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Triggers and Cravings

Why Do I Get the "Drunchies" After Drinking Alcohol?

Published:
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read
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Written by
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.
August 30, 2023
·
18 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.
August 30, 2023
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18 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.
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read

You’ve been doing well all week. You’ve been exercising, eating healthy meals full of lean protein and vegetables, and drinking lots of water. But then Friday rolls around. You meet some friends for happy hour after work, and you eat a solid meal while drinking several cocktails. The night carries on and by the time you head home, you suddenly feel ravenous. You feel like you haven’t eaten for days and want to consume all the things you so diligently avoided during the week: pizza, fried foods, chips, and sweets. What’s going on?  

In this post, we’ll explore why we experience the “drunk munchies”— the “drunchies” — after drinking. We’ll also look at how the “drunchies” affect our health, and what we can do to avoid them. Let’s get started!

What Are the “Drunchies” and What Causes Them?

The “drunchies” are cravings for foods that are high in fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates after a session of moderate to heavy drinking. Pizza, french fries, or potato or tortilla chips are typically at the top of the list. Doritos Locos Tacos combo, anyone? 

This is a common experience for those who drink: one survey found that 82% of Americans are self-proclaimed drunken snackers (and more than 50% regret it the next day!). 

Interestingly, even if we consumed food before or during drinking, we still might experience a ravenous hunger later that has us reaching for those fatty foods. Why? 

Researchers have found that alcohol stimulates the same neurons in our brain that our body triggers when it goes into starvation mode. More specifically, the agouti-related peptide (AgRP) neurons — special neurons in our brain that deal with hunger and other functions — are activated during intoxication. 

In other words, our brain actually thinks it’s starving while under the influence of alcohol. Instead of our body saying, “I just got a lot of calories, so I have fuel and am full,” the opposite occurs. Although calories have been ingested, our brain encourages more food intake.

Similarly, studies have shown that alcohol intake encourages our brain to release galanin — a neurochemical that promotes a need for fatty foods. In fact, when we wake up after a night of drinking, the galanin levels in our brain are typically much higher than usual. This helps explain not only our late night jaunts for pizza, but also our cravings for a huge breakfast sandwich the morning after drinking. 

The Way Our Body Processes Alcohol Also Plays a Role

The “drunchies” can also be explained by examining how our body processes alcohol. We typically think of alcoholic beverages — especially beer — as being full of carbohydrates. As such, we assume that they raise our blood glucose level. However, unlike with carbohydrates, alcohol doesn’t turn to sugar in our body. In fact, while sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods raise our blood glucose levels, alcohol actually has the opposite effect: it makes our blood sugar drop. 

Here’s how it works: our liver is in charge of turning foods into energy for our cells, usually in the form of glucose. Alcohol, however, primarily gets broken down in the liver — and since it’s considered a toxin, our body works extra hard to get rid of it. 

While our liver is working on breaking down the alcohol, it isn’t doing its other jobs effectively, including regulating the amount of glucose in our blood. This is why our blood glucose can end up dropping. While we’re drinking, our blood sugar drops even when we eat foods that are high in sugar or carbohydrates. 

Simply put, the moment alcohol enters our bloodstream, our liver drops everything else to focus on detoxifying the harmful substance. And even when our liver does break down the alcohol, it’s converted into carbon dioxide and water — not sugar. This might explain why after drinking we often crave something sweet, like donuts or cookies.

Certain Foods Activate Our Brain’s Reward Center

You know that “feel good” feeling that comes after you start drinking? Alcohol activates our brain’s reward center and stimulates the release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that encourages us to do more of what makes us feel good. 

But alcohol isn’t the only thing that spikes our dopamine levels. Research shows that fatty, sugary snacks activate the release of dopamine, giving us a feeling of pleasure and reward. This effect is so powerful that introducing even small amounts of high-fat, high-sugar foods into our diets can rewire our brain circuits, causing us to crave more. 

After a night of drinking, as the alcohol starts to wear off and our dopamine levels drop, our brain craves another dopamine hit. Fatty, sugary foods are often the quickest and easiest way to get our dopamine levels back up. 

Our Willpower Plays a Role, Too

Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, so while we might have successfully chosen healthy foods and maintained a balanced diet all week, after a drink or two, our willpower goes out the door. With a drink in hand, we’re more likely to grab handfuls of nuts, chips, bread, or whatever is in front of us without giving it much thought. 

This is because alcohol impacts our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. When we consume alcohol, our prefrontal cortex has a harder time doing its job, making it easier for us to decide to indulge in junk food. Studies show that people consume more at meals when they’re drinking alcohol or have been drinking before a meal. 

The Long-Term Impact on Our Health

While one night of the “drunchies” might not seem so harmful, over time it can cause us to gain weight, putting us at a greater risk for obesity and diabetes. Alcohol alone can lead to obesity and diabetes, but when it’s combined with calorie-dense foods, we’re at an even greater risk.

Part of the problem is that indulging in fatty, salty, or sugary foods doesn’t just stop the night of a drinking session: it often continues into the next day. One study found that college students who drank alcohol not only consumed more fatty and salty foods, but were less likely to skip breakfast or brunch on the day after a night of drinking compared to mornings not following alcohol consumption. They also reported opting for greasy bacon, eggs, and cheese sandwiches instead of granola.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that these “feel-good” foods can actually make us feel worse after a night of heavy drinking. For instance, salt and fat can make us more dehydrated and worsen hangover symptoms, such as headaches.

Repeatedly giving into the drunchies can do a number on our self-esteem and motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We’re more likely to “give in” to unhealthy eating in the days that follow, given that we already fell off the wagon. Plus, any disappointment we feel in ourselves might drive us to further engage in unhealthy habits — perpetuating a dangerous cycle.

The bottom line? The more regularly we consume alcohol, the more unhealthy calories we’re likely to consume, increasing our risk of obesity and diabetes and making it more difficult to make healthy lifestyle choices. 

How Much Alcohol Causes the “Drunchies”?

There’s no known set amount of alcohol that causes the “drunchies.” Even one alcoholic beverage can affect our brain and body, triggering us to indulge in something we might not have consumed otherwise.

However, the “drunchies” typically occur with moderate to heavy alcohol consumption. The name, after all — as a combination of “drunk” and “munchies” — indicates that we’ve likely reached a level of intoxication. Generally speaking, the more alcohol we consume, the more likely we’ll find ourselves reaching for those unhealthy snacks.

Binge drinking in particular is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it put our health and safety in jeopardy, but it can lead to elevated levels of food intake given the large volume of alcohol we’ve consumed.

How to Curb Hunger When Drinking Alcohol: 7 Tips

The best way to avoid the “drunchies” is to avoid alcohol entirely or significantly cut back on our alcohol consumption. Not reaching the point of intoxication is one sure way to prevent our brain from sending the “I’m starving” signals. 

However, if we do choose to drink, here are seven tips to help mitigate the effects of alcohol: 

  1. Drink with a balanced meal. Drinking on an empty stomach is never wise and only makes us hungrier the more alcohol we consume. Try having a balanced meal either before or during drinking. Whole grains, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein are beneficial, as they nourish our body and keep us feeling full. 

  2. Stay hydrated. Alcohol dehydrates us, which can sometimes trick our body by mistaking thirst for hunger. A good rule of thumb is to drink a big glass of water for every alcoholic drink you consume. This slows the absorption of alcohol in our system and can help prevent dehydration. 

  3. Don’t have unhealthy snacks lying around. It’s much harder to eat something that isn’t readily accessible, so avoid having chips, candy, pizza, or other junk foods around. At a restaurant, we can ask the server not to bring a bread basket, or to take it away. 

  4. Make healthier snacking options more accessible. Similarly, if we know we’ll be tempted to eat when drinking, try making healthier snacking options available. For instance, get some hummus and chopped vegetables, sliced fruit, or air-popped popcorn to snack on.

  5. Choose your drinks wisely. Not all drinks are created equal. Some cocktails are loaded with sugar, which only intensifies hunger and cravings. Try opting for low-sugar options instead, such as a skinny margarita. 

  6. Sip slowly. We can avoid the “drunchies” by not allowing ourselves to get to the point of intoxication. Try limiting yourself to one drink every hour. We can even set an alarm on our phone to help keep us on track. Mindful drinking can be a particularly effective tool in helping us limit our consumption.

  7. Set up “do not eat” reminders on your phone. We can also try setting a reminder on our phone telling us not to eat junk food. It can be helpful to include bullet points of any goals we’re trying to achieve as a further incentive not to reach for unhealthy snacks.

The Bottom Line

The “drunchies” are real! Drinking alcohol activates neurons in our brain that send an “I’m starving” signal. Even if we consume a meal and are supposed to be “full,” our brain tells us otherwise, which can be too powerful a signal to deny. Drinking alcohol also decreases our blood sugar levels, which makes us crave fatty, sugary, carb-heavy foods. Similar to alcohol, these foods activate the release of dopamine, providing us with that “feel good” feeling and causing us to crave more. Over time, continually indulging in alcohol and these unhealthy foods can cause weight gain, putting us at a greater risk for developing obesity and all the diseases that can come with it. 

If you’re struggling to control your alcohol consumption, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits.

Summary FAQs

1. What are the “drunchies”?

The “drunchies” are the cravings for foods that are often high in fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates we experience after a session of moderate to heavy drinking. 

2. What causes the “drunchies”? 

A number of different things cause the “drunchies.” Drinking alcohol activates neurons in our brain that send an “I’m starving” signal — even if we’re full. Alcohol also encourages our brain to release galanin, a neurochemical that promotes a desire for fatty foods. Furthermore, our blood sugar levels drop when drinking alcohol, which can trigger cravings for fatty, sugary foods.

3. How do the “drunchies” affect our health?

Over time, regular drinking and the calorie-dense foods we consume from getting the “drunchies” can cause us to gain weight, putting us at a greater risk for obesity and diabetes. 

4. How much alcohol causes the “drunchies”?

Typically, moderate to heavy alcohol consumption will cause us to experience the “drunchies.” However, even one drink can affect our brain and body, triggering us to indulge in something we might not have consumed otherwise.

5. How can we curb the “drunchies”?

Abstaining from alcohol is the simplest way to avoid the “drunchies.” However, if we do choose to drink, it’s important to stay hydrated, eat a nutrient-dense meal beforehand, keep unhealthy foods out of reach, make healthy snacks available, choose low-sugar drinks, and refrain from consuming multiple drinks over a short period of time.

Take Control of Your Health 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.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

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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