For the past several summers, I’ve participated in a slow-pitch softball league that plays on Sunday mornings. Since most of the team, including myself, have a history of showing up to games hungover, we’ve developed a very healthy tradition of easing our hangovers with a post-game feast of chicken tenders, french fries, cheese sticks, mozzarella sticks, tater tots, fried pickles and anything else salty, brown and deep-fried that strikes our fancy.
Something about my body, head and stomach aching due to over-imbibing the night before turns me into a human garbage disposal, able to eat anything and everything put in front of me. Any other day, a few slices of pizza is enough to make me feel full, gross and lethargic. So what the hell is happening in my hungover body that enables such a massive shift in appetite?
According to Dana Ellis Hunnes, senior dietitian at UCLA medical center, the answer mainly hinges on blood sugar. “When we drink too much alcohol, our blood sugar levels dip, and there is more insulin that’s been used to process the food and alcohol from the night before,” she explains. “Sugar levels get low, we feel hungry, and that seems to be the most likely explanation.”
Put another way, Gillian Tietz, biochemist and host of the addiction science-based podcast Sober Powered, says the brain sees your lowered blood sugar and tries to correct this by telling you to eat. “When we drink large quantities of alcohol, the body makes processing and eliminating alcohol its main priority and other processes, like maintaining our blood sugar, are impacted,” she tells me. “In the morning, this means your blood sugar is low and your glycogen stores are low, so the body sends you signals to eat.”
Plus, while your body frantically tries to correct its levels and heal from all the poison you poured into it the night before, the lines of communication between your gut and brain aren’t working so well, as alcohol suppresses the hormone leptin, which is responsible for telling your body when it’s had enough to eat. Shovel enough tater tots and mozzarella sticks down your gullet, however, and your stomach might finally trigger nausea or stomach pain to tell your brain something is off.
So, to read it all back, you’ve tanked your blood sugar, suppressed important hormones and scrambled the communication between your stomach and brain — not to mention all the other pain signals lighting up across your body. When you take it all in, it’s bewildering that alcohol has remained our drug of choice for centuries.
Still, what you eat while hungover can go a long way in helping repair the destruction left behind by last night’s binge on cheap rum. “It’s best to eat a healthy, electrolyte-rich breakfast that can help you hydrate and get healthy sugars from food that has naturally occurring fiber and omega-3’s,” says Hunnes. “Something like oatmeal with walnuts or chia seeds, or avocado, berries, bananas and watermelon would all be good.”
In other words, no matter how much your brain insists that your body needs more salty, greasy food, don’t listen. Drink water, eat some fruit and pray your new hangover-friendly diet helps avoid the dreaded two-day hangover.