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Hangover depression: The neuroscience behind your alcohol morning blues © Daniel Bright

Hangover anxiety and depression: The neuroscience behind your alcohol morning blues

Published: 30th September, 2021 at 11:00
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Hanging like the gardens of Babylon? GP Nish Manek explains why your anxiety is soaring right now.

Hangover anxiety (or ‘hangxiety’) has many contributing factors. One of the effects of alcohol is to increase levels of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which sends chemical messages through the brain to inhibit the activity of nerve cells, initially creating a calming effect.


As you carry on drinking, alcohol also starts reducing an excitatory transmitter called glutamate, which often leaves you feeling less anxious. So far, so good. But this doesn’t last. As the body registers this new imbalance in brain chemicals, it tries to correct it. This means when you stop drinking, you’re soon left with unnaturally low GABA levels and a spike in glutamate, which leads to heightened anxiety.

Glutamate is also needed to lay down memories, so another contributing factor to hangxiety might be ruminating on the things you can’t actually remember saying or doing from the night before.

Sleep disruption is also a factor. Alcohol is known to reduce REM sleep, which is essential for cognitive function. This means drink decreases overall sleep quality, which can exacerbate anxiety and low mood.

If this isn’t resonating, hangxiety isn’t experienced by everyone to the same degree. One study in the journal Personality And Individual Differences found that shyer individuals reported higher levels of anxiety the following day than more confident people.

But what can you do if you’re one of the unlucky ones? Well, keeping hydrated, taking painkillers, resting and deep breathing exercises can help to get through the symptoms. But the only real solution is to not drink alcohol in the first place. Just remember that ‘happy hour’ might well lead to a lot of unhappiness in the cold light of day!

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Dr Nish Manek is a GP in London. She completed her medical degree at Imperial College and was runner-up in the University of London Gold Medal. Manek has also developed teaching courses for Oxford Medical School, and has penned articles for The Guardian and Pulse magazine.


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