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Alcohol and Health

Why Do I Have Brain Fog After Drinking Alcohol?

September 14, 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.
September 14, 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.
September 14, 2023
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.
September 14, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 14, 2023
18 min read

You just woke up after a night of drinking. You go to meet your friends for brunch, but when you get there you realize you’ve forgotten your wallet. You’re listening to your friend tell a story, but you can’t seem to focus. The waiter comes around to take your order, but you can’t decide what you want. It actually hurts to think. What’s going on — and why can’t you seem to get it together? 

What is alcohol brain fog all about? And how long does brain fog last after drinking? In this post, we’ll explore how alcohol disrupts cognitive processes, causing us to experience brain fog. We’ll also look at ways to protect ourselves from brain fog and keep our brain healthy. Let’s dive in!

What Is Brain Fog?

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Before we look at alcohol’s role in brain fog, let’s take a moment to define brain fog. While it’s not technically classified as a medical condition, brain fog refers to cognitive difficulties, such as trouble with focus, memory, and thinking. It’s characterized by confusion, forgetfulness, or a lack of mental clarity. 

While there’s no established set of symptoms that all people with brain fog experience, here are some things we may experience as a result of brain fog:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating on tasks
  • Difficulty following conversations
  • Feeling overly fatigued by thinking about a difficult subject 
  • Trouble with recall, or forgetting people’s names or information we know well
  • Feeling as if we’re in a dream or trancelike state
  • Thinking more slowly than usual 

Many people with brain fog also feel fatigued — both mentally and physically. It’s almost as if there’s a layer of film in our mind that prevents our brain from working as well as it normally does.

Brain fog can be caused by various factors, such as lack of sleep, stress, malnutrition, medication, neuroinflammation, and the use of certain substances, such as alcohol. 

Alcohol and Brain Fog: The Connection

Given alcohol’s short- and long-term effects on the brain, it’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that we can get that lethargic, dull mental state we refer to as brain fog after drinking. In fact, one study found that hangovers have a negative effect on cognitive functions, including visual, memory, and intellectual processes. Another study noted that people are generally less alert when they’re hungover. 

But, how exactly does brain fog from alcohol develop? Let’s take a closer look at four specific factors that contribute to having a foggy brain after drinking. 

1. Slowed Brain Activity

Alcohol is a depressant that slows our central nervous system and reduces our brain activity. Two neurotransmitters in particular play an important role in this process: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. Both of these are regulated by the hypothalamus, the almond-sized region of our brain that acts as a link between our endocrine system and nervous system. 

GABA reduces the activity of our brain’s neurons, the nerve cells. Consuming alcohol actually amplifies this effect, contributing to feelings of drowsiness and relaxation. Glutamate, on the other hand, typically stimulates increased brain activity and energy levels. It also helps control our cognitive abilities, such as learning and memory. However, alcohol suppresses glutamate’s effects, leading to even slower brain activity. This decrease in brain activity not only affects us while we’re drinking, but it can result in brain fog the next day. It’s also why we might have difficulty concentrating or recalling certain things. 

2. Nutritional Deficiencies

Alcohol can also impair our cognition by affecting our diet and vitamin absorption. Alcohol is devoid of important proteins, minerals, and vitamins — and it actually inhibits the absorption and use of vital nutrients such as thiamine (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc. Thiamine is particularly important, as it’s involved in the metabolism of proteins and fat and the formation of hemoglobin — a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to tissues throughout our body. 

Lack of nutrients affects not just our physical body, but our cognitive abilities as well, such as our ability to process information and solve problems. In fact, a deficiency in the essential nutrient thiamine resulting from chronic, heavy alcohol consumption is one of the biggest factors contributing to alcohol-induced brain damage. 

3. Dehydration and Inflammation

Another way that brain fog from alcohol develops has to do with dehydration and inflammation. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it promotes water loss through urine. As a result, we become dehydrated easily. Dehydration not only causes the symptoms we typically associate with a hangover, such as a headache, but it contributes to other symptoms of brain fog, such as difficulty concentrating and focusing. 

We often don’t realize it, but water actually helps our brain cells communicate with each other. When we’re dehydrated, our brain function can become significantly impaired. This is why people who are severely dehydrated get easily confused and disoriented — sometimes even becoming delirious. 

Similarly, alcohol also causes significant inflammation throughout the body, which includes our brain. This inflammation contributes to both headaches and brain fog. 

4. Disrupted Sleep 

Finally, alcohol can also disrupt our natural sleep cycle and reduce our overall quality of sleep. Even though alcohol helps us fall asleep faster — thanks in large part to its depressive effect — we typically experience more sleep disturbances as the night goes on. Quality sleep is important for nearly every aspect of our health, including our metabolism, mood, and cognitive function (attention, learning, and memory). After only one night of poor sleep, our cognitive functions and performance start to decline. We might find ourselves in that brain fog state, forgetting things more often or having difficulty concentrating.

How Long Does Brain Fog From Alcohol Last?

How long does brain fog last after drinking? Brain fog from alcohol — also known as hangover brain fog — usually lessens within 8 to 24 hours after drinking. However, the time frame can be longer for people who are regularly consuming heavy amounts of alcohol. 

In fact, many people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) who go through the detoxification process experience prolonged brain fog. This is largely because our body is working hard to clear a buildup of alcohol-related toxins while also battling cravings for more alcohol, making it difficult to think clearly. 

In these cases, how quickly brain fog goes away depends on several factors, such as the severity of alcohol misuse, how long we’ve been drinking, and our overall health status. While brain fog sometimes goes away on its own within a few days or weeks after quitting drinking, it can persist for extended periods for some people, particularly those with severe alcohol misuse. These people usually require professional medical attention to be treated effectively.

The good news is that studies show that people who maintain sobriety continue to recover cognitive function over several months to 1 year, and they experience significant increases in brain volume compared to people who don’t abstain. 

Tips for Treating Hangover Brain Fog 

The most obvious way to prevent brain fog after drinking is to limit our consumption of alcohol or to stop drinking altogether. Several lifestyle habits can enhance our brain function. Here are 8 tips: 

  1. Exercise your brain. Just as we exercise our body to stay in shape, we can help keep our brain healthy by practicing brain exercises. In fact, research shows that brain-training games can help improve attention levels, memory, response time, and logic skills if played over a long timespan. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, playing word games, or even just reading can keep our brain sharp and engaged. Some of the more popular brain games for adults include Wordle, Lumosity, Peak, Elevate, Happy Neuron, and Braingle.
  2. Practice laughing yoga. Laughing yoga involves a series of movement and breathing exercises to promote deliberate laughter. Research shows that laughing enhances our intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates our heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins released by our brain. Other studies have shown that laughing yoga may help reduce cortisol levels and stress, improve mood and energy levels, and induce a more positive mindset. 
  3. Try forest bathing. Forest bathing is the practice of mindfully immersing ourselves in nature. It’s based on the Japanese practice, “shinrin-yoku”, which can be translated as “taking in the medicine or atmosphere of the forest.” It encourages us to spend time walking through nature — like a park or forest — and engage all of our senses, paying attention to what we’re seeing, hearing, and smelling. Research shows that forest bathing offers a number of benefits, such as reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and improved immunity. 
  4. Get quality sleep. As we’ve noted, sleep is vital not just for our physical body, but for our mental and cognitive health as well. Experts recommend getting at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. An evening relaxation routine that signals our brain it’s time for bed can help facilitate this. For instance, we might take a bath, journal, do light yoga, or read. It’s also helpful to avoid screens — computers, TVs, phones, etc. — at least 30 minutes before we go to sleep. 

    Keep in mind that cool, dark rooms are typically more conducive to restorative sleep. Experts recommend setting your thermostat to 60-68 degrees F (65 degrees is usually ideal). If it’s too noisy or too quiet, try creating some white noise in the form of a fan, humidifier, or noise machine.
  5. Exercise regularly. Similar to sleep, exercise is as important for our cognitive and mental health as it is our physical health. Studies have found that regular physical activity enhances our capacity to think, learn, and problem solve, in addition to improving our memory. It also reduces our risk of cognitive decline, including dementia. 

    Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity and two sessions of muscle strengthening activity a week. We don’t have to do this all at once! We can break it up by doing 30 minutes of exercise a day, 5 days a week. And we don’t have to get crazy — even a brisk walk is beneficial. 
  6. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. As we’ve learned with alcohol, whatever we put into our body can affect our brain. Studies show that a healthy diet including olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans, and whole grains can improve thinking, memory, and brain health. 

    Healthy fats are particularly beneficial to our brain, as they enhance communication between brain cells. Research also shows that healthy fats can support blood flow in our brain and aid in the growth of brain tissue. Healthy fats include things like fatty fish (salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel in particular), avocadoes, nuts (macadamias, almonds, and hazelnuts in particular), chia seeds, and flaxseeds. 
  7. Hydrate. Water is vital for keeping every part of our body functioning optimally, including our brain. Water helps our brain cells communicate with each other and clears out toxins and waste that impair brain function. It also helps bring nutrients to our brain that keep our brain healthy. Experts recommend drinking at least six 8-oz glasses of water a day. If we’re physically active, we should be consuming more. We should also consider adding electrolyte packets to our water to help restore essential minerals (like sodium, calcium, and potassium) that we lose from sweating. 
  8. Practice stress reduction techniques. Stress can take a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional health. Our brain can benefit from practicing stress reduction techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, or guided meditation. Research has shown that meditation reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves our memory and cognitive functions. For tips on how to get started and different methods to try, check out the best meditations for stress relief

The Bottom Line

It’s not unusual to experience brain fog after a night of drinking. Alcohol slows communication between brain cells, inhibitions the absorption of essential nutrients, causes dehydration and inflammation, and interferes with our quality of sleep — all of which can impair our cognitive function and make it difficult to think clearly, focus, and recall information. 

While brain fog usually goes away on its own, it can sometimes be prolonged in people who misuse alcohol and stop drinking. The best way to prevent brain fog is to limit our alcohol consumption or eliminate it entirely. We can also enhance our brain function through good-health practices: getting adequate sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, hydrating, and practicing stress reduction techniques. 

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption and boost your brain health, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and improve their cognitive functioning. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is brain fog?

Brain fog is a term used to describe cognitive difficulties, such as trouble with focus, memory, and thinking. It’s often characterized by confusion, forgetfulness, or a lack of mental clarity.

2. How does alcohol cause brain fog?

Alcohol slows communication between brain cells, inhibitions the absorption of essential nutrients, causes dehydration and inflammation, and interferes with our quality of sleep — all of which can impair our cognitive function and make it difficult to think clearly, focus, and recall information. 

3. How long does brain fog last? 

Brain fog from alcohol typically lasts for 8 to 24 hours after drinking. However, the time frame can be longer for people who regularly consume heavy amounts of alcohol and then stop drinking. 

4. How can we prevent brain fog?

Limiting alcohol consumption or eliminating it entirely can help prevent brain fog. We can also enhance our cognitive health by getting adequate sleep, regularly exercising, eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and practicing stress reduction techniques.

Boost Your Brain 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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