Let’s be honest…
The holidays often mean parties, and those parties inevitably (and sometimes necessarily) bring alcohol into the picture.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to kick back and enjoy the festivities from time to time, either - but we can certainly be strategic with how we set our bodies up to win.
Namely, it’s good to know what the alcohol you’re consuming is doing to your body...and how you can enjoy yourself while minimizing - and perhaps even sidestepping completely - the dreaded holiday hangover in the process.
But first, in order to know how to prevent a hangover, we need to know why we even get them in the first place.
So, let’s dive into it.
What causes hangovers?
The easiest answer to this question is simply: drinking alcohol. Alcohol consumption - especially in excess - can cause a hangover.
There are ways to help yourself prevent the effects of a hangover, but if you’re drinking alcohol, you’re at risk of experiencing one.
So, what is a hangover? It’s basically defined by the symptoms you experience after drinking.
Symptoms that you’re hungover can include:
- Sore muscles
- Sensitivity to light + sound
- Increased blood pressure
But, what is the alcohol doing in your system to cause the symptoms of a hangover?
There are a few things at play in your body when you get a hangover.
These include dehydration, low blood sugar, inflammation, poor / disrupted sleep, electrolyte imbalance, gastrointestinal (GI) irritation, acetaldehyde exposure, genetics, and mini-withdrawal.
Dehydration & Electrolyte Imbalance
The most commonly understood result of drinking alcohol is increased risk of dehydration. When you consume alcohol, a hormone in your body called vasopressin is suppressed.
This hormone is responsible for the body’s regulation of how much fluid is in the kidneys. When vasopressin is suppressed, your kidneys lose regulatory control of how much fluid they should hold onto.
This results in more frequent urination, causing you to become dehydrated faster than normal.
The ensuing hangover symptoms like a headache, increased thirst, and fatigue can be linked to this alcohol-induced dehydration.
When you become dehydrated, this also causes an electrolyte imbalance in the blood that can alter blood pressure, cause parathyroid hormone problems, and even acute renal failure long-term.
However, imbalanced electrolytes need to be studied more to understand the full scope of their short- and long-term effects.
Low blood sugar
Drinking alcohol can cause a blood sugar drop the next day in two different ways.
First, many alcohols have at least a few grams of sugar in them per serving. This does not take into account the other common “mixers” that are consumed with alcohol. Sugar in your alcohol plus sugar in your mixer will quickly compound the amount of total sugar consumed in a standard drink.
But however you’re consuming the sugar, the result is the same: your insulin will spike while you’re drinking, and then your blood sugar will drop due to this increased insulin.
Second, lowered blood sugar can also be attributed to the alcohol itself.
Alcohol causes a spike in insulin levels similar to sugar. This is because alcohol molecules are metabolised first when they’re in the bloodstream - even when sugar is present in the blood. The body normally metabolises sugar first, and when it detects that the sugar in your blood is not being processed, the pancreas releases more insulin. This causes a higher than normal insulin spike that then results in an overall drop in blood sugar after the alcohol is burned.
To the body, it’s all a game of balancing how much insulin is released to effectively manage blood sugar, and by ingesting alcohol, this signaling is thrown off. Once the alcohol is out of your system, you ultimately end up with lower-than-optimal blood sugar levels that can lead to certain hangover symptoms like lightheadedness and fatigue.
It might appear that you fall asleep faster with alcohol in your system - and you do. Alcohol is a depressant, so it can help induce relaxation and sleepiness.
However, alcohol-induced sleep is not the type of sleep you want to be giving your body most of the time because once you’re asleep, alcohol causes you to skip a few key stages of your sleep cycle.
Alcohol hits hardest during REM sleep, causing your body to skip various stages of REM. This means your body drops right into the later stages of sleep, reducing the benefits of early REM which include bodily repair, emotional stability and memory functions.
Beyond messing with your REM cycles, alcohol can also increase your risk of the chronic condition of sleep apnea by 25%.
This is a long-term effect of alcohol consumption that might make you reconsider how often you’re drinking alcohol in general - before bed or otherwise.
Gastrointestinal (GI) irritation & inflammation
One of the biggest factors contributing to the effects of hangovers is inflammation.
This inflammation comes from multiple sources, including the byproducts of breaking down alcohol in the body and how alcohol affects the gut microbiome.
Let’s address the gut microbiome first.
According to this study, alcohol “impairs the balance of microflora in the gut, the gut barrier function, the liver’s ability to detoxify bacterial products...and the brain’s ability to regulate inflammation in the periphery.”
What this means is that alcohol has a significant impact on our body’s main detoxification functions, digestion, and gut bacteria - which leads to a spike of inflammation in the short-term. For those who do not take breaks from alcohol, this inflammation becomes chronic.
Long-term effects of ongoing and chronic inflammation can lead to more serious health issues if it’s not addressed or reduced.
Acetaldehyde exposure & genetics
Beyond just the alcohol itself, acetaldehyde is a byproduct of alcohol metabolism in the liver. This can cause an inflammatory response in the body on top of any gut issues you might experience.
Acetaldehyde is a type of acid that can enter the bloodstream, damaging cell membranes and causing post-drinking headache and nausea.
An interesting thing to note is that acetaldehyde metabolism is largely determined by genetics.
Certain gene variants can determine how well - or how poorly - your body handles acetaldehyde, and how much damage it can do.
What’s even more interesting is that studies are now showing that genes can also be affected by a family history of alcohol abuse.
But, regardless of your genetic predisposition, acetaldehyde will be a byproduct of your body’s breakdown of alcohol and it can be a factor in the headache, stomach problems and higher heart rate you experience during a hangover.
Can hangovers be avoided?
Now that we’ve covered some of the “whys and hows” regarding hangovers, is there any way they can actually be prevented or avoided?
Turns out, looking at the causes can help us find the solutions.
Part of the inflammation from drinking can be attributed to a change in the gut microbiome, and another part can be attributed to the possible damage to the gut lining that alcohol can cause.
So, what if the gut has what it needs to be its strongest and healthiest?
Research shows that supporting your colonies of beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics) is a great way to feel great – Whether you're drinking or not.
And when your good gut microbes are in healthy supply, your body has a built-in “defense mechanism” to meet the ill effects of a hangover head-on.
Another key player in addressing hangovers is amino acids.
Amino acids are most commonly known as the building blocks of proteins, but they are also highly absorbable nutrients that the body can use to build a healthy gut lining.
There are a few amino acids in particular that can be helpful after a night of drinking: L-proline, L-serine, L-threonine, and L-cysteine. These are the four main amino acids that help to increase mucin synthesis, which is a major function of maintaining a healthy gut.
The best ways to support your body when you’re drinking alcohol
No one wants to wake up with a hangover and the ensuing headache, fatigue, nausea and overall “icky” feeling.
So, what should you be doing to support your body before, during and after indulging in some drinks this holiday season?
Before / during drinking:
- On the day-of, make sure to drink lots of water
- Lean into your gut health regimen so your gut microbiome is well-stocked with beneficial bacteria
- Make quality sleep a priority
- Eat a gut-healthy diet to further support your gut health
- Consider an electrolyte supplement to replenish and rehydrate
- Make sure to gulp down some more water before bed
- Do your best to stick to a regular circadian rhythm - i.e. if you go to bed late, try to “reset” your body by still waking up at a decent time the next morning. Bonus points for waking up and go outside for body clock balancing sun exposure.
- Consider supplementing with the four most important amino acids that can drive mucin production and support a healthy gut barrier
This time of year, even the healthiest of us may choose to indulge. By being prepared with gut support, lots of good water, and a healthy diet, you’ll be able to enjoy a night of fun with fewer “next-day regrets."
And – Your body and mind will thank you for it.