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hangover shakes

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Hangover Shakes – Why do you get them after drinking alcohol?

Afterdrink Author Kathy Caldwell
Kathy Caldwell

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Evidence based

If you’ve ever had a big night out, you’ll probably know all about having the alcohol shakes.

Waking up with a dry mouth, headache, and tremors is part of the routine after a night of drinking for many of us.

Hangover shakes can be a real problem especially if it gets in the way of your daily routines or job.

You’ll know that dehydration is the cause for many of your hangover symptoms. But why do you get shakes after drinking alcohol?

In this article, we’ll cover the science behind alcohol shakes, why they happen and what can be done to get rid of them.

Table of contents

Why do you shake when you have a hangover?

To answer this question, we first need to cover how alcohol affects your body, in particular, your nervous system.

When you drink, alcohol is rapidly absorbed from your stomach into your bloodstream.

Its transported around your body where it freely passes without any filtering into your brain. This is because alcohol is water-soluble.

Alcohol is a nervous system suppressant.

It slows down the transmission of electrical signals in your brain by up-regulating inhibitory neurotransmitters.

As a result, you’ll feel the effects that we’re all too familiar with including a feeling of relaxation, reduced co-ordination and reaction times.

Once you’ve woken up the day after and the alcohol has left your bloodstream, the nervous system wakes suddenly.

This is known as alcohols “rebound effect”.(1)

Imagine it like a coil that’s been pushed down and suddenly let go. It’ll fling back into action.

While you’re drinking, alcohol suppresses your nervous system and once it’s left your body it suddenly flings back into action which is known as alcohols “rebound effect”

What causes hangover shakes?

The rebound effect of alcohol causes over activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

You’ll probably be more familiar with the effects of the sympathetic nervous system when it comes to the flight or fight response.

Activation of this system is associated with an increased heart rate, sweating and shakes. All of which go hand in hand with a bad hangover.

Some scientists even relate alcohol shakes to a mild state of alcohol withdrawal.(2)

This is because, in alcohol addiction, a similar response is seen when you stop drinking.

Hangover shakes only happen if you’ve been drinking excessivley and are a sign you should consider cutting down.

Other causes of alcohol hangover shakes

Hangover shakes can also be exacerbated by low blood sugar levels.

The relationship between alcohol and low blood sugar is a complicated one. But most of its effects are related to blocking the release of glucose from your liver and altering the amount of insulin released from your pancreas.

These changes are particularly pronounced if you’ve not had a meal before going out or have not eaten anything for a prolonged period of time.

Overall, binge drinking can drop your glucose levels which can cause shakes too.

Alcohols rebound effect also has a strong link with increased levels of anxiety.

The same way the sympathetic nervous system is involved in increasing your heart rate, it can also tip your brain into a heightened sense of awareness which provokes anxiety.

Anxious nerves can also worsen any shakes you may have.

Hangover shakes can be caused by alcohol’s rebound effect, low blood sugar, and anxiety associated with drinking.

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How long do hangover shakes last?

Your body takes time to re-adjust the nervous system to its normal resting state when hungover.

Hangover shakes can usually take anywhere from a few hours to a whole day to fully resolve.

The shakes are usually at their worst in the first hour or two after you wake up and should improve after having a meal. Particularly if your sugar levels are low.

How to get rid of hangover shakes

So you’ve woken up hungover AF and you’ve got the shakes. What do you do next?

Aside from the standard rituals like having a meal and going for a shower, you could try some of these tips below.

Rehydration sachet
You’ll find rehydration sachets in any health store and they’re usually used for diarrhoea.

They can be a great addition to your hangover recovery efforts as it’s full of essential minerals and electrolytes that are lost when you drink.

Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and calcium play a crucial role in your nervous system and restoring the balance can go a long way in helping you recover from your hangover shakes.

Chamomile
This herb is used all around the world to settle upset stomachs and anxious nerves.

Studies have shown that chamomile can be useful in helping patients with anxiety.(3). That said, chamomile is still undergoing research and still isn’t recommended for this use.

If you’re not keen on sipping on chamomile tea when hungover, you can always try chamomile extract supplements in capsule form.

L-Theanine
L-Theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in green tea. Some studies have shown how it reduces both psychological and physical stress responses – i.e the flight or fight response.(4)

It does this by blocking the binding of glutamic acid with its receptors in the brain.

Glutamic acid is one of your body’s main excitatory neurotransmitters.

Once again, you can either try sipping on green tea or purchasing a supplement containing L-Theanine. However, it’s important to note the research into L-theanine is only preliminary.

Sleep it off
The best way to get rid of hangover shakes is to give your body some more rest time and sleep.

It’ll allow your brain to restore the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

If this is not an option, you could always give one of the other tips above a go.

Hair of the dog
Now, we mention this point with caution.

It’s true that having more alcohol will counteract the hangover rebound effect and stop your shakes in the short term.

But we certainly don’t advise this tactic as it only delays the inevitable second wave of your hangover.

Also going to work hungover with the shakes is still definitely better than going to work drunk because you’ve had another drink.

What to avoid

Caffeine
Although it may seem like the right thing to do, you should stay clear from anything with caffeine in it.

Caffeine is a stimulant and will fuel the sympathetic nervous system even more.

It’s a guaranteed way to worsen your hangover shakes. Furthermore, caffeine has a half-life of six hours.

This means it takes 6 hours for its concentration to half in your bloodstream. As a result, it sticks around for a long time which is not ideal when you’re trying to achieve the opposite of further stimulation.

Strenuous exercise
It’s a common misconception that vigorous exercise will help you “sweat the alcohol out of your system”.

This is a myth because by the time you’ve woken up hungover, the majority (if not all) of the alcohol from last night has gone.

Exercise releases stimulating hormones like adrenaline which will worsen your hangover shakes.

How to prevent hangover shakes

When it comes to preventing hangover shakes, the best way is to drink within your limits and not get a hangover in the first place.

Obviously that’s easier said than done.

Some practical advice includes drinking lighter coloured drinks throughout your night.

By this, we mean avoiding drinks like whisky and red wine because they contain high levels of congeners.

Congeners are found in high quantities in dark coloured drinks and associated with much worse hangovers.

Another tip is to have a glass of water between each alcoholic drink. This will allow your liver time to process and clear more alcohol from your bloodstream before the next drink arrives.

As mentioned before, low blood glucose can be a significant factor in hangover shakes. Always make sure you have a meal before you go out and top up with a snack at some point throughout your night.

If you’re planning on having a snack at some point, try having some dried fruit.

We know it sounds like a strange option, but dried fruit is high in fructose.

This is a natural sugar which has been shown to increase alcohol breakdown by your liver. However, it’s important to note these studies are old and haven’t been looked into more recently.(4)

Fructose which is the sugar found in fruit has been shown in studies to speed up alcohol breakdown by up to 80%

Anything else to consider

Hangover shakes are caused by drinking excessively and mostly associated with binge drinking and bad hangovers.

If you’re experiencing shakes after every night out, it’s a good sign that you’re drinking too much.

On the other hand, if you’re drinking to stop the shakes and notice that stopping drinking makes your symptoms worse, then its a sign of alcohol dependence.

In this case, it’s really important you seek help by speaking to your physician.

Conclusion – Final words

So, that brings us to the end of our look into Hangover shakes and why you get them.

We’ve walked you through the science behind how they happen and what you can do to get rid of faster.

That being said, it is important to note that hangover shakes happen only when drinking excessively and are commonly associated with bad hangovers.

For this reason, if you’re experiencing shakes after drinking it may be the right time to start cutting down your alcohol intake.

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