Have you ever woken up in the morning (or afternoon) in a cloud of worry after having a few drinks the night before?
As this holiday season comes to an end — after weeks of Christmas festivities, holiday parties and New Year celebrations — many of you may be nursing some hangover anxiety, or “hangxiety,” after getting just a little too merry.
As a neuroscientist researching how food and drink affect brain function, let me explain how drinking alcohol can trigger hangxiety the next day.
The pleasurable effects of alcohol are due to the release of endorphins — natural opioid hormones in the brain.
Good feelings also come from alcohol increasing the release of the dopamine by activating the brain’s reward system — the mesolimbic pathway. Dopamine release reinforces behaviours — making it more likely for us to do whatever caused the dopamine surge again.
So, we quickly learn that the shot of tequila or glass of wine made us feel good, making us want more.
Balance between GABA and glutamate is vital for optimum brain functioning. Alcohol shifts this balance. Alcohol is called a central nervous system depressant because it both increases inhibitory GABA and decreases excitatory glutamate.
When your brain senses high levels of GABA and low levels of glutamate it quickly adapts to counteract this imbalance. Compensatory changes result in low levels of GABA and increased glutamate that cause feelings of anxiety, unease and stress, enduring into the next day.
Alcohol-induced amnesia, or “blackouts,” are caused by a rapid increase in blood alcohol levels, often due to binge drinking. A binge is defined as more than four or five drinks in two hours for women and men, respectively.
Alcohol interferes with the consolidation and retrieval of memories, leading to confusion and uncertainty the next day. These hazy memories of the night’s events (“Oh no … did I really do that?!”) can cause great anxiety.
Individuals with more reported shyness traits experienced increased levels of anxiety following alcohol consumption than people who had lower baseline levels of shyness.
Can you avoid hangxiety?
The only guaranteed way to avoid hangover anxiety is to not drink alcohol.
You can, however, reduce the adverse effects of alcohol by drinking less. By spacing out drinks with glasses of water, you can avoid the rapid increase in blood alcohol that impairs memory and stay hydrated to lessen the headache the next day.