Ever wondered why you feel so awful the day after a few drinks? It’s not just the headache or the sicky feeling, it’s the niggling idea that you said or did something you wish you hadn’t. The worry, or foreboding feeling, of the morning after. The hangover anxiety. Or ‘hangxiety’ as it is rapidly becoming known.
Well it’s all to do with the effects of alcohol on our GABA receptors. GABA is an amino acid produced in the brain that acts as a calming factor by supressing nervous activity. (That’s gamma-aminobutyric acid, if you want the full name. You’re welcome!) Alcohol stimulates the production of GABA, which means that to begin with we feel happy and relaxed as we enjoy those first couple of drinks.
David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, explains in an article in The Guardian that after those first few drinks, a second relaxing effect takes place. We start to block a transmitter called glutamate, which normally excites the brain and causes anxiety. Therefore, increased GABA levels and decreased glutamate levels form a brain environment that leads to us feeling very chilled out and cheerful
Unfortunately (and I’m sure you know what I’m going to say), there is a problem. The chemicals in the brain are now well and truly out of balance, and the body responds by trying to correct the imbalance. So, it attempts to reduce GABA levels, and up glutamate levels.
Then you stop drinking. And once again your levels are out of sync. This time Gaba is very low, and glutamate high, resulting in those unpleasant feelings of anxiety. And these feelings often begin when we are asleep, causing us to wake in a state of stress after about four hours or so. Professor Nutt says it then takes a day or two for our neurochemicals to return to normal.
Interestingly, because glutamate is also involved with forming and laying down memories, this process is adversely affected by alcohol. Nutt says, ‘once you’re on to the sixth or seventh drink, the glutamate system is blocked, which is why you can’t remember things.’ And, of course, not remembering what happened the night before also adds to the feeling of anxiety.
So, what does Professor Nutt recommend? Well, certainly not a hair of the dog! This can potentially lead to a ‘cycle of dependence.’ The obvious solution is to drink less if you want to avoid hangxiety, as well as the other problematic effects of a hangover.
And if (on the odd and very rare occasion) we do have a few too many halves of shandy, it is somewhat comforting to understand what is happening in the brain, and that we can ride it out for a day or so until the balance has been restored!