Holiday Binge Drinking and Nervous System Damage

Gillian May
Photo byImage by Drazen Zigic in

Behold, it’s the holiday season, and you know what that means? A plethora of hungover people everywhere you go. I can almost feel the dull irritability of damaged brains on every street corner. Worse yet, they’re behind the wheel or operating other dangerous equipment.

As a recovering alcoholic, I remember holiday hangovers well. As a former nurse, I also know how dangerous these hangovers are for the nervous system. In my old drinking days, December 26th would always feel like a day of depression, disillusionment, and pure exhaustion. It would take me days to recover, and that’s only if I decided to stop drinking on the 26th as opposed to continuing with the party.

But inevitably, the hangover process begins, and we have to take time to recover. For some people, recovering from a hangover can take a whole week, depending on how much drinking took place.

Mild hangovers cause symptoms like nausea, headaches, and anxiety. More severe hangovers can be much worse leading to symptoms like hallucinations, tremors and paranoia. Nausea and headache usually go away within a day, but why do the exhaustion, irritability, and anxiety persist?

Because although our gastrointestinal system might be able to bounce back, our nervous system is a lot slower to recover.

Alcohol is incredibly neurotoxic. Whenever we drink past the recommended dose, our nervous system takes a hit. Can one night of substantial drinking cause damage to the nervous system? You bet. And if the drinking is extreme, the neurotoxic damage can actually cause death.

However, most of us who get wasted over the holidays don’t die, but we kind of wish we did considering how awful we feel for days after. So what’s happening to our nervous system as we cope with a hangover? Why is it hard to recover our regular function again?

Basically, alcohol causes significant changes in all our powerful neurotransmitters. When we stop drinking, the withdrawal causes these neurotransmitters to suffer a kind of rebound effect. It’s like taking an elastic band and stretching it out. Once you let it go, it snaps and zings across the room. That’s your neurotransmitters during alcohol withdrawal. It then takes several days for things to calm down again.

Most symptoms of a hangover can be traced back to a nervous system that’s been damaged and is trying to recover. This is especially dangerous and problematic for people with existing mental health issues who already have a sensitive nervous system. Also, for people who have other health problems and who take medications (that may not mix well with alcohol), the problem becomes even more pronounced.

The symptoms of withdrawal and a recovering nervous system can vary significantly from person to person. It depends on how much a person drank before they got the hangover, as well as how frequently they drink on an ongoing basis.

Problem drinkers (those who frequently drink over the safe limit) usually combat the symptoms of hangovers by continuing to drink. So they often boast that they rarely get hangovers anymore.

However, in the case of the holiday drinking binge, the nervous system damage can be quite uncomfortable to cope with. This is because, often, people drink even more than usual over the holidays, which exponentially stresses the nervous system.

The fallout from holiday binges is that we have people walking around depressed, anxious, sleep-deprived, and feeling irritable. This is all due to a nervous system that is trying to recalibrate.

The obvious solution to this problem is not to drink over the safe limit. Most people know what the safe limit is, but I’ll repeat that for those who may not.

Safe drinking limits are no more than 4 units of alcohol for men and 2 units for women on one occasion. One unit of alcohol is equivalent to 125ml of wine or half a pint of beer.

I know what you’re thinking, “who drinks only a tiny glass of wine?” I know, it’s amazing how normal it seems to drink several honking glasses of wine, liquor, and beer. But such is our alcohol culture.

Still, if you want to avoid hangovers and the neurotoxic withdrawal symptoms, that’s the only way to do it.

Should you be nursing a hangover that seems to be lasting for days, you can try a healthy diet, lots of rest, plenty of water, and electrolytes.

If you want more advice, you could check out this study about several hangover remedies. Although, the researchers admit that the best way to treat a hangover is to drink safely to begin with.

If your withdrawal is severe, it’s best to visit an emergency room or your family doctor asap. Very severe alcohol withdrawal can cause death if not treated by a medical professional. It can also exacerbate heart related issues and health problems.

Let me be clear, holiday binges are not normal. But to lend a hand towards risk and harm reduction, you can follow my advice above if you need some help.

And honestly, if you find yourself binge-drinking over the holidays or even other times of the year, it might be time to start thinking about your relationship with alcohol. If you’re waking up feeling horrid today from too much holiday boozing, know that you can always begin your new year with a new path and better habits.

Happy holidays.

Here are the references I used to create this article:

Alcohol and The Nervous System
Effects of Alcohol
Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system.
Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the central nervous system.
Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover

Comments / 5

Published by

I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.


More from Gillian May

Comments / 0