Why Hangovers Hurt Your Brain

(And Why Dry January is Now a Thing)

What exactly is Dry January?

By now, your social media feeds are likely chock-full of articles about the best ways to deal with Dry January (which have replaced hilarious NYE photos), a health movement that involves avoiding alcohol for the entire month.

Dry January—though gaining popularity across the U.S. and other parts of the globe—is a health initiative that began in 2014 in Britain to promote better health, saving money and a slimmer waistline for those living in the UK by abstaining from alcohol. It was created and launched through a nonprofit known as Alcohol Concern to combat the rising death toll related to alcohol in the country.

Despite the fact that the idea of facing Dry January may leave you internally groaning, it does have a number of benefits, including (but not limited to):

  • Forcing you to take a good look at your relationship with alcohol (and realize you don’t need it)
  • Allowing you to sleep better
  • You'll look better - brighter skin, less bloating
  • Weight loss, since most alcohol is full of calories
  • Giving you a sense of achievement

In honor of this noble crusade, I've taken the time provide a better understanding of how alcohol impacts one of the most important and complex organs in your body: the brain. More specifically, I'm focusing on the ever-dreaded hangover (known medically as veisalgia, which is derived from Norwegian and Greek and translates to uneasiness following debauchery and pain).

Your Brain on a Hangover

It may go without saying that your brain doesn’t work properly when you’re hungover, but science went ahead and confirmed it for us.

Scientists at Keele University conducted research a few years ago that suggested—at least based on preliminary findings—that alcohol does more than just make you physically miserable (e.g., nausea, vomiting, dizziness); it also greatly affects your mood and cognitive function, especially what’s known as your “working memory.” Working memory is your ability to hold on to and manipulate information in your mind, like trying to do a math problem in your head. It also helps you to focus on a task.

On a slightly more positive note, alcohol—when consumed in moderation and not abused—does not actually “kill” brain cells. A key study conducted in 1993 compared alcoholic and nonalcoholic brain samples from people who died from non-alcohol-related causes. The result was that there were no significant differences in the density of brain cells before the two groups.

That said, however, dendrites—the parts of neurons that help the cells communicate with one another—can become temporarily damaged, inhibiting the cells’ ability to talk to each other.

The long and the short of it is this: You’re likely not doing any permanent damage to your brain if you overdo it once in a while (your other organs may have a different opinion), but it’s definitely not something you should make a habit of.

Keeping Hangovers at Bay

Naturally, the best way to avoid a hangover is to simply not drink. However, I'm realistic and know that unless you have a medical reason for not drinking (e.g., pregnancy, disease, medication), you may want to indulge a bit when the occasion calls for it. Here are a few tips for keeping the next morning manageable:

  • Avoid carbonated beverages—which tend to increase the absorption of alcohol—and opt for a glass of water or juice between each alcoholic beverage (By that I don't mean the OJ you're mixing with your vodka. That doesn't count.)
  • Sip slowly and eat something with fat so your body can absorb the alcohol gradually, instead of being bombarded with a ton of it all at once
  • Take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) (e.g., Advil®) beforehand to potentially decrease inflammation and avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol®), which can result in liver damage or death in some people

On the bright side, some research suggests that the severity of a hangover may decrease as you age, so at least that’s something to look forward to.

As They Say, Everything in Moderation

As expected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government bodies that make health recommendations have firm guidelines on the amount of alcohol you and your brain can safely enjoy, as well as what amounts constitute “a drink.” The recommendations include:

  • Up to one drink a day for women
  • Up to two drinks a day for men
  • 12 ounces of beer/eight ounces of malt liquor/five ounces of wine = One drink

Are you participating in Dry January? Let me know in the comments.

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