hangover headache cure

Evidence based

Hangover Headache Cure: Does it exist?

Afterdrink Author Kathy Caldwell
Kathy Caldwell


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Evidence based

Hangovers almost always come with a headache.

Waking up with pounding headache, dry mouth and nausea is part and parcel of a big night out.

In this article, we’re going to take a close look at the different causes of a hangover headache and most importantly whether there’s a way to cure it.

Table of contents

How does alcohol affect your brain?

To see if there’s a way to cure or prevent hangover headache, we first need to go over how alcohol affects your brain and body in the first place.

When you drink alcohol, it is rapidly absorbed from your stomach and small intestine into your bloodstream.

From here, it travels freely through the “blood-brain barrier” into the cells of your brain.

The blood-brain barrier is a protective layer around your brain that acts as a shield from toxins in your blood.

However certain chemicals including alcohol can pass this barrier freely.

Once alcohol reaches your brain cells and neurons it slows everything down. That’s why it’s known as a central nervous system depressant.

Alcohol slows down reaction times, reduces inhibitions and causes your mind to enter a more relaxed state – all of which we are all too familiar with.

Causes of hangover headache infographic

What causes hangover headache?

Hangover headaches are caused by a combination of factors. In fact, scientists are still finding out new ways in which alcohol can cause headaches.

Alcohol is a toxin that causes irritation of the cells it comes into contact with. In addition to this, the by-products of alcohol metabolism are also toxic and have similar effects.

Several studies have shown that levels of inflammation are significantly raised after drinking which not only affect your brain but also all over your body. Hence why hangover body aches are also a common symptom.

2. Change in blood flow to the brain
A lot of research has been done into how changes in the blood flow to the brain can trigger certain types of headache such as migraines.

There are conflicting results however at the moment it’s generally accepted by many that dilation of blood vessels in the brain is a major cause of headache.

Alcohol is well known to dilate blood vessels and could, therefore, be a cause of hangover headache.

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3. Change in hormone levels
Alcohol alters the levels of insulin release from your pancreas which controls your sugar levels. Drinking excessively is a well-known cause of hypoglycemia (low sugar levels) and can contribute to hangover headache.

In addition, drinking can disrupt your sleeping patterns which are responsible for changes in the levels of cortisol released.

Cortisol is a “stress hormone” and is greatly affected by late nights out and sleep disruption from alcohol.

4. Dehydration
Alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes you urinate more fluid than you are consuming. Along with water, you also lose electrolytes like magnesium, sodium and potassium.

Dehydration and electrolyte changes typically cause headaches.

5. Increased sensitivity to pain
This is an interesting point because alcohol is a form of analgesia and therefore reduces pain.

However, scientists tested this out on rats and found that, although initially, alcohol has an analgesic effect, the rats had increased sensitivity to pain after 6 hours.

Not only do you have increased sensitivity to pain when hungover, but you also have increased sensitivity to light and sound.

Theres no one single cause for hangover headahce but it’s rather a culmination of several different factors.

Other causes of hangover headache?

Within your alcoholic drink, there are also several other compounds and chemicals that are known to cause a headache.

Congeners are one of these compounds which are known to be a key cause of hangover headache.

These are compounds that are produced as a by-product of the distillation and fermentation process that spirits and wine go through.

It’s particularly a problem with darker colored drinks like whiskey and red wine.

If you’ve ever wondered why your headaches are much worse if you’ve been drinking these, it’s because of congeners.

But it doesn’t end there.

Alcoholic drinks also contain amines, esters, polyphenols, and tannins which have all also been reported as a cause for hangover headaches – although these are less researched.

Is hangover headache related to genetics?

Do you know someone who never gets a hangover?

Well, believe it or not, 8% of people report getting no hangovers at all and with that comes no headaches.

There is evidence to suggest that some people are genetically resistant to getting hangovers.

You may think this is an advantage but it only means that those individuals are able to drink more in each sitting and drink more regularly which causes significant long term health problems.

Is there such thing as a hangover headache cure?

A cure suggests that a solution could completely take away the problem you’re having.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing when it comes to a hangover headache cure.

That being said, if you’re already hungover and you’ve got a headache in full force, there are a few things you can take to reduce your symptoms.

What can you take for a hangover headache?

Medications like paracetamol and ibuprofen (Advil) can help reduce inflammation and pain.

If you’re planning on taking Advil for your headache, you should be aware that it can have some side effects.

Advil reduces the mucus lining of your stomach and can leave it more susceptible to the acid that’s produced.

After a night of drinking, your stomach will be in a fragile state so these medications can add to your discomfort.

Prevention is always better than cure and if you’re planning on a big night out, there are several steps you can take to prevent the worst hangover headaches, which we will cover next.

What are the best ways to prevent hangover headache?

The best ways to prevent hangover headaches include trying to counteract the very things that cause it in the first place.

1. Keep well hydrated

Rehydration sachets are a great way of rehydrating and restoring electrolyte balance. you can buy them over the counter and they contain essential minerals and salts.

The best time to take it is after your last drink. Don’t wait til’ the morning!

congeners in dark drinks
2. Stick to lighter coloured drinks

lighter colored spirits like gin and vodka should give you less of a hangover than whiskey or bourbon.

3. Stock up on antioxidants

Antioxidants can help support your liver clear the toxic by-products produced from alcohol metabolism. They work by neutralizing them before they cause too much damage.

There are some natural vitamins and herbal extracts which have antioxidant properties that could help reduce your symptoms the day after a night out.

It’s important you take your rehydration sachet or antioxidant supplement after your last drink and not wait until the next day.

4. Avoid coffee

It may seem like the right thing to do, but caffeine will only make your headache worse. Not only is caffeine a trigger for headache and migraine, but it’s also a diuretic which means it will make you more dehydrated.

5. Load up on carbohydrates

As alcohol can drop your sugar levels and cause headache, having a sugary drink or carb-filled meal can help restore energy levels.

You may want to consider avoiding meals that are full of fat or hard to digest foods like salads as they can be harsh on your stomach.

How long does hangover headache last?

How long your hangover headache lasts depends on so many different factors. Firstly, the younger you are, the faster you’ll get over your headache.

This is because your body is much better at repairing and recovering from damage caused by alcohol – to put it simply.

As mentioned above, genetics play a big role in this too and some people will naturally have a headache for longer than others.

Obviously, the amount and type of alcohol you consumed the night before probably is the most important factor behind how long your headaches last.

Most people will have hangover headaches lasting a few hours but it can last a whole 24 hours.

If you’re someone who gets a headache from drinking even small amounts of alcohol, you may be suffering from the asian flush reaction which

In some cases, it may trigger another type of headache such as a migraine in which case the headache could last several days.

That brings us onto our next section where we look into alcohol’s relationship with migraine headaches.

Alcohol as a trigger for migraine

If you’re someone who suffers from migraines, you may know that you have certain triggers that bring it on.

One of the most common triggers is alcohol and disrupted sleeping pattern which goes hand in hand when drinking.

A hangover headache can easily turn into a migraine if you’re known to suffer from them. It’s particularly associated with red wine which suggests that something other than the alcohol itself could be a trigger.

Hangover headache – Conclusion

That brings us to the end of our look into hangover headaches and the science behind why it happens.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a hangover headache cure, however, there are loads of ways to reduce the pain once you have one.

We’ve also covered some tips to prevent the worst headaches.

Adding a rehydration sachet and antioxidant supplement could go a long way in reducing your symptoms.

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