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Connection Between Alcohol and Headaches

Alcohol’s ability to make a person’s head throb after having one too many drinks shows that there is a connection between alcohol and headaches. Whether the effect is immediate or delayed, headaches associated with alcohol consumption are no fun. 

In most cases, alcohol-induced headaches will resolve on their own. However, these headaches are a major inconvenience, especially if you have to go to work or have important things to do. 

To further understand how this alcohol-headache connection works, it’s important to know what alcohol does to the brain and body, how alcohol-induced headaches come about, and what types of alcohol you should avoid to prevent the worst headaches.

How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain & Body?

Every person has a different response to alcohol. Thus, the impact of alcohol varies from one person to another. For example, some people can drink alcohol without being noticeably intoxicated or experiencing extreme side effects, while others cannot. 

Several factors also influence the effects of alcohol on the body. These include:

  • The amount of alcohol consumed and how fast it was consumed
  • Body size and composition
  • Dehydration
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Genetic risk
  • Hormones
  • Presence of illness
  • Sleep
  • Stomach content

Alcohol has a major impact on the brain and body. While this impact may be unnoticeable at first, with consistently heavy drinking, the signs and symptoms of alcohol use and misuse will come to the surface eventually. 

Let’s take a look at how alcohol impacts the brain and body:

On the Brain

Alcohol interferes with the communication pathways in the brain. It affects how the brain works and looks. This interference can affect a person’s behavior, mood, thinking, movement, and coordination. It can also cause headaches, blackouts, and memory lapses.

On the Heart

Too much alcohol consumption over a long period can damage the heart. It can lead to cardiovascular disease such as arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, stroke, and hypertension.

On the Immune System

Alcohol can significantly weaken the immune system. This will make you susceptible to diseases because your body loses the ability to fight off infections. As a result, you easily get sick. 

On the Liver

The liver is the main organ where alcohol is metabolized. Consuming alcohol in large amounts puts a tremendous load on the liver, leading to liver inflammation and other liver-related conditions such as alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver or steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.

On the Pancreas

Alcohol stimulates the pancreas to produce toxins that can cause pancreatitis. This is a condition that causes the blood vessels of the pancreas to swell and become inflamed. When this happens, digestion is affected.

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Why Does Alcohol Cause Headaches?

If you’re wondering where the raging hangover headaches come from after consuming alcohol, blame it on a chemical called Ethanol. It is found in alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, and liquor and can trigger migraine headaches.

Alcohol can cause headaches in several ways: 

  1. Alcohol is a natural diuretic. It affects your kidneys so that you urinate more than you’re taking in. Every time you urinate, your body excretes vitamins, minerals, and salt. Excessive drinking can cause chemical imbalances and dehydration, and the lack of water in the body causes headaches. 
  2. Alcohol directly dilates blood vessels. This vasodilating property leads to a relaxation of the blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood going to the brain. When this happens, a headache develops.

Migraine sufferers are advised to watch their alcohol consumption or, better yet, avoid alcohol because it is a migraine trigger. 

What Types of Alcohol Cause the Worst Headaches?

All forms of alcohol cause dehydration. Dehydration causes headaches. Thus, all forms of alcohol cause headaches. While this is true, some forms of alcohol produce the worst headaches among others. 

The severity of your headache depends on the type of alcoholic drink you consumed. An alcoholic beverage with the most chemicals called congeners will give you the worst headache of all. 

Congeners are the by-products of the fermentation process. The more congeners a drink has, the more severe your headache will be.

A study from the British Medical Journal showed that bourbon causes the worst headaches. Brandy has the highest amount of congeners, followed by whiskey, rum, and red wine. Beer, on the one hand, contains very little congeners. Gin and vodka are distilled to remove the congeners in them. 

Sugary mixers and tropical drinks can also cause you to drink too much. Sweeteners mask their flavors, so it’s easier to just keep drinking them. This alcohol and sugar combo will make you feel worse the following day. 

Lastly, drinking champagne also leads to bad headaches. Champagne is pumped with carbon dioxide to produce bubbles. The carbon dioxide content in champagne causes quick alcohol absorption into the bloodstream. 

How Long Do the Effects Last?

The short-term effects of alcohol usually manifest in the form of a hangover. Hangover symptoms include:

  • Body weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Mood disturbances (anxiety, depression, and irritability)
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor sleep
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sensitivity to sounds and light
  • Shakiness
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting

The human body breaks down alcohol at a constant rate. However, some people may feel the effects longer than others. This is because blood alcohol concentrations are not the same for everyone. 

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the amount of alcohol present in your blood in relation to the amount of water found in your blood. Two people can have the same blood alcohol levels, but their BAC will differ. 

Several factors can affect your blood alcohol concentration and how your body will react to alcohol. These include:

  • Age
  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
  • Liver disease
  • Medication
  • Weight

Additionally, it is important to know the alcohol content of the beverage you’re drinking. This will determine how long alcohol will be metabolized in your body and how long the effects will last.

Here is a general estimate of how long some alcoholic drinks are broken down or metabolized in the body:

Type of Alcoholic DrinkAverage Time to Metabolize
A full glass of wine3 hours
A pint of beer2 hours
A small shot of liquor1 hour
A few drinksSeveral hours

Why Do I Have an Alcohol Headache After One Drink?

When it comes to the onset of headaches after drinking alcohol, there is no standard time. Some people experience delayed alcohol-induced headaches, while others get immediate headaches from drinking alcohol. 

If you’re wondering why you have an alcohol headache even just after one drink, it may be because your body metabolizes alcohol differently. It may also help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of alcohol did you drink?
  • Did you drink too much, too soon?
  • Have you eaten anything before drinking alcohol?
  • Are you currently experiencing any form of illness?
  • Are you currently taking medications?

Furthermore, keep in mind that your weight, age, and body composition also affect alcohol metabolism. The older you are, the harder it is for your body to metabolize alcohol.

Tips for Preventing Headaches After Drinking Alcohol 

Headaches are an unpleasant result of alcohol intoxication. They are one of the symptoms of an unpleasant hangover. While there are home remedies and treatments for a hangover headache, prevention is always better than trying to cure it.

Here are some helpful tips for preventing headaches after drinking alcohol:

  • Avoid drinks that contain high amounts of congeners
  • Eat breakfast
  • Drink lots of water
  • Drink alternately between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Get enough sleep
  • Never drink on an empty stomach

The best form of prevention is alcohol abstinence. However, if it cannot be avoided, remember always to drink alcohol in moderation and watch your alcohol intake.

How to Relieve a Hangover Headache (Treatment & Home Remedies)

When you’ve had too much fun the night before, and overindulgence has caught up with you, there are treatments and home remedies for a hangover headache.

The following tips will help you find relief for a hangover headache:

  • Drink plenty of water or sports drinks to replenish lost fluids.
  • Don’t forget to eat to get your blood sugar levels up. Start with a toast and juice early in the morning.
  • Take some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help relieve headaches and muscle pains. Ibuprofen and aspirin will work, but avoid acetaminophen because it is toxic to the liver, compounding alcohol’s effect on the organ.
  • Take supplements such as red ginseng and ginger. They have been studied and found to decrease the severity of hangover symptoms.
  • Get lots of rest and sleep. Healing and recovery happen when you are sleeping.

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Resources

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  1. BGSU. “Factors that Affect Intoxication.” Bowling Green State University.
  2. CDC. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 May 2021.
  3. Lee, Mi-Hyang et al. “Red ginseng relieves the effects of alcohol consumption and hangover symptoms in healthy men: a randomized crossover study.Food & function vol. 5,3 (2014): 528-34. doi:10.1039/c3fo60481k
  4. NIH. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” 2004, October. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  5. NM. “How Alcohol Impacts the Brain.” 2021, April. Northwestern Medicine.
  6. 7 Steps to Cure Your Hangover.” Harvard Health Publishing.
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