The festive period is nothing if not boozy. With every Christmas get-together comes the inevitable morning-after-the-night-before, a swirling mess of dry mouth, thumping headaches and hangxiety. Hangovers are dire, we all know that, but is it true that doing some exercise—sweating it out—can actually help speed up your return to normality, or even get rid of them altogether? Here, Vogue speaks to trainer and performance specialist, Luke Worthington, to separate fact from fiction.
What type of hangover is it today?
You’re probably already (more than) aware that a hangover can be both physical and mental, and last longer than a morning, depending on just how much alcohol was imbibed. But like it or not, the first thing we need to explore is what type of hangovers we suffer and why, to uncover whether exercise will really help alleviate the symptoms.
“Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it stimulates our need to pass water,” explains Worthington. “So even though we’re drinking more fluid on a night out, we are actually losing more than we take in. It’s this dehydration that causes the headache the next morning.”
“Alcohol has a certain amount of toxicity that needs to be dealt with by our liver, which is the body’s built-in detox mechanism. It can deal with moderate alcohol consumption very well, but a particularly heavy night causes it to be overworked, and as with any other build up of toxicity, this can create feelings of nausea,” says Worthington.
“Though drinking can make us drowsy, the quality of sleep we experience after excessive drinking is actually very low,” says Worthington. “It’s more akin to being unconscious than a restful, restorative sleep.”
“Alcohol acts as a sedative to the nervous system, so although we can often feel more lively and energetic whilst drinking (the sedative lowers our inhibitions and feelings of self consciousness), it does actually act as a depressant,” says Worthington. “It’s much the same as consuming an excessive amount of stimulants, like caffeine, and crashing afterwards before balancing out to normal levels. The truth is that hangxiety really is a thing.”
Can exercise help with these symptoms?
For some, yes. If you’re simply feeling tired or anxious, a workout can help you feel immeasurably better—if you can drag yourself out of the house, that is. “One of the most appealing benefits of exercising is increased energy and better quality sleep,” explains Worthington. “A workout is one of the most effective ways of combatting tiredness and accumulating some energy for the day ahead.”
For those suffering anxiety, some activity is also great for boosting happy hormones, like endorphins, and Worthington touts it as one of the most effective non-medical interventions for improving emotional wellbeing. “This is also true for short-term issues that occur as part of a hangover,” he confirms.
However, if you’re suffering from a headache or nausea, chances are it might not help the situation. Headaches are often due to dehydration, which means that when you sweat during exercise, it can actually get worse. “My advice is to replace fluids as much—and as early—as possible before thinking about exercising,” advises Worthington. “Isotonic sports drinks have been shown to replace fluids more effectively than just water. Coconut water is a natural alternative that has an ideal mineral content to aid rehydration.”
As for the nausea? Well, if you’re feeling sick exercise is probably not on the cards anyway, but Worthington confirms it’s a big no-no. “Exercise increases blood circulation, and if we’re struggling to deal with toxicity then increasing the heart rate can actually increase the amount of alcohol being circulated around the blood stream—in practice, that means we can actually end up getting drunk again!” His advice it to sit it out and ensure you eat lots of good quality dietary fats, such as fish oils, avocados and nuts, to help the liver metabolise alcohol.
What type of exercise helps beat a hangover?
“As long as you have adequately rehydrated and aren’t suffering from nausea, then a 25-30 minute moderate intensity, weight-supported workout, such as a bike ride, TRX workout or Pilates class would be ideal,” says Worthington, who adds that this is long enough to enjoy the benefits of boosted endorphins, but short enough that it won’t cause excessive dehydration or impact the body. Avoid heavy loading or high-impact workouts, like weight training, sprinting and HIIT.
This article originally appeared in British Vogue.