What Happens to Your Brain When You’re Hungover

Updated: Jul 31


How many times have you been at happy hour for “just one drink,” but that one turns into three or four? We’ve all been there.

Most of us have also experienced an unpleasant morning after. You wake up groggy with a splitting headache and an upset stomach – all hallmark signs of a hangover.

They may have been around for centuries, but hangovers are still a bit of a mystery. While we don’t understand them entirely, experts do know some of what happens to the brain when we’re hungover.

How a Hangover Affects the Brain


1. Inflammation

Our brains contain cells called microglia. When activated by alcohol, these cells can cause inflammation and release proinflammatory cytokines. This chain of events can raise overall inflammation in the brain.

Furthermore, drinking too much can cause our microbiomes to send inflammatory compounds to the brain. This can contribute to microglial activation as well.


2. Dopamine Surge

One reason why you might feel nauseous when hungover could be related to the neurotransmitter, dopamine. While a key player in the brain’s pleasure response, dopamine can also be a vomit trigger. And alcohol – you guessed it – releases dopamine.

Scientists have even found that medications that increase dopamine also frequently cause a side effect of vomiting or nausea. Furthermore, medications that block dopamine have been found to help reduce nausea.


3. Overstimulation

There’s another theory about hangovers that suggests our neurotransmitters get thrown off balance. Since alcohol “depresses” the brain, our brains can over-compensate and become overstimulated once the alcohol is metabolized.

This overstimulation may be the result of neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate. Glutamate is thought to be the most sensitive to this rebound effect, causing the most overreaction.

GABA helps keep brain activity regulated. After drinking, GABA is decreased both in amount and sensitivity, which leads to a more excited, overactive brain. It’s as if GABA is the teacher who steps out of a classroom full of unruly glutamate. This overstimulation is likely what contributes to light and sound sensitivity during a hangover, as well.

While some experts say consuming no alcohol is the healthiest choice, most of us will indulge from time to time. To help lessen the potential severity of a hangover, try alternating alcoholic drinks with water. This can help reduce dehydration and possibly lessen some hangover symptoms. And remember to always listen to your body and your limits.

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Thorpe, JR. (2019, July 29). “How Being Hungover Changes Your Brain, According To Researchers.” Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/how-being-hungover-changes-your-brain-according-to-researchers-18224914

Flemming, Amy. (2019, January 27). “’Hanxiety’: Why Alcohol Gives You a Hangover and Anxiety.” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jan/27/hangxiety-why-alcohol-gives-you-a-hangover-and-anxiety

Arnarson, Atli. (2018, September 26). “7 Evidence-Based Ways to Prevent Hangovers.” Rtrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-ways-to-prevent-a-hangover


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