For some, a hangover is accompanied by feelings of guilt and stress, which are known as hangxiety. According to David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, alcohol affects the Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor, which delivers chemical messages through the brain and central nervous system to suppress the activity of nerve cells. The action reduces excitement, leading to the feeling of relaxation you may experience when drinking alcohol.
After a couple of drinks, the body begins to block glutamate, which transmits excitement in the brain. “More glutamate means more anxiety,” says Nutt. “Less glutamate means less anxiety.” Despite reducing anxiety, drinking creates an imbalance. While drinking, the body attempts to bring Gaba levels down, and increase glutamate. When you stop consuming alcohol, you are left with insufficient Gaba function and an upsurge of glutamate, which results in anxiety. Afterwards, the brain can take a few days to adjust. Alcohol consumption also results in an increase in noradrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. Noradrenaline reduces stress while drinking yet increases it in withdrawal.
These symptoms affect people differently. A study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences revealed that people disposed to shyness had higher levels of anxiety after drinking than people who weren’t shy as a result of feeling guilt or shame about what they may have said or done the night before. “People who are more highly anxious are more prone to rumination, going over thoughts about the night before, so that’s another potential mechanism,” says Celia Morgan, professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter.
Morgan suggests that if you have experienced hangxiety you should consider how you will feel the following day before starting to drink. Oftentimes, people prone to hangxiety rely upon alcohol to reduce their angst, which can create a vicious cycle. “Drinking might fix social anxiety in the short term, but in the long term it might have pretty detrimental consequences,” Morgan says.
There may be hope for people who suffer from hangxiety in the future. Nutt is currently involved in a project to develop an alcoholic drink that retains the positive properties of alcohol but removes the negative effects. “Alcosynth”, as it is currently called, will have the same effect as alcohol but won’t destabilize the Gaba and glutamate. “We’re in the second stage of fundraising to take it through to a product,” Nutt says. “The industry knows [alcohol] is a toxic substance. If it was discovered today, it would be illegal as a foodstuff.”
Until Alcosynth becomes available, Nutt says that people should avoid treating hangxiety with alcohol. “When people start drinking in the mornings to get over their hangxiety, then they’re in the cycle of dependence. It’s a very slippery slope,” he adds.