Researchers may have finally discovered why you get the munchies after a night of drinking.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, alcohol switches the brain into starvation mode, which then increases hunger.
Previous studies have linked drinking alcohol and overeating in humans but were unable to attribute this phenomenon to a specific neurological response. Instead, many experts hypothesized that drinking lowers inhibitions and people are more likely to make poor food choices. However, this recent study found that hunger-promoting brain cells called Agrp neurons are activated by alcohol.
“Our data suggest that alcohol sustains fundamental appetite signals, (and does) not just disinhibit their behavioral manifestation,” wrote Denis Burdakov, who led the study at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
Scientists subjected a group of mice to a three-day “alcoholic weekend” while another group of mice remained sober. They discovered that the mice who were exposed to alcohol ate much more food than the sober mice. In mice test subjects, the alcohol increased activity in the Agrp neurons, which sent signals telling their bodies they needed more food.
The researchers then repeated the experiment on mice but blocked the neurons with a drug. The drunk mice whose Agrp neurons were blocked did not eat as much as they did in the previous experiment.
These results show “that the alcohol-associated activity of Agrp neurons…is the critical step in alcohol-induced overeating,” the researchers said.
Researchers believe this may also be the case for humans and would explain why we eat more with just a few drinks in us.
Alcohol is high in calories — five beers is equivalent to nearly four glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts or five slices of cheese pizza from Domino’s. Many people who get the drunk munchies are not only consuming more food than they normally would, but also guzzling down a large amount of calories.
The authors of the study hope that by understanding how alcohol impacts our bodies and changes our behavior, this information might help with managing obesity, which is still a dangerous epidemic in the United States. Nearly 38 percent of adults and 17 percent of teens in the U.S. are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.