Help me explain and deal with the awful psychological effects of my hangovers.
April 7, 2008 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol leaves me with debilitating psychological effects that can last for days afterwards. The logical answer is of course to quit drinking, but I'd like first to explore other options.

Some background: I'm male and in my early 30s. I am not a heavy drinker in any way - I drink perhaps three or four times per month, and seldom more than a few beers or glasses of wine. I enjoy alcohol while I'm drinking and find it enhances my ability to socialise - I don't 'need' it, but find that nights out are generally better with it than without. The problems I'm describing have been part of my life for the past seven years or so, and have steadily got worse.

A familiar routine plays itself out on getting home after a night out when I've consumed any amount of alcohol. I go to sleep quickly and have a restless night of vivid, intense dreams, waking up often. I'm up for good after five or six hours, feeling exhausted but unable to sleep more. The physical effects (dryness/headache) lift soon after, but psychological torment now sets in: paranoia, anxiety, inability to concentrate on more than one thing, constant 'bursts of thought', a skewed sense of space where I'm not able to conceive places outside my realm of vision, and other strange happenings. The only cure I've found for this is sleep, but increasingly the effects last for days. And I repeat, all of this with only a couple of glasses of beer or wine (!).

Through talking extensively to friends etc. I've concluded that my situation is pretty unique. I've yet to meet someone who even notices the morning-after effects of alcohol on their minds - a 'hangover' for most people involves a headache and a dry mouth, easily cured with a large glass of water/fried food/exercise. The average alcohol tolerance level seems a lot higher than mine, although I don't seem to get drunk any faster, or any more drunk than my friends. Even more bizarrely, alcohol actually seems to HELP these people to sleep, so they sometimes wake up feeling more rested than if they hadn't drunk at all.

I'm not on any medication, nor do I want to be. I should also add that I've had sleeping 'issues' since childhood (light sleep, waking in the middle of the night, etc.). Boxes I've already ticked on my quest for an honorable hangover: sleeping pills before bed (longer sleep, decreased the psychological trauma slightly but made me groggy the day after), paracetamol before and after sleep (had no effect beyond alleviating physical symptoms), aromatherapy (no effect), over-the-counter herbal hangover 'cures' (no effect), not sleeping (intensified all symptoms - yikes), meditation (very temporary cure of psychological symptoms).

Please help me understand more about why my hangovers are so damn hard on my mind. What are your experiences of this? Do you have any tips for how I could combat these unwanted bad trips while maintaining a healthy light drinking habit?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Alcohol makes sleep apnea worse. Perhaps you have apnea but normally its not an issue. With alcohol it begins to manifest itself in the ways your describe. Interesting how more sleep helps.

Or you could have an allergy to whatever you're drinking.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:41 AM on April 7, 2008

"What are your experiences of this?"

I drink a bit more heavily, maybe closer to 6 beers socially once or twice a week and I'm almost 30. I have the same tormenting thoughts the next day and restless sleep. I've also had similiar sleeping issues since childhood. I haven't tried any meds, mixing pills with alcohol doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Quitting is an obvious answer but I'm with you on it helping to socialize.

I find that this condition helps me not become a daily drinker though, so there's a plus.
posted by xpix at 8:50 AM on April 7, 2008

I've noticed that certain types of alcohol can cause worse sleep issues like you mention above. Do you tend to stick with specific brands of alcohol? Might be worth trying some different types of alcohol.
posted by Octoparrot at 8:59 AM on April 7, 2008

I am often tormented by utterly illogical feelings of guilt and shame after major drinking, even when my friends say I did or said nothing of note. Thanks to a previous AskMe answer, wherein it was suggested that such feelings are sometimes due to a B12 deficiency, I've tried downing a few B12 caps before or after carousing and found it really does seem to help. YMMV.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:06 AM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

You may have a "dysfunction in the production of aldehyde dehydrogenase" without it alcohol does not break down and remains, essentially toxic. IANAD, but I had an East Asian friend (among whom this condition is more prevalent) with this condition and even one 12 oz beer was enough to put him out.
posted by MasonDixon at 9:12 AM on April 7, 2008

I'm afraid I don't have any help for you, but I felt the same way as you when I drank (and it got much worse after I hit 30). So I quit drinking completely, and yeah, your social skills suffer, but I'll take that over feelings of panic and cosmic guilt.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:17 AM on April 7, 2008

I am often tormented by utterly illogical feelings of guilt and shame after major drinking, even when my friends say I did or said nothing of note. Thanks to a previous AskMe answer, wherein it was suggested that such feelings are sometimes due to a B12 deficiency, I've tried downing a few B12 caps before or after carousing and found it really does seem to help.

Interesting. Got any links?
posted by NekulturnY at 9:21 AM on April 7, 2008

Since you drink in order to quell social anxiety, I'd work on the social anxiety. With a therapist.
posted by desjardins at 9:25 AM on April 7, 2008

I've had sleep issues since childhood very much like the ones you describe. If I have more than about two units of alcohol in an evening (more than 8 oz. wine/24 oz. beer/2 oz of liquor), my sleep will be restless and I will wake up every 15 minutes or so. I will probably get three hours of sleep total, and it will take several days to fully recover.

I also can't have alcohol at all within about 2-3 hours of going to bed, or I have the same problem.

Some of the psychological effects you are describing are common with sleep deprivation. If you have trouble sleeping normally, it is possible that alcohol is adding to your sleep deficit enough to trigger these psychological effects.

Alcohol generally does not help people to sleep; there's been a lot of lab tests on this. So far as the sleep part goes, your situation isn't very unique.

Have you tried seeing where the tipping point is? Just having one glass of wine/beer in an evening and seeing if it sets you off? Might be interesting to see what precise level of alcohol triggers this.
posted by rednikki at 9:26 AM on April 7, 2008

I had a roommate in college whose mother had what they called an "allergy to alcohol". Apparently her body couldn't break it down, so even a drink or two could have really bad and lasting effects on her health. My roommate was told that it was a genetic disorder that she had most likely inherited, so she never drank even a drop of alcohol. A small part of me always wondered if the whole thing was a sneaky story told to keep a kid from drinking, but based on other answers here it seems quite possible that people's bodies can have trouble metabolizing the liquor. If that really is the case for you, it seems like you should probably avoid drinking. Either way, it seems like it would be worth bringing this stuff up with your doctor.
posted by vytae at 9:26 AM on April 7, 2008

If you are not a smoker, or even if you are, really, I think you should try putting on a nicotine patch before you go to bed after a night of drinking and follow that up with some Nicorette gum when you get out of bed in the morning.

Nicotine is looking more and more like a potent brain preserver in the face of a number of brain difficulties, such as its long recognized (but still controversial) apparent association with a decreased risk of Parkinson's. More to the point for you perhaps, given those feelings of paranoia and 'bursts of thought'

Following the observation that smoking improves condition of people with schizophrenia, in particular working memory deficit, nicotine patches had been proposed as a way to treat schizophrenia.[86]

I think your condition could possibly be explained if you are being exposed to solvents, pesticides, or metal fumes in the course of your daily life that your liver is ordinarily coping with quite adequately, but the extra burden of dealing with even a small amount of alcohol allows the effects of these more dangerous toxins to 'break through.' I also know a couple of people with lupus who have reported reactions to alcohol which remind me of yours.
posted by jamjam at 9:37 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if alcohol acts as a trigger for, or amplifies existing mental issues issues. Perhaps you should go see a shrink.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2008

I find that being well hydrated between drinks and sleeping diminishes or eradicates the possibility of a bad hangover the next day. I have no experience with the types of effects you describe, however. Could it be that your tolerance for alcohol is much lower than you think it to be?
posted by contessa at 10:05 AM on April 7, 2008

Drinking gives me really annoying sleep problems, too, although without the psychological effects you've mentioned. If I go to bed having drunk too much, I wake up four (sometimes five) hours later and can't get back to sleep -- although unlike you, I feel completely wired, like I could go run a marathon while imitating Jim Carrey on speed. It's annoying, and of course by 2 PM the next day I'm a walking zombie.

My solution: never drink more than two drinks when going out. You mention sleeping pills, but I wonder if a couple Tylenol PMs (a lighter dosage than most sleeping pills) might work for you. On the few occasions last year that I had too many drinks, Tylenol PM did help me sleep until at least 7 AM or so. Not ideal (and of course, it's got to be terrible for your body), but it might be worth a try if you're experiencing these problems even with a minimal amount of alcohol.
posted by venividivici at 10:22 AM on April 7, 2008

You might find this thread helpful.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 11:15 AM on April 7, 2008

DON'T EVER take paracetamol (aka acetaminophen, aka Tylenol) with alcohol EVER, EVER again.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 11:25 AM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Seconding avoiding tylenol with alcohol, you'll destroy your liver.
posted by Benjy at 12:08 PM on April 7, 2008

I never really have the physical aspects of hangovers no matter how much I drink (I'll get sick from drinking if I drink too much, but I feel fine the morning after) but I very often get what I call an "emotional hangover". It's pretty much exactly how you described, though mine often have an overwhelming feeling of guilt or shame accompanying them, or a feeling that I said too much/something I shouldn't have/did something stupid while I was drinking, even if I was totally fine when I was drinking. (And I rarely feel guilt/shame regarding anything under non-drinking circumstances.)

This didn't start until a couple of years ago (I'm now 27) and I've been drinking since my mid-teens, so I don't think it's anything genetic. I do have some mental health issues (primarily bipolarism) but I actually have one friend who has the exact same reaction to drinking and at about the same frequency so I don't think it's related to me being bipolar either. I also have a few friends who don't get it as often, but experience it from time to time.

Just wanted to let you know that it doesn't seem you're as alone in this reaction as you think.

And now that I've seen CunningLinguist's suggestion of B12, I'm going to have to try that.
posted by primalux at 1:04 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chinese medicine practitioners (I think) would say that by inflaming your "liver" (wood element), you are inflaming your "heart" (fire element). The "heart" (not your real heart) is associated with everything you describe -- emotional upset, not being able to sleep -- and the "liver" is sensitive to toxins, like your real liver. Anyhow, if a doctor has no suggestions, you might talk to an acupuncture specialist or chinese herbalist.
posted by salvia at 6:22 PM on April 7, 2008

If I drink too much (which for me is more than a couple of drinks) I often feel like crap, physically, mentally, and emotionally for days afterwards, much longer than a "normal" hangover. Some people are just more sensitive to alcohol than others.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:54 PM on April 7, 2008

Oh, but I've found that I don't usually have this problem with Guinness. My understanding is that Guinness has less alcohol and more nutrients than most other beers, so maybe you can try that.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:55 PM on April 7, 2008

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