol metabolism can lead to hangover body aches from an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. Lactic acid build-up, commonly associated with strenuous exercise, causes the feeling of muscle soreness and tension. This can explain why we feel tense and sore the morning after drinking, despite not having done any physically vigorous activity. 

Nausea

Perhaps one of the most dreaded hangover symptoms is nausea. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining, leading to inflammation and an increased production of stomach acid. This surge in acidity, combined with the inflammation, creates a hostile environment in the gut. As a result, that hangover upset stomach can make us feel queasy, lose our appetite, and in some cases, we even vomit. 

Stomach aches

Alcohol consumption stimulates the stomach lining to produce more acid. This heightened acidity not only irritates the stomach but can also result in gastritis or inflammation of the stomach lining.

Moreover, alcohol also decelerates the rate at which the stomach empties. This slowed digestion, combined with the effects of excess stomach acid, results in that familiar gnawing, cramp-like sensation. Over time, if this pattern of drinking and resultant inflammation continues, it can lead to more severe gastrointestinal issues.

Vertigo

Feeling dizzy or off-balance? Alcohol disrupts the inner ear's balance mechanism, leading to vertigo. The inner ear contains a fluid-filled canal that helps us perceive our body's position in space. Alcohol can alter the density of this fluid, confusing the inner ear and leading to feelings of dizziness, spinning, or vertigo. The vertigo hangover symptom can be particularly debilitating.

While vertigo during a hangover is typically a transient symptom that dissipates as alcohol exits our system, it's essential to be cautious. If this sensation lingers or is exceptionally intense, it may indicate other underlying conditions. In this case, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional.

Increased blood pressure

Are you feeling unusually anxious? Is your heart racing? Heavy drinking often leads to a spike in hangover blood pressure. This elevation in blood pressure can lead to feelings of anxiety, a racing heart, and even palpitations. That feeling of hangover-related heart racing is very common, and it’s generally not a sign of a larger cardiovascular issue. 

It's essential to understand that this spike in blood pressure and the heart racing effect is transient, typically normalizing as the hangover subsides. However, chronic heavy drinking can lead to sustained high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Anxiety

Hangover-induced anxiety (aka “hangxiety”) is an unpleasant paradox. For many, alcohol acts as an anxiety-reducing agent — a glass of wine to “take the edge off.” Yet the subsequent morning can often bring a surge of inexplicable anxiety.

Why does this happen? Alcohol plays with several of the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for our mood, behavior, and overall mental state. For instance, GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces feelings of calmness, is enhanced during alcohol consumption. However, in the aftermath, as alcohol levels drop, there's a rebound effect, causing heightened alertness and anxiety.

Similarly, alcohol also interferes with other neurotransmitters such as glutamate and serotonin. The suppression of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, can lead to its rebound surge during a hangover, contributing to feelings of restlessness. Alcohol's impact on serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, can result in mood swings, depression, and heightened anxiety.

Irritability

As we’ve discussed, alcohol can both disrupt your sleep and tank your mood. While a drink might help you fall asleep faster, the quality of this sleep is compromised. The disruption of the REM cycle, as we discussed earlier, results in fragmented, non-restorative sleep. This lack of proper rest leaves us feeling fatigued and, unsurprisingly, irritable.

Also, there’s the neurochemical aspect. Chronic drinking can cause imbalances in these neurotransmitters, leading to mood swings and heightened irritability.

Sensitivity to Light and Sound

The morning after heavy drinking, the world can often seem assaultive — lights feel blinding, and ambient sounds seem cacophonous. Why does this heightened sensitivity occur? The answer lies in the central nervous system (CNS).

Alcohol acts as a CNS depressant, slowing down brain activity and dulling sensory perception. As the effects of alcohol begin to wear off, there’s a rebound overstimulation of the CNS. This results in heightened sensitivity, particularly to sensory stimuli like light and sound.  

Sweating

Excessive drinking can also result in profuse sweating. 

Alcohol has a thermogenic effect, which is due to the metabolic processes involved in breaking down the substance. As the body works overtime to metabolize the drink, it generates heat, leading to an increased body temperature. Sweating, in this context, is the body's mechanism to regulate this sudden rise in temperature.

Furthermore, sweating post-alcohol consumption is also a detoxification process. The skin, our body's largest organ, plays a crucial role in expelling toxins. As the liver and kidneys work to process and eliminate alcohol, sweating assists in expelling the associated toxins, providing a supplementary route for detoxification.

However, this detoxification, while beneficial, is often accompanied by discomfort. The perspiration can be profuse and, given the toxins being expelled, it might also have a very unpleasant odor.

5 Evidence-Backed Tips for Dealing With a Hangover

Allright! Now that we’ve covered the basics of what causes hangovers (and how to avoid them), let’s explore five ways for how to deal with hangovers.

  1. Drink plenty of water. Alcohol is notorious for its dehydrating effect. To combat this, it’s important to rehydrate. Water, electrolyte-rich sports drinks, or rehydration solutions — sipping on these throughout the day can replenish lost fluids and help ease the hangover headache.
  2. Say yes to a balanced breakfast. Food might be the last thing on our minds when we're nursing a hangover, but a balanced breakfast can be a game-changer. Foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein can help restore depleted nutrients and stabilize blood sugar levels. 
  3. Embrace the power of sleep. The body heals itself during sleep, and a hangover is no exception. When we're feeling groggy and out of sorts, catching up on some extra z's can be the best medicine. 
  4. Be gentle with physical activity. While the thought of any physical activity might seem daunting, a gentle walk in the park or a slow-paced yoga session can do wonders. Movement helps boost circulation, uplifts our mood, and speeds along the hangover recovery process.
  5. Avoid the hair of the dog. We might be tempted to have another drink to ease our hangover symptoms, but this can prolong our recovery. Instead, let's allow the body time to heal by steering clear of alcohol for at least the next few days.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you wake up with a hangover. Every hangover is only temporary, but these tips can help hasten them along.

A Balanced Approach: The Road to Well-being

The human experience includes enjoying life's pleasures, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the occasional celebration. However, our total well-being is shaped by the decisions we consistently make. By understanding how hangovers occur and choosing to consume less alcohol, we not only prevent a hangover but also make an investment in our long-term health and happiness.

Drinking less gives us the freedom to fully enjoy our social events without worrying about how we'll feel the next day. This well-rounded strategy helps us to keep our physical health, mental clarity, and general well-being — and it lets us completely appreciate the companionship of our loved ones.

Life is all about moderation and balance. We ought to treat booze the same way. We start down the path to a healthier, happier life when we are aware of the effects of our decisions and take action to limit our alcohol intake. It's not about missing out on fun; it's about having a good time at the party and still waking up the following morning without a hangover and ready to take on the day.

Summary FAQs

1. What is a hangover and why does it happen?

A hangover is the body's response to excessive alcohol consumption, resulting in various unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. It is caused by the disruption of brain communication pathways, dehydration due to alcohol's diuretic properties, an inflammatory immune response, stomach irritation, and more.

2. How does alcohol affect sleep?

While alcohol can make you drowsy, it disrupts REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is responsible for deep, restorative rest. This leads to feelings of exhaustion, even after a full night's sleep.

3. Is there a connection between the amount of alcohol consumed and the severity of the hangover?

Yes, there's a clear correlation. The more alcohol we consume, the higher the chances of having a hangover and the more severe it's likely to be.

4. Can hangovers be avoided?

The simplest and most effective way to avoid a hangover is to drink in moderation or abstain altogether. By limiting alcohol intake, our bodies can metabolize it more efficiently, reducing the risk of hangover symptoms.

5. How can I deal with peer pressure when choosing not to drink?

Remember that it's perfectly okay to say no. True friends will respect your choices, and setting personal boundaries around alcohol consumption contributes to a healthier social environment.

6. What are the typical symptoms of a hangover?

Hangover symptoms include fatigue, thirst, headache, muscle aches, nausea, stomach pain, vertigo, increased blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, sensitivity to light and sound, and sweating.

7. Are there any evidence-backed methods to deal with a hangover?

Definitely! Some effective methods include rehydration, eating a balanced breakfast, getting extra sleep, engaging in gentle physical activity, and avoiding more alcohol.

Live Well and Thrive With Reframe!

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Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually and 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 gives you 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 today!

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