Few urges are as domineering as the one that compels you to seek food after a night on the tiles. The drunchies, if you will. No matter how many times you tell yourself that you'll go home from the bar and swallow nothing more than a paracetamol and pint of water before bed, here you are at the fridge, chain-spooning leftover lasagne into your mouth and wondering where you hid the emergency Galaxy bar. Or, worse in terms of waistline but totally superior for satiating inebriated tastebuds, at the kebab shop on the corner ordering a deluxe doner with extra garlic mayo. Oh, and a side of cheesy chips while you're at it.
But according to a new study from the Francis Crick Institute research centre in London, your drunken food cravings could all be down to a neural mechanism.
See? It's not your fault you gravitate towards carbs and cheese when buzzed. It's your brain.
Published yesterday in the Nature Communications journal, the study saw researchers inject one group of mice with a three-day "alcoholic weekend" worth of alcohol, which is the equivalent of roughly two bottles of wine or six to eight pints. The second group of mice were not given any alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, the boozy-weekender mice ate more than their sober counterparts.
While such alcohol-induced overeating has previously been linked to loss of awareness surrounding food intake or the so-called "aperitif effect," the Francis Crick researchers claim that there is also a biological factor at play.
According to the study, alcohol stimulates the brain's "AgRP" neurons, which control hunger and are found in both mice and humans. When these neurons are stimulated, it leads to rapid overeating, "even in the absence of energy shortage."
The authors explain that: "If you have an increased alcohol intake, then you're going to, as a result of that through the effect of alcohol on your brain, have an elevated level of food intake." They add that when the hunger-promoting AgRP neurons were deactivated in some of the mice, the inebriated binge eating stopped.
Gary Wittert of Adelaide University's School of Medicine was not involved in the study but discussed this phenomena with ABC. He explained: "The alcohol is active in the brain on a group of nerve cells in the area of the brain that regulates food intake, and these nerve cells make a protein called agouti-related proteins—so they are AgRP neurons. And when these neurons make this protein, they regulate food intake and alcohol is modulating the effect of these neurons so as to increase food intake."
While the Francis Crick research is interesting in its focus on the neurological link between drinking and overeating, other experts have highlighted the limitations of such mouse experiments. Scott Sternson of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York told Scientific American that compared to that of mice, human behaviour is complex and social or environmental factors could also impact how much we eat after drinking.
It seems your 3 AM craving for terrible kebabs will have to go unexplained for a little while longer.