Picture the scene: you’ve just woken up in an unknown place, unsure of the time, day or even year.
You’re hurting from head to toe. You don’t know whether you’ve been mugged, in a wrestling match or mauled by a gorilla.
You have an impending sense of doom (worsened by the fear for your bank balance), your hands are shaking, and a trip to the bathroom is as daunting as scaling Mount Everest.
Welcome to the hangover.
Cheer up. It could be worse. At least you haven’t woken up with a pet tiger, a new face tattoo, or married to someone whose name you don’t know.
Still, a hangover is a hangover, and they’re all dreadful…
But if you ever find yourself in such dire straits, we have your back.
This is the nutritionist’s guide to getting over a hangover.
- What is a “hangover”?
- How to avoid a hangover
- Junk foods and hangovers — help or hindrance?
- How to tackle a hangover at breakfast
- How to tackle a hangover at lunch
- How to tackle a hangover at dinner
- How to use snacks to manage a hangover
- Foods to avoid when hungover
- Dealing with “hangxiety”
What exactly is a “hangover”?
First, let’s get to the bottom of what exactly happens to your body after you’ve had a few, and what scientists believe makes the experience of a hangover so bad.
Alcoholic drinks are produced from the fermentation of sugars in grains, fruits, berries, and sometimes other plant or food sources. It’s a drug, but people over the age of 18 in the UK can purchase it legally.
As a drug it acts as a depressant and increases sociability, reduces inhibition and many other decision-making and memory-forming processes in the brain.
Alcohol and humans go back far further than many people realise. Archaeologists have found that our ancestors were drinking as early as the stone age, long before modern humans picked up a pint.1
It’s important to note that alcohol itself is a toxic substance. It cannot be stored in the body, and if we do not metabolise it quickly and effectively, it can accumulate and cause serious harm.
The byproducts of alcohol breakdown and metabolism are highly reactive and generate what is referred to as “oxidative stress”. This refers to an imbalance between reactive metabolic byproducts and antioxidants. The greater the degree of oxidative stress, the more potential for cell and tissue damage.2
Researchers have found that the greater the oxidative stress, the greater the inflammatory response and the worse a hangover will be.3
A hangover itself is a mixture of general misery. Common symptoms include headache, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, thirst, dizziness, nausea, and mood changes.4 I think that’s a list many recognise …
While the exact mechanisms causing these symptoms are not fully known, it’s believed that oxidative stress, inflammation, reduced sleep quality and quantity, and the diuretic properties (it makes you go to the toilet more) of alcohol all contribute. Disrupted routine, age, gender and even genetics are also probable factors.4
While some of these are not within our domain of control, some are. So here are a few tips for avoiding and reducing the symptoms of a hangover.
How to avoid a hangover
Aside from the obvious answer of not having anything to drink at all, there are ways you can protect yourself from the worst of a hangover.
First, here are a few things that will likely lead to a worse hangover3,4:
- Drinking too much
- Drinking too quickly
- You don’t drink very often
Drinking alcohol high in congeners (bourbon, for example). Congeners are substances found in many alcoholic drinks and often come from ingredients and production materials.
So, some good advice is (particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t drink often) to take your time when drinking and know when to stop (we often know when the next drink is one too many, but not having it is another issue).
How much and what we eat can also help reduce the risk of a hangover.
When you have food in your stomach, alcohol takes longer to pass through it and be absorbed. There’s truth to the old parent-to-teenager advice “don’t drink on an empty stomach”.
Meals high in fat, carbohydrates or protein are equally effective in slowing alcohol absorption. The most important factor is whether alcohol is consumed on an empty stomach or together with a meal.5
Any meal eaten around the time of alcohol intake can help minimise the risk of a hangover, but a high protein, high fibre meal may also help minimise any unwanted impact on body composition. Snacks like protein bars or protein shakes to more substantial meals — a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, veggie-loaded frittata, or a tofu stir fry — all help to minimise the hangover risk.
Alcohol intake directly affects sleep quality and quantity. The more you drink the more your sleep will be affected. It’s also worth pointing out that a night out often involves staying up later than usual anyway.
On this matter, you want to focus on getting the best sleep possible. Do your best to go to bed at a reasonable hour and make sure you sleep somewhere sensible, ideally a dark, quiet room that’s not too warm and not too cold (maybe keep a window open).
Before you go to sleep though, you’ll want to get a head start on rehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic and causes an increase in fluid and electrolyte loss. If you don’t hydrate properly, the next day you may experience dehydration symptoms like dry mouth/tongue, thirst, headache, lethargy, fatigue, dry skin, muscle weakness, light-headedness, dizziness and a lack of focus.6 Basically a hangover, right?
It’s recommended you consume several cups of water before bedtime, preferably with an electrolyte tab to aid rehydration. Of course, you don’t want to drink so much that you’re up again during the night. Rehydration will need to carry on in the morning and beyond, so keep a glass of water by your bedside.
While there is little existing evidence supporting anti-inflammatory hangover treatments, I find dissolving some vitamin C in water and a few omega-3 capsules help ease my symptoms in the morning.
The next day, try as best you can to stick to your usual routine, particularly mealtimes and bedtime. If you don’t, disrupted blood sugars may lead to irritability, fatigue, low mood and increased “junk food” cravings. Alcohol itself alters blood sugar regulation 7, as does poor sleep, so it’s better not to compound these issues for any longer than necessary.
Is junk food good for a hangover?
In short, probably not. Consumption of junk food may even make hangovers worse, particularly if you’re not used to consuming meals high in fat and readily digestible carbohydrates. It may irritate your stomach, alongside the alcohol8, causing digestive issues and low mood. It may also lead to spikes and dips in blood sugar levels, which will affect mood and energy levels.
For some, there may also be the risk of experiencing negative emotions after consuming junk food, such as guilt or shame.9
While it can be difficult to resist the urge for a takeaway when you’ve had a few or you’re suffering the day after, avoidance is advised if you don’t want to make the hangover any worse than it needs to be.
How to tackle a hangover at breakfast
Breakfast is arguably the most critical time for combating the hangover.
To reiterate the earlier point, it’s important you get some fluids in as early as you can; incorporating electrolytes, vitamin C and omega-3s may help.
Come morning, a cup of coffee may help combat the early symptoms of a hangover, like headache and fatigue10. However, there’s a chance it may worsen others, like anxiety, irritability, sleep disruption, etc. It’s up to you and how you respond.
While a popular choice, the greasy goodness of a fry up is probably not the best choice.
It may tackle a few cravings, and the nutrients within the meal will help tiredness and disrupted blood sugars after a booze-filled evening. But it’s also likely going to cause your gut to become more inflamed. Despite the instant gratification, there’s a chance it’ll cause worsened hangover symptoms throughout the day.
Instead, it may be better to opt for a bowl of porridge oats with a scoop of whey and some melted choc on top. You may want to go down the savoury route with salmon and cream cheese bagel, or maybe even some lean chicken or turkey breast with tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
Trust me, your gut will thank you for not diving headfirst into a fry up after a knees up!
And we’ve got loads of recipes…
How to tackle a hangover at lunch
Congratulations: you’re halfway there. You may not be thriving, but you’re at least surviving.
As with breakfast, you’ll want to continue focusing on protein and plants. These’ll not only supply you with the vitamins and minerals needed to ward off some hangover symptoms, but they’re also help with satiety and regulating blood sugar. A few lunch ideas packed with hangover-fighting goodies include:
- Beans on toast: Need I say more? Oh and this one’s perfect for students.
- Soup: A bean-based soup would be fantastic here, as it’s full of fibre and good for hydration given its fluid content; the beans are packed with electrolytes too.
- Avocado on seeded sourdough toast with roasted vine tomatoes: The perfect “influencer” meal is more than just a tactical choice for maximising likes. Avocado is a great source of fibre and electrolytes, the tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, and the sourdough toast will help provide some extra energy, with complex carbs to help get you through the afternoon.
How to tackle a hangover at dinner
You’ve made it. It’s dinner time. You’re feeling suspiciously fine after following this guide to tackling a hangover before you went to bed last night and throughout the day …
Dinner is a time to be a bit more adventurous with your diet. Ideally you’ll want to continue focusing on meals high in protein, with plenty of fruit and veg as well as a good serving of whole grains.
You may want to include an oily fish like sardines or salmon, which are both a rich source of omega-3s and other healthy fats. These’ll continue to help address alcohol-related gut inflammation.
Additionally, one quite cool (if you’re a nerd like me) food to include during dinner time is asparagus. One study has shown evidence that asparagus extract can prevent alcohol hangover and protect liver cells11.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to eat a meal based around these rough portion guidelines:
- A palm-sized portion of protein
- A palm-sized portion of fruit, veg or both
- A closed fist-sized portion of grains
- A thumb-sized portion of “healthy” fats (plant-based options such as nuts and seeds, or count a portion of oily fish as both protein and fat).
How to tackle a hangover with snacks
Snacking between meals is often vilified but unjustly so. Between-meal nutrition is a critical component in your anti-hangover toolkit.
Not only will it help you continue to nourish away the symptoms of a hangover, but it’s also a perfect opportunity to satisfy some of those cravings you’re experiencing.
Snacking is the best opportunity for some of those foods that are good for the “soul”. Whether chocolate, crisps, sweets or whatever else you fancy, it’s important to include your favourite treats in your diet. Other snacks that are helpful on a hangover would be anything rich in electrolytes, hydrating or a source of protein.
High protein yoghurts, protein bars and nuts are all good sources of protein, important minerals (including electrolytes) and the latter two are high in fibre.
Fruit should be on your snacking list too. My recommendation is banana or watermelon for electrolytes, or a few portions of kiwi or orange for vitamin C.
High protein yoghurts, protein bars and nuts would be great sources of protein, fibre (excluding yoghurt) and other important minerals (including electrolytes).
What you should avoid on a hangover
We covered briefly the impact of “greasy” foods and how they can increase the severity and possibly prolong the symptoms of a hangover.
While you may experience cravings for sugary foods during a hangover, they may not be very helpful.
A large serving of these will lead to a spike in blood sugar, and then a more extreme dip. It’s likely this dip will be met with extreme fatigue, irritability, weakness and even shaking, as well as a low mood. I’d highly recommend staying clear of large servings of sugary foods. (It may be best to keep sugar for smaller snacks.)
Contrary to popular advice, you’ll also want to avoid more alcohol. The old “hair of the dog” remedy does little more than simply delay hangover symptoms.
Coping with “hangxiety”
The dreaded “fear”…
A dark cloud you just can’t seem to shake the day after a late-night shots session… or can you?
Here are five tips for dealing with “hangxiety” and sending that gloomy cloud on its way:
- Get back into your routine as best you can
- Get outside, get active and get some fresh air
- Clean yourself and your environment; a shower and fresh sheets can work wonders
- Chat to your mates; speaking to your friends, family and other loved ones can go a long way
- Nourish yourself the right way
Take home message
Since the dawn of pints, humans have searched high and low for the elusive hangover cure.
While the best advice is to avoid drinking altogether, filling your stomach before a night out, hydrating before bed and the day after, and eating the right foods will go a long way.
Avoid junk foods, stick to nutritious foods rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and other mineral-rich foods, and stick to your usual feeding and sleeping routines, and you can protect yourself from the very worst of the dreaded hangover.