The Hangover Hypothesis

A night of moderate drinking plus a low-carb breakfast can improve your mood and your memory.

By Neil Parmar, published on January 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Mom was right: Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. For years, researchers have touted the educational benefits that breakfast can provide school-age children.

Now there's evidence that an early morning nibble may help adults sharpen their memory and widen their smile, especially following an evening of wine sipping or beer guzzling. In fact, findings by researchers at the University of Wales-Swansea show that people who fast and choose to skip breakfast after drinking alcohol the night before are less energetic and have a poorer mood throughout the morning.

Feeling blue after taking a pass on breakfast may come as no surprise, but there's a secret for those who want to enhance their memory and feel a little daybreak bliss. The key lies in how much alcohol you drink the night before and what kind of breakfast you eat the morning after.

A.M. foods that slowly release glucose into the body, like rye toast, all-bran cereal, pears and unsweetened apple juice, have been shown to improve the body's overall tolerance for glucose. This is a crucial exercise to practice while eating, as studies have shown that better glucose tolerance leads to better memory.

What's more, brain-boosts can accumulate over an entire day because of the so-called "second meal effect." Basically, this means that an evening meal that's low in carbohydrates will improve glucose tolerance in response to breakfast the following day. A low-carb breakfast, in turn, will improve glucose tolerance after lunch.

So how do foods that slowly release glucose bring about a smile? According to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience, consuming more than 4.5 grams of alcohol the previous night compounds the effects of both memory and happiness. But that's only when you eat a breakfast low in carbohydrates.

Don't worry, though. There's no pressure for you to down merlot with every meal. In fact, subjects who drank less than 4.5 g or no alcohol at all had better recall the morning after—but only when they ate breakfast foods that quickly jacked up their blood's glucose levels.

Researchers don't exactly know why the interaction between breakfast food and the lingering effects of alcohol jumpstarts our mood and memory in the morning. Yet, they do suspect that changes in our body's insulin response may be the underlying mechanism, since both the chronic intake and the acute intake of alcohol influence insulin release and insulin resistance.

Ongoing speculation has led researchers to develop the "hangover hypothesis," which proposes that there are some adverse carryover effects after blood alcohol levels have returned to zero. Indeed, studies have shown that alcohol still has an influence about 14 hours after consumption.

Still, there's one thing that experts seem to agree on: better glucose tolerance builds a better memory. So the next time you're about reach for that cinnamon-coated bagel, perhaps opt for that delicious scone instead.