Alcohol adversely affects the brain, the liver, the kidneys, the heart, blood vessels, the lining of the stomach, and various hormonal and regulatory systems. Even the word “intoxicated” indicates alcohol’s true nature: a toxic substance.
The first symptoms of ethanol intoxication on the brain are quite pleasurable for most people. You feel relaxed and happy, and with another drink or two you become boisterously enthusiastic — the life of the party. With increased alcohol consumption, your vision blurs, your reaction times slow, your perceptions are unreliable, and you become unsteady and uncoordinated. You start to lose your inhibitions, which can lead to another consequence of drinking: poor judgment. Speech begins to slur, and concentrating and “thinking straight” becomes impossible. At higher concentrations in the blood, hiccups, vertigo, confusion, lethargy, memory “blackouts,” vomiting, stupor, coma, slowed breathing and even death can result.
No one is exactly sure how ethanol causes its various effects, but once absorbed from the stomach into the bloodstream it can freely cross out of the blood and into nerve cells of the brain. Once in the brain it causes a chemical release that leads to pleasurable feelings, and it lessens inhibitions by depressing certain frontal lobe functions. Motor pathways become overactive, and blood sugar is processed less efficiently in the brain. As more and more ethanol molecules enter the membranes of the nerve cells, sedating effects develop. The effects of alcohol intoxication are relatively predictable based on measured blood alcohol content.
Some of these effects are caused by ethanol itself, and others are from an even more toxic byproduct of its metabolism called acetaldehyde. This chemical builds up in the blood as the liver breaks down the alcohol into a form that can be eliminated from the body.
The effects on other body systems are also important in the symptoms of alcohol intoxication. The kidneys increase urination substantially, leading to dehydration. Blood vessels in the skin dilate, causing flushing and increased cardiac output. The liver starts working overtime to detoxify the blood of ethanol and acetaldehyde, and cannot keep blood sugar adequately regulated.
Repeated drinking can lead to liver scarring, known as cirrhosis. Certain inflammatory chemicals increase in the blood and affect various natural hormonal pathways. The stomach lining may become irritated, increasing nausea and the chance of bleeding. The extra calories consumed often become converted into fat.
Many of these disturbances of the body’s natural physiology persist the next day, long after the alcohol is gone. Dehydration plays a significant role, as does acetaldehyde. Effects on hormones, blood chemistry, the sleep-wake cycle and inflammatory chemicals are also important in the thoroughly lousy feeling we have come to know as a hangover.
Most people are well aware of the presence of headache, malaise, diarrhea, loss of appetite, tiredness, nausea and sensitivity to light, sound and motion the day after binge drinking. What may be less well recognized is that manual dexterity, memory, reaction time, visual-spatial skills and attention are all adversely affected, even when your alcohol level has fallen back down to 0.
Can you cure a hangover headache?
Hangover headaches are no fun. It’s well known that drinking too much alcohol can cause a variety of symptoms the next day. A headache is just one of them.
It’s easy to find tons of purported hangover headache “cures” that you can make at home and even buy in stores. But most of them have no reliable scientific research that proves they work.
The best way to avoid a hangover headache is to limit how much alcohol you drink in one sitting. Still, we’ve also got some tips that can help you reduce your chances of having a headache, and a few to ease your pain in case you’ve already got one.
5 possible remedies
First, let’s talk about some of the remedies that do have some scientific evidence to back them up.
1. Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is an essential nutrient that’s found in all sorts of common foods, such as poultry, potatoes, and fruit. Alcohol reduces your levels of B vitamins, making it harder for your body to metabolize and eliminate alcohol.
Loading up on extra B6 with a hearty meal or taking a dietary supplement can help your body get rid of alcohol faster. This may help you avoid a hangover headache, whether you take B6 before or after you drink.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help decrease inflammation in your body associated with drinking. NSAIDS block the production of enzymesTrusted Source that lead to headaches and migraines. Taking a small dose of NSAIDs may help ward off a hangover headache.
Just take it easy on the doses. Combined with alcohol, NSAIDs can increase your risk of stomach bleedingTrusted Source.
Never take acetaminophen (Tylenol) when you drink or when you’re hungover. Acetaminophen makes it harder for your body to process alcohol and can damage your liver.
Your liver is already working overtime to get excess alcohol out of your body. Too much Tylenol — over 4,000 mg in a 24-hour period — while hungover can lead to dangerous liver swelling or liver failure.
3. Fitness drinks
Hydration is a must when you drink. Alcohol can dehydrate you and drain your body of electrolytes.
Drinking a beverage that’s packed with additional electrolytes can help you restore your electrolyte balance and remain hydrated.
A 2014 study from the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley found that fitness drinks like Gatorade were better for quick hydration after intense exercise. So they may get you hydrated faster than regular water after a night of drinking.
Just don’t overdo it. Some drinks can contain up to 36 grams of sugar for a 20-ounce serving. Excess sugar can make your hangover symptoms worse.
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is a natural amino acid that helps your body fight against the toxic effects of acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a chemical compound associated with many hangover symptoms, including headaches. As acetaldehyde levels rise, your glutathione levels decrease. Glutathione is a naturally occurring antioxidant that prevents cell damage in your liverTrusted Source.
Take a 200- to 300-milligram (mg) NAC supplement at least half an hour before you start drinking. This could reduce the impact of acetaldehyde on your liverTrusted Source and make your hangover symptoms much less severe.
5. Light exercise
In general, exercising the day after you drink isn’t recommended.
But light exercise can help your body speed along its metabolic processes, ridding your body of alcohol and related toxins more quickly. Just make sure you stay hydrated since your body is already battling the effects of dehydration while you’re hung over.
Tips to ease the pain
Already nursing that hangover headache? Here are eight tips to minimize your pain.
1. Make sure to eat
Eat before, during, and after consuming alcohol. Here are a few reasons why this helps:
- Eating helps keep your blood sugar levels balanced. Low blood sugar can make a hangover headache worseTrusted Source.
- Keeping your blood sugar levels up can also limit how much acid builds up in your blood.Trusted Source This may prevent headaches as well as other symptoms, like nausea and exhaustion.
- Drinking causes a loss of vitamins that can lead to hangover symptoms, such as headache. Eating can keep your vitamin levels up, and potentially prevent some of those hangover symptoms.
2. Drink water
Try this: Have a glass or bottle of water with every drink.
Or, try drinking water both before and after you have alcohol. Have 1 cup or a 16-ounce bottle of water for every 12-ounce beer or 4- to 6-ounce cocktail you drink.
The following drinks can all help you stay hydrated and minimize hangover headaches:
- good ol’ plain water
- Gatorade or Powerade
- coconut water
- alkaline water enhanced with additional electrolytes, such as potassium and magnesium
Why? because alcohol’s a diuretic — it causes your body to increase how much urine it produces. This makes you lose fluids and electrolytes at a faster rateTrusted Source, so you’ll get dehydrated much more quickly. And if you end up vomiting from having too much alcohol, you’ll lose even more fluids.
Preventing dehydration means your hangover symptoms will be much less severe, if you have any at all. And hydration has plenty of other benefits, too.
3. Choose light-colored drinks
The darker the drink, the worse your hangover may be. This is because distilled, dark-colored drinks like whiskey, bourbon, and brandy contain large amounts of congenersTrusted Source.
Congeners result from the distillation or fermentation process used to produce these darker liquors. Some common congeners include:
Congeners are much more likely to result in hangover symptoms, including headaches. Opt for light-colored drinks like vodka to minimize your hangover blues the day after.
4. Know your limits
This one’s straightforward: Don’t feel pressured to drink more than you’re comfortable with, or at all, if you’re not feeling it. Your limits aren’t the same as everyone else’s, and you may not always feel like drinking when the people around you are.
The second part of this is to listen to your body and use your past experiences as a reference. Maybe one drink is fine, but two or more starts to make you dizzy, lightheaded, and leads to a splitting headache the next day. Do what you feel most comfortable with.
5. Limit yourself
Your body metabolizes a typical serving of alcohol (about 16 fluid ounces) in the course of an hour or so. So, limit yourself to one drink per hour.
Spreading your alcohol consumption out over this time allows your body to flush out alcohol efficiently so that your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) stays low and is essentially cleared out of your body before the next day. This may help you avoid hangover symptoms altogether.
6. Skip “hair of the dog”
“Hair of the dog” refers to having some of the same alcohol the next morning that you had the night before.
Research proving that it works is limited. Plus, drinking more alcohol when your body is already dealing with hangover symptoms can either make them worse or only be a temporary fix before your symptoms return.
7. Skip the hangover recipes
Don’t listen to all the weird, outlandish recipes that are purported to help “cure” a hangover. Ingredients like raw eggs, spices, and the numerous preservatives used in processed or fast foods can make symptoms like nausea and vomiting worse.
Stick with basic, protein-packed, vitamin-rich foods like:
8. Remember, everyone is different
Not everyone feels the same effects of their drinking the morning after. In fact, your genes alone account for nearly half of the variablesTrusted Source that contribute to how your body reacts to alcohol.
The other half of the variables that contribute to your hangover include:
- whether you’re male or female
- how much you weigh
- what medications you’re taking
- how much you’ve eaten
- enzyme deficiencies that make you flush or get sick when you consume alcohol
- how quickly you drink (one drink an hour vs. several drinks in a single hour)
Causes of hangover headache
Alcohol contains a chemical called ethanol. As you drink alcohol, your stomach absorbs about 20 percent of this ethanol while your small intestine absorbs the rest. From the small intestine, ethanol travels into the bloodstream and throughout your body, including your brain.
Ethanol’s diuretic effects can also quickly dehydrate you, and a headache is just one of many symptoms of dehydration.
In your bloodstream, ethanol can cause headaches through vasodilation. This means that it makes your blood vessels expand. Vasodilation can stimulate certain brain nerves and result in pain. Alcohol also affects chemicals and hormones in your brain, such as histamine and serotonin, which contribute to the development of a headache.
When to see a doctor
Having too much alcohol at one time can lead to alcohol poisoning. If untreated, alcohol poisoning can have long-term consequences or may even result in death.
Get emergency medical help if you or anyone you’re drinking with notices any of the following symptoms:
- feeling confused
- skin changing color to dark blue or purple
- throwing up
- breathing slowing down (inhaling and exhaling fewer than eight times a minute)
- pausing between breaths (10 or more seconds)
- falling unconscious and being unable to wake up
If you find that you’re not able to control how much you drink or stop yourself from drinking even if it’s causing you physical or emotional pain, you may need to seek treatment for alcoholism.
The first step towards confronting alcoholism is acknowledging that you have an alcohol problem, as well as the toll it may be taking on your life. Once you’ve reached this important milestone, talk to your doctor, a therapist, or a counselor who can help recommend treatment for alcohol dependence. Remember, you’re not alone.
The bottom line
The key to avoiding a hangover headache is moderation. Take it slow when you drink alcohol. Try sipping instead of gulping or pounding shots.
But it you’re already dealing with a hangover, try one or more of these tips to see what works for you. Start with eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water before, during, and after drinking.
Taking preventative measures is the best way to stop a hangover headache before it ever starts.