Anyone who’s ever had to complete complex tasks while hungover (sitting up, writing an email, eating a single Saltine) knows how dumb you are after a night of drinking. In even my mildest hangovers, I’ve never left the house without forgetting at least one essential thing, like a shirt. Doing my work always takes twice the time, and it comes out, well, stupid.
But why? Theoretically the booze is out of my system, so why is my brain still acting drunk?
A new study potentially points to an answer. We already know somewhat why hangovers feel physically bad: Peak hangover moment chemically is when your body has broken down the alcohol into other alcohols like methanol, which is a toxin. It also produces acetalydehyde, another toxin. This, likely along with dehydration and the amount of chemicals called congeners in the alcohol (which are higher in darker booze), can triple the terrible effects.
But in addition to what we already know about hangovers and brain function — that the brain’s cognitive functions remain decreased in the eight to 16 hours post-imbibing; that we’re less alert and have worse memory recall; that you can actually still be drunk the next morning if you wake up early—the new research suggests that the hangover also makes us bad at learning.
Researchers at the University of Victoria wanted to find out whether the great hangover sluggishness and general incompetence we’re all familiar with could be detected in the brain. To find out, they asked 62 undergrads to play a computerized gambling game while recording their gray matter’s electrical activity. The game was set up so that through trial and error they could perfect their play, meaning they’d theoretically get better and “win” more. Half of the undergrads had downed an average of six drinks the night before, the other half hadn’t.
No surprise: The hungover students were worse at the game because they were worse at learning. Their brains showed less responsiveness to the reward of winning, too.
In other words, when you’re hungover, you feel like shit, but on the upside, you also don’t care.
“Practically speaking, if you are hungover, it might not be the best time to try and learn something new or make decisions that are feedback-dependent. If you plan a big night out, take the next day off,” study author Olav Krigolson tells PsyPost.
Great advice! Totally unrealistic. You can probably avoid learning something new the next day after drinking (unless the next day is your first day on a new job — d’oh), but nearly all work is feedback-dependent. What’s more, sometimes a midweek celebration, and therefore midweek hangover, is unavoidable, and as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry because you got accidentally shitfaced on a Wednesday.
And having to learn something isn’t your only hungover working problem. One recent survey of employees found that 83 percent said being hungover makes them slow, spaced-out, shitty workers. To say nothing of the fact that you’re not really good at driving yourself to work hungover either.
If you don’t count people who call in sick, being hungover at work costs the U.S. about $77 billion annually in poor work performance. That’s clearly not as pressing a concern to the hungover person as being near an available private bathroom, but it still sucks to know you’re in pain and also sucking at your job.
For all those reasons, one health psychology professor has argued that we shouldn’t work at all when we’re hungover because of not just the economic cost, but the public health risk.
But what if you can’t sleep the day away or binge-watch Night Court reruns? Skipping out on work due to tying one on last night is risky. For one, your co-workers may very well have been glugging away with you the night before, so they know what’s up. Two, you may work at one of those work-hard play-hard places where heavy drinking is as important as proving you’re immune to its effects. Or you may have no PTO left, or not get any to begin with.
But that said, just being hungover doesn’t mean you have to skip work or will definitely be bad at working. For the current study, Krigolson concedes that they didn’t investigate, for starters, whether the undergrads who drank six drinks had followed up with water or had anything to eat. Those are crucial in determining how you’ll feel come 7 a.m.
I would add that looking at when they drank matters, too. You can knock back six drinks if you day-drink, still wake up early and feel far less hungover the next day. What you drink counts, too: We know certain drinks produce shittier hangovers, like cheap liquor.
Did these kids even try to prevent a hangover? Take it from old people who are way out of college: Not every night of drinking leads to Hangover Town. We’ve investigated nearly every preventive measure you can take to ward off a hangover or cure one should you tempt the fates and ignore that advice. Not just because hangovers feel like shit, but because most of us still have shit to do tomorrow. Eating well, flooding your system with water until you’re just perpetually in the bathroom line, pacing yourself and not pounding shots can mean a perfectly okay next day if you get decent-enough sleep.
In those cases, it’s more likely you won’t be knocking yourself out at work, but you might turn in a day indistinguishable from the third day of a cold or a late-night flight or any day of your life with a toddler. There’s a huge difference between running an all-day gauntlet of nearly spewing versus the merely bruised, wincing malaise of the milder hangover. The former is the domain of the 20-something; the latter is for us Olds to take pride in.
If you’re going to drink, make it your job to know the difference.
But even if you (or researchers) can’t tell the difference, your body can. And if it’s really that bad, just stay home. Sleep. Eat right. Try a little hair of the dog. And know this: Unless you are just so outrageously bad at drinking that puking and crying are your only options, Alka Seltzer fuckin’ works.