The Effects of Alcohol Hangover on the Mind: Challenges and Implications of Research

As we officially enter this years Alcohol Silly Season I thought it might be good to reflect on the after-effects of all that Christmas & New Year celebration.  This was an excellent guest post on Alcohol Policy UK in July earlier this year courtesy of Dr Sally Adams.

In this guest post Dr Sally Adams, Assistant Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Bath, takes a look current knowledge and gaps in our understanding of the impact of hangovers.

Alcohol hangover – “the…combination of cognitive and physical symptoms, experienced the day after a single episode of heavy drinking, starting when blood alcohol concentration approaches zero.”

Given this recent definition of alcohol hangover from the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, you could be forgiven for thinking that the causes and consequences of alcohol hangover were fully understood by researchers. However, whilst tens of thousands of academic papers have examined the short and long-term effects of alcohol consumption on thought processes and behaviour, only a handful have studied how hangover may impact the way we think and behave.

Hangover is an under-researched, but important area of study, especially given the health, economic and social effects. Hangover is one of the most frequently reported negative consequences of heavy drinking and is often associated with health effects including headache, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, low-mood and irritability. Additionally, hangover and other alcohol-related cause cost the UK an estimated £6.4 billion each year due to absenteeism, whilst the costs due to loss of productivity at work remain unknown. Socially, hangover may lead to isolation, social withdrawal and regret, where research has shown that individuals report increased levels of anxiety and low mood during alcohol hangover.

To determine the impact of alcohol hangover, researchers have begun to explore the effects of hangover on cognitive processes – the mental actions or processes   used in everyday activities – such as workplace performance and driving. In these studies, individuals who regularly experience hangovers are asked to either consume a controlled amount of alcohol in a laboratory or to drink “naturalistically” by consuming alcohol in their normal environment e.g. at home, pub etc.  Individuals attend a test session the following day to complete computerised tasks designed to assess cognitive processes used in everyday activities, such as attention, memory and psychomotor performance (the combination of cognitive function and physical action).

To date, studies have produced mixed findings on the cognitive effects of alcohol hangover. A review 13 studies indicated that only 5 individual studies showed a detrimental effects of alcohol hangover on cognitive functioning. However, this finding is more likely to reflect the poor methodological quality of the reviewed studies, rather than an absence of hangover effects. This notion is supported by promising findings from more recent, well-designed research studies demonstrating the impairing effects of hangover on cognition and everyday performance. For example, several recent studies have shown that driving behaviour, attention and memory are impaired during alcohol hangover.

These findings have important implications for improving our understanding of hangover, which may be among the causes of increased mistakes, accidents and injury in the workplace and elsewhere. Research exploring the effects of hangover on cognition and behaviour has the potential to inform policy and workplace guidelines on alcohol and hangover. For example, the UK government does not currently have any polices surrounding alcohol hangover in the workplace and most workplaces do not have health and safety legislation on hangover. A greater understanding of alcohol hangover’s effects on cognitive processes used in the workplace is essential to inform government and employers’ alcohol policies, specifically in sectors where hangover may have serious implications (NHS, transport industries, security and finance).

The current picture of alcohol hangover’s impact on cognitive performance and everyday performance is limited by a lack of robust, well-designed research examining the effects of hangover. Further research in this field is essential in determining the true health and economic costs of alcohol hangover.

For those of us who are heading into the foray minus booze – the Sober Advent Calendar starts tomorrow! As always I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the lovely Arthur Cauty of A Royal Hangover for producing the wonderful images and words you will see over the next 25 days 🙂