This Is Why Hangovers Make Everything Feel So Much Worse
Your head is banging, your throat is parched, your stomach wants you to wolf down a banquet (but isn’t sure you’ll keep it down). And you’re feeling the kind of existential dread that just shouldn’t be allowed on a Sunday.
It can only mean one thing. You’re hungover. Past you did not think about present you as you navigate what is going to be a very slow day. But comfort yourself with the fact even our A-list idols are not immune to the harshness of a hangover.
On her new album, Adele can be heard chatting to her son on My Little Love, describing how she feels in the wake of divorce from his dad.
Telling nine-year-old Angelo that she’s feeling paranoid, anxious and worried, she reveals separately to the listener that she’s hungover. In a short voice note recorded on the track, she says: “I have a hangover, which never helps.”
The singer’s anxiety, coupled with her hangover, has left her feeling scared, lonely, and wanting to curl up on the sofa in her sweats.
And naturally, Adele’s raw honesty is relatable to many. What is it about hangovers that exacerbate all the bad feelings we experience? What exactly happens to our brain as it recovers from alcohol consumed the night before?
We spoke to neuroscientist Sophie Scott from University College London.
Scott explains that the effects of over-drinking have a lot to do with the hormone cortisol.
“Alcohol is associated with increased rates of cortisol which is stress hormone, and it doesn’t feel very nice,” she explains. “While some alcohol makes you feel sleepy, cortisol makes you alert and wants to get you up. So you might want to sleep a lot more when you have a hangover but actually you wake up because of the cortisol telling you to get out of bed – and it doesn’t feel very nice.”
And those feelings of dread that often follow a heavy night? Yep, you can also blame the cortisol. Overthinking often goes hand in hand with over-drinking. “If you’ve ever woken up with a hangover, with lots and lots of bad thoughts about what you’ve done before, that’s the cortisol affecting your mood,” says Scott.
Couple that with the physical effects of a hangover, and you’ve got quite the combo. “Some of the by-products that are created in breaking down alcohol are more toxic than alcohol,” Scott adds. “So that can explain why you feel terrible headaches, it’s your body dealing with it and trying to get rid of it.”
And there’s also your gut. “Alcohol can also irritate your stomach,” she adds. “You might feel hungry but feel sick if you do eat.” So, you feel bad because of the cortisol and because of the by-products of breaking down the alcohol.
But you also feel bad because of the glutamate, a powerful excitatory neurotransmitter that is released by nerve cells in the brain. Glutamate is responsible for sending signals between nerve cells, and under normal conditions it plays an important role in learning and memory.
Alcohol actually inhibits glutamate, at the same time as it mimics gamma-aminobutyric acic (or GABA), a major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.
As this article in Nature explains, after an evening of drinking, experts believe that GABA dominates the first half of the night, which may explain why we often conk out in bed. But once the inhibiting GABA is metabolised, it becomes the more excitatory glutamate, leading you to wake up and become more restless as the night progresses – and feel disrupted the next day. Fun times!
Why anxiety and alcohol don’t mix
Alcohol and anxiety have a complex relationship. Though getting drunk can make you forget your worries, the next day hangover can exacerbate them.
Therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), Anjula Mutanda, explains why the two don’t mix.
“Anxiety is a normal reaction to a stressful situation, and sometimes people use alcohol as a coping mechanism in order to feel more relaxed, or manage overwhelming feelings,” she says.
“However, this can set up a vicious cycle particularly if you are someone who already struggles with anxiety, because alcohol has a physiological and psychological impact.
“The term ‘hangxiety’ – defined as feelings of being anxious and overwhelmed – I think perfectly describes the come down after a heavy drinking session as your body works to gain back its equilibrium and go into recovery.”
A hangover can also feel similar to the symptoms of anxiety. “Research shows that the physical responses of a hangover – nausea, a racing heart for example – are pretty similar to an anxiety attack”, which if you already struggle with anxiety could trigger one, she says.
“Also, you might have drunk so much the night before that you can’t quite remember what you said or did, and this too can raise anxiety levels made worse if you already experience higher levels of anxiety, as you may spend time ruminating and replaying the events of the night before.”
How to minimise the bad feelings
So what can you do to avoid feeling so horrid the day after a drinking session?
It might sound basic but hydration is important, says Scott. So is taking it easy. “The best thing that you can do is to give yourself a bit of a break, certainly give yourself a break from alcohol and and drink,” she says. So, no hair of the dog.
If you know you’re going to be drinking a lot, it might be a good idea to leave a bottle of water (and some make-up wipes) by the bedside before you head out. That way when you wake up parched in the morning, you’ll be able to hydrate without stumbling to the kitchen in the middle of the night.
“Some people do find that drinking coffee helps as it wakes them up [in the morning],” adds Scott, though be aware of your own relationship with caffeine as it might not do much for your anxiety.
Likewise, although you’re probably going to be attracted to salty foods because you’re dehydrated, sugary foods are more likely to improve how you’re feeling.
Of course, regular and heavy alcohol use might be a sign of something mental health-related in an of itself, stresses Mutanda.
“If you find that you are using alcohol regularly as a way to self-medicate, where you have become so dependent on it as a coping mechanism that you believe that it’s the only way to manage anxiety or feelings of depression, then it’s time to reach out and get professional support,” she says. “This can be a positive step forward in getting to the root of the problem.”