How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Dry mouth, cracking headache, anxiety, racing heart and pink eyes. Hangovers are never pretty. But during the party season, they’re often inevitable. If you need a health S.O.S the morning after the night before, read on for our handy guide to ease you back to normality.
What exactly is a hangover?
The misery caused by hangovers is down to multiple factors. Dehydration, lack of sleep, a sensitive stomach and low blood sugar levels. The leader of this gang of woe, however, is a toxin called acetaldehyde. When you drink alcohol, your liver gets to work straight away metabolising the ethanol in alcohol into acetaldehyde. From here, the liver breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate – a less toxic compound that the body can eventually expel through urine, breath and sweat.
However, your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. And given that a 175ml glass of white wine contains 2.3 units, it’s no surprise that over the course of an evening, acetaldehyde levels invariably build up. Your body will continue to try and clear this toxic backlog when you’re asleep, but the chemical and physiological stress that heavy boozing puts on your system will culminate in a hangover from hell.
Water is your friend
Good hydration is the key to optimal health at the best of times. But when you’re drinking alcohol, it’s even more important. This is because alcohol is a diuretic and curbs the production of a hormone called vasopressin. Vasopressin regulates your body’s water levels and enables the kidneys to reabsorb water. When vasopressin levels decrease, you’ll make more urine and if you don’t drink enough water, you’ll end up dehydrated.
TIP ONE: Drink water before, during and after a night on the booze. Sip, don’t gulp and try a light ginger and citrus tea if your stomach feels sensitive.
Low blood sugar levels
Cocktails, mixers, cider and beer – many of our favourite alcoholic drinks are laden with sugar. And while moderate amounts of these drinks can cause blood sugar levels to rise, excessive consumption will often lead to dangerously low levels. This is because sugary alcoholic drinks can reduce the effectiveness of insulin (the hormone which regulates our blood sugar levels) which can lead to confusion, drowsiness and even unconsciousness.
It’s a good idea to eat a meal containing protein, carbs and fat before you start drinking but if you’re looking for a hangover-busting breakfast, choose scrambled eggs on toast – eggs contain an amino acid called cysteine which will help your liver metabolise acetaldehyde and wholemeal toast will help balance your blood sugar levels. If you’re vegan, you can buy this amino acid as a dietary supplement called L-cysteine.
TIP TWO: Where possible, opt for low-sugar options like vodka and tonic, or a glass of prosecco. Eat a balanced meal before you start drinking and have your eggs and bread ready for your hangover-easing breakfast the next morning.
Alcohol is both a sedative and a depressant that messes with levels of serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) and other neurotransmitters in your brain. While one or two small drinks can make you feel happy, it’s easy to tip the balance and wake up feeling anxious as the alcohol wears off and your neurochemistry struggles to rebalance. This can sometimes last for hours or days, affecting your ability to function at work or home.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to ease anxiety like the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ exercise, which helps calm a racing mind and anchors you to the present moment. First, focus on your breathing with long, slow and deep breaths. Controlled breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, sending a signal to your brain to relax and helps lower blood pressure and feelings of stress. Once you’ve got your breathing steady, try to answer the following five questions:
5 – what five things can you see? It could be clouds drifting in the sky, a pencil on your desk, or a photo on your wall.
4 – what four things can you touch? It could be the fabric of your clothes, the back of your chair or the floor beneath your feet.
3 – what three things can you hear? Perhaps it’s the sound of birds singing in your garden, the washing machine spinning or distant traffic.
2 – what two things can you smell? If no smells are immediately obvious, take a little wander through the house or outside. Can you smell food cooking, hand soap or damp leaves?
1 – what one thing can you taste? Do you have a drink you could sip? Is there a taste lingering in your mouth? Toothpaste, or coffee perhaps.
There are some great guided meditation apps that you can download on your smartphone too. Try Headspace or Calm – both of these offer meditations that target moments of anxiety and stress. In addition, consider dietary supplements such as magnesium, L-theanine and vitamin B12 all of which can help calm the nervous system.
TIP THREE: Anxiety and panic attacks can be an unpleasant consequence of excessive drinking. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, focus on your breath or download a guided meditation app.
And so to bed…
Alcohol is a master sleep thief. Its diuretic properties can leave you gasping for a glass of water in the middle of the night, and because it disrupts neurochemicals in the brain, it prevents us from spending time in the restorative phase of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Consistent, good quality sleep is a crucial component of maintaining a healthy mind and body, so to minimise the impact of a night on the razzle, try and alternate every alcoholic drink for a non-alcoholic one – no one need know.
TIP FOUR: If you wake up feeling like you haven’t slept, sip some water, eat some breakfast and try and go back to sleep. If that’s simply not possible, make sure you get to bed early the following evening to compensate and whatever you do, do not reach for a hair of the dog. You’ll only find yourself back at square one.
Friends, family, food and merriment are the best ingredients for a wonderful festive season. And although things are definitely going to be a bit different this year, there’s still lots we can do to enjoy ourselves. However, planning for Christmas and New Year can be hard work. So why not ease the load and invest in yourself in the New Year. We can plan, prepare and deliver perfectly balanced, nutritious meals and snacks to your door, so you can begin 2021 as you mean to go on.