Alcohol Headache: Causes, Prevention | Detox Plus UK

All you need to know about alcohol-induced headaches

In this article, we will tell you all you need to know about alcohol headaches so you can better understand their causes.

We will also provide helpful tips on reducing their severity and frequency. Alcohol headaches are common. They are also a pain (quite literally). Nevertheless, they can range from mild to debilitating.

Man with alcohol headache

There are many ways to treat a headache caused by alcohol at home; of course, they can be prevented. 

Headaches are never pleasant to experience and can be disruptive when severe. They can prevent you from going to work or school and take the enjoyment out of your day.

 An estimated 167,000 working years are lost to alcohol every single year. This costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually.

How to cure alcohol headaches

There is only one surefire way of avoiding an alcohol headache, and that is not to drink alcohol in the first place. If you find yourself regularly suffering from headaches related to alcohol, it may be time to look at your consumption.

Binge drinking is the number one cause of a hangover. This is where you consume a large amount of alcohol relatively quickly.

Going on a ‘bender’, where you drink heavily for two or more consecutive days, may even result in some alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you continue to drink this way for long enough.

If you drink moderately or occasionally heavily and still suffer from alcohol headaches, the following tips may be helpful in at least reducing their severity.

6 Tips for avoiding alcohol headaches and hangovers:

  1. Drink alcohol with or after having a meal. Having a full stomach will slow down the absorption rate of alcohol and enable your body sufficient time to process it. You are also likely to drink less if you already feel full.
  2. Drink plenty of water. Ensure you are hydrated, especially before going to bed after drinking alcohol. Keep water by your bed in case you wake up thirsty at night.
  3. Avoid drinking darker-coloured alcoholic beverages. Research has shown that darker-coloured alcohols, such as whisky, port, red wine and tequila, cause hangovers more frequently than clear alcohols. Darker alcoholic drinks contain ethanol and methanol. The methanol metabolites are especially toxic and can contribute to a worse hangover.
  4. Add spritzers, fruit juices or soft drinks to dilute your alcohol. Diluting your alcohol will slow down your ethanol consumption. You are allowing your body more time to process it. At the same time, you will be taking additional fluids to help counteract dehydration’s effects.
  5. Increase nicotinic acid and zinc intake before drinking alcohol. A recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Medicine evaluated participants’ diets for 24 hours before and after excessive drinking. The results found that those whose food and beverage consumption contained greater quantities of zinc and nicotinic acid before consuming alcohol suffered from less severe hangovers. Food rich in zinc and niacin includes beef, poultry, wholegrain, nuts and seeds.
  6. Reduce the speed at which you drink. How fast you drink matters, as most people can only break down one unit of alcohol per hour. For others, it can take even longer. The longer alcohol stays in your system, the longer you will feel hungover the next day.

woman suffering from alcohol headache

What are alcohol headaches?

As the title suggests, an alcohol headache is a headache that is caused by drinking alcohol. There are two main types of headaches that can come about as a direct result of the active ingredient in alcohol, ethanol.

The two main categories of alcohol-induced headaches are:

●      Immediate – An immediate headache will start within a few hours after drinking alcohol. It is the less common of the two types and is dubbed ‘cocktail headaches’. Having this type of headache so soon after an alcoholic drink would indicate that you do not tolerate alcohol very well. Immediate alcohol headaches generally clear up within 72 hours of complete abstinence

●      Delayed – A delayed alcohol-induced headache is much more common. Often known as a ‘hangover’ headache, symptoms usually start around 12 hours after drinking alcohol. This type of headache can last from a few hours up to 72 hours, depending on the person, the amount of alcohol consumed, and their general health.

If you suffer from migraines, alcohol can also cause the onset of one, even when consumed in small amountsWe will delve deeper into the causes of alcohol-induced migraines further on.

Some additional factors can make you more prone to alcohol headaches, aside from your biological makeup, age and general health.

What causes headaches after drinking too much?

  • You are sensitive to alcohol effects
  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking heavily
  • Drink alcohol on an empty stomach
  • Have little tolerance for alcohol
  • Are prone to migraines
  • Are taking medications with side effects that are exacerbated by alcohol
  • Drinking on an empty stomach
  • Drink alcohol quickly
  • Do not keep adequately hydrated
  • Have a poor diet

Many more factors could contribute to an alcohol headache, including hormone fluctuations, energy levels, lack of sleep, poor health, stress, etc.

What does an alcohol headache feel like?

An alcohol headache will generally feel like a dull pulsing or throbbing sensation on both sides of your temple. 

Headaches caused by alcohol will also increase in intensity with any physical activity or exercise. They can have a throbbing or pounding sensation at the front of your head when they are particularly bad. 

You may find your headache so severe that even lifting your head off the pillow makes it worse.

woman with alcohol headache in morning

The morning after

The morning after drinking heavily, many people suffer from what is known as a ‘hangover’. 

Typically, a hangover results from more alcohol than your body can easily process. Furthermore, an alcohol headache is one of the more prominent symptoms of a hangover.

Symptoms of a hangover include:

  • Anxiety
  • Low mood and irritability
  • Feeling groggy and tired
  • Weakness
  • Increased thirst
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • stomach pain
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Increased blood pressure

Whilst a hangover is not life-threatening, its symptoms can be extremely unpleasant. They may cause you to take an unnecessary day out of your schedule to recover.

You are more likely to suffer from alcohol hangover symptoms if you have a low BMI, low alcohol tolerance, and are female.

How the body processes alcohol

How a person processes alcohol in their body can impact whether they suffer alcohol headaches and other hangover symptoms.

Numerous factors come into play here, but generally, a healthy human liver can process one alcoholic unit per hour.

Once in the mouth, a small amount of alcohol will be absorbed into the bloodstream via the mouth lining. The bulk of the alcohol is then swallowed and enters the stomach, and from there, it moves into the small intestines. 

From the small intestines, alcohol is primarily absorbed through the wall of the small intestines into the bloodstream. When the stomach is empty, alcohol moves more quickly into the bloodstream as some of the absorptions occur there.

Alcohol is transported by the blood to your brain first, then your kidneys, lungs and liver. Because the brain and lungs have such a rich blood supply, these are the two main organs quickly affected by alcohol. It is also why alcohol’s effects can be felt so rapidly, especially on an empty stomach.

woman with liver problem alcohol

How the liver breaks down alcohol

The liver receives the highest concentration of ethanol in alcohol due to the portal vein, which transports blood from the stomach and small bowel straight to it.

Once in the liver, ethanol is exposed to the liver’s enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down the alcohol into a toxic compound known as acetaldehyde so that it can be metabolised.

The rest of the alcohol in the bloodstream (approximately 10%) is dispelled through sweat, breath, saliva and urine.

Alcohol is primarily a toxin, hence the common phrase ‘alcohol intoxication’. It is these toxins, together with the fact that alcohol acts as a diuretic, that can cause a person to experience an alcohol headache, amongst other symptoms.

Frequent and heavy drinking can lead to fatty liver and liver scarring, known as cirrhosis. It can also cause numerous other health problems, including obesity, high blood pressure, gastritis and the development of alcohol addiction

Treating alcohol-induced headaches at home

Alcohol-related headaches can usually be eased by taking some simple measures at home.

Hangovers tend to last for no longer than 24 hours. However, some unfortunate people can experience the after-effects of drinking for up to 72 hours.

How alcohol affects you will be unique to you. You may find that you have that one friend who can drink heavily one night and be bouncing around the next day after a decent breakfast whilst you are still ‘hanging’ well into the evening. This is why it is important not to draw comparisons with others or try to keep up with their drinking. Everyone processes alcohol at different rates.

6 Tips for treating a hangover at home include:

  1. Drink plenty of water and fluids – Your body needs it!
  2. Eat something with carbohydrates in it – Alcohol is full of sugar and can cause a sugar crash when leaving your system. This will only contribute to feeling unwell. Simple foods such as toast, crackers, baked potato with beans, or cereal can help to boost your sugar levels and reduce acid buildup in your stomach.
  3. Take an antacid tablet if you feel sick or have acid reflux.
  4. Take an over-the-counter painkiller such as paracetamol. Avoid taking NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen if you already have an upset stomach. NSAIDs (anti-inflammatories) will only further irritate a sensitive stomach.
  5. Take oral rehydration sachets if needed. Rehydration sachets contain minerals and salts often lost through dehydration and drinking alcohol.
  6. Do not drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol as a remedy to alcohol-induced headaches or hangovers is known as ‘hair of the dog’. Hair of the dog only delays and compounds the problem. Additionally, if you do this regularly, you risk developing a greater tolerance to alcohol and alcohol dependence. 

Alcohol and migraines

Paying attention to your drinking habits can be especially helpful if you suffer from migraines. Firstly, alcohol is a diuretic which acts on your kidneys to make you urinate more frequently and dispel more fluids than you are absorbing. Dehydration is the primary cause of alcohol headaches.

If you suffer from migraines, you may be more prone to headaches and suffer from a migraine when you drink alcohol. This is especially true if you drink to excess.

Many things can trigger the onset of a migraine. Common triggers for migraines include cheese, chocolate, stress, changes in the weather and changes in hormones.

Alcohol also acts as a trigger for headaches in approximately one-third of migraine sufferers.

Suffering from migraines may mean that you find hangovers more troublesome than those who do not suffer. 

Alcohol causes widespread inflammation throughout your body because it contains histamine. It also spurs your body into making more of this chemical. This inflammation, which also occurs in the brain, could trigger alcohol-related migraines in some sufferers. A migraine is much more than one of your typical alcohol-induced headaches. It is often debilitating, lasting for long periods.

If you find that alcohol triggers a migraine, you can avoid it entirely. The exact science is still unknown, but a link between alcohol headaches and migraine sufferers has been identified.

Another contributing factor is that many people reach for a drink when feeling stressed. Stress is a known trigger for migraines. Drinking when you are stressed and are a migraine sufferer increases your chances of suffering from an attack.

A final word on alcohol headaches

If you suffer from frequent alcohol headaches or debilitating headaches resulting from drinking alcohol, it might be time to re-evaluate your lifestyle.

The answer to avoiding these types of alcohol headaches is not to drink alcohol. However, drinking within the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines of no more than 2-3 units per drinking episode will also help to safeguard you.

For a small proportion of people, it is not quite as simple as quitting alcohol or cutting down.

Someone with alcohol dependence will not be able to stop drinking without medical intervention. Furthermore, a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) may find that suffering from these headaches spurs them into drinking more. They may also start mixing alcohol with opioid painkillers to avoid headaches, which carries some inevitable high risks.

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