How to Avoid the Dreaded Hangover Headache

Dec 19, 2017 at 6:45 a.m. ET
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Going out with friends after work for a Friday night drink is a great way to end the week, right? That is until you wake up the next morning with a pounding headache that won’t stop.

But the good news is a night out doesn’t have to land you on the wrong side of the bed in the morning. With just a few preventive steps, you can minimize the effects of alcohol and hopefully reduce the fierce headaches that come with a hangover.

What is a hangover headache?

So what exactly happens in your body the morning after to cause such excruciating pain?

A hangover is caused primarily by acute alcohol withdrawal and dehydration. And the next-day headache is most often a result of the dilated blood vessels in your brain, a lowered glucose level and substances in alcohol called congeners, which give drinks their flavor.

According to Dr. Alex Roher, preventing and treating a hangover — and the resulting headaches — is all about hydration.

“Drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration, as alcohol has a diuretic effect. Alcohol increases the production of urine, leading to a loss of fluids and electrolytes that are needed,” Roher explains.

He goes on to say that excessive amounts of alcohol can cause vomiting — resulting in additional loss of fluids and electrolytes. Dehydration can also cause fatigue, headache and dizziness — or what we think of as the typical hangover.

How much alcohol causes a hangover headache?

Whether you have one drink or end up shutting the bar down, the amount of alcohol you drink doesn’t always correlate with the severity of your headaches.

So, just how much do you need to drink to experience one of these head pounders? Well, like most things health- and medicine-related, the answer depends. The severity of your next-day symptoms depends on factors like your age, gender and body weight.

But generally speaking, five to eight drinks for the average man and three to five drinks for the average woman are enough to cause some degree of hangover.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, certain ethnic groups have a genetically reduced ability to break down acetaldehyde, the main by-product of alcohol as it is first processed in the liver.

There are also many medications that interfere with the breakdown of alcohol and acetaldehyde, worsening the consequences of drinking. And if you’re prone to migraines, then you’ll likely endure more next-day misery. In fact, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice found that alcoholic drinks are a migraine trigger in about one-third of migraine patients.

What you eat matters

The food you eat during the day has a huge impact on how your body responds to alcohol. Dr. Elizabeth Trattner says a good strategy to begin with is eating a healthy meal prior to going out.

“Make sure this meal has both healthy fat and fiber to delay transit time in the digestive system,” she explains. “By having both fiber and fat, like avocado and nuts, it will stay in the stomach longer and will keep you from getting completely smashed, which can happen on an empty stomach.” 

Top drinking tips

When enjoying alcohol, Trattner suggests downing a huge glass of water between each drink. She explains that this will often slow people down and keep at bay the dehydrating effects of alcohol.

She also says to avoid dark-colored alcohol like whiskey and red wine. “Instead, stick with light-colored alcohols like vodka, white wine and gin because they contain fewer chemicals called congeners, which can leave you with a splitting headache,” says Trattner.

Avoid add-ins like sour mix, which pack in preservatives that can make a hangover even worse and sugars that spike your blood glucose then send it crashing, leading you to crave more alcohol. Be wary of mixing diet drinks and alcohol.

If you have overindulged, when you return home, try to drink some coconut water or Gatorade that will replace electrolytes depleted by alcohol. Drink at least eight ounces because alcohol dehydrates the system. Try to do this the minute you arrive home.

Lastly, Trattner says that if you were too drunk to take precautions the night before and wake up the next morning with your head splitting open, try the coconut water or the Gatorade before breakfast. It’s also a good idea to include eggs, bananas and fruit in your morning menu. These foods can help replenish electrolytes and other substances your alcohol-ravaged body needs.

So, go ahead and enjoy yourself, but remember that hydration is the key to avoiding (or getting rid of) that nasty hangover headache.

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