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Understanding Alcohol Induced Headaches

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Updated April 05, 2014

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Understanding Alcohol Induced Headaches

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If you’ve ever overindulged in drinking, then you know how horrible that pounding next morning headache can feel. Alcohol-induced headaches, also known as hangovers, are almost guaranteed when we drink in excess. However, for some people, even one or two drinks can trigger a severe headache. Fortunately, we know something about why hangover headaches occur, and what we can do to minimize them.

Why do we get alcohol-related headaches?
Alcohol is a common migraine trigger, for a couple of different reasons. First of all, alcohol is known as a vasodilator. This means that it causes the blood vessels in the body to dilate, or expand. This is what causes the reddening of the face in an individual who has been drinking. Dilation of the blood vessels in the brain is through to be the cause of a migraine, so this response to alcohol may trigger a migraine in individuals who are prone to migraines. Even a small amount of alcohol may cause the blood vessels to dilate.

What substances inside of alcohol are responsible for causing a headache?
There are also substances in alcoholic beverages that some people are more sensitive to. One of these substances is the amino acid tryramine – a well-known trigger for migraine or cluster headaches. Tyramine is found in red wine and champagne, as well as dark alcoholic beverages like scotch, beer, and bourbon.

Congeners, a chemical found in some alcohols, can also cause headaches in some individuals. Congeners are believed to trigger headaches because they make slight changes to the chemical composition of the body. Hard liquors, especially darker, amber liquors, usually contain more congeners than lighter liquors. Individuals who are sensitive to sugar may get a headache due to the high sugar content in alcohol. Some alcoholic beverages use artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, which cause a headache in some people.

Why do some people have more alcohol-related headaches than others?
Headache triggers tend to vary from person to person Studies have shown that most people who experience headaches shortly after drinking alcohol are usually more prone to getting headaches in general. Some individuals have an alcohol intolerance, of which headache is a common symptom.. If you suffer from regular headaches, it is a good idea to keep a headache diary. This will help you to identify headache triggers. You might notice that you are able to better tolerate certain alcohols, or a smaller amount of alcohol.

What causes a hangover headache?
If you notice a headache eight to sixteen hours after consuming a moderate to high amount of alcohol it is typically called a hangover. Hangovers are not just about the headache, they may also occur with other symptoms like nausea, diarrhoea, and fatigue. The headache experienced with a hangover is typically described as intense and throbbing. Because alcohol can have diuretic effects, which means that it causes increased urination. This can quickly lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, and can cause a headache.

How can I treat a hangover headache?
A hangover headache can be treated with an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, such as naproxen or ibuprofen. Be careful about consuming pain medications, especially acetaminophen which is metabolized by the liver, with alcohol. Replenishing the body’s fluids and electrolytes is very important in treating a hangover headache. Water will help to rehydrate you, while sports drink provide essential electrolytes.

How can I prevent a hangover headache?
If you experience regular headaches the day after drinking, there are some measures you can take to prevent the headache:
1. Reduce the amount of alcohol you are drinking.
2. Try to sip your drink slowly, or try a non-alcoholic variety.
3. Consume foods with a high fat and carbohydrate content before drinking, as this will help slow your body’s absorption of the alcohol.
4.Consider taking an over the counter painkiller before drinking if you are prone to headaches.
5. Stay hydrated. Try to drink plenty of plain water or a sport drink before drinking. Alternate every alcoholic drink with a glass of water to help you stay hydrated.

Remember: excessive alcohol consumption can cause problems beyond a headache, so be careful if and when you choose to drink.

Sources

Panconesi A, Bartolozzi ML, Guidi L. Alcohol and migraine: what should we tell patients? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2011 Jun;15(3).177-84.

Martin PR.Behavioral management of migraine headache triggers: learning to cope with triggers. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2010 Jun;14(3).221-7.

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