How Our Bodies Adapt to Withstand Festivals

This is how your body and brain helps you push through that four-day bender.

by David Hillier
14 June 2018, 10:42am

Photo: Jake Lewis

Festivals are no friend of the human body. We drink warm Dark Fruits for breakfast and blithely take drugs, even when – after three days of flushing every drop of serotonin from our brains – we know we're not really getting high anymore. All this while rarely sleeping, dancing several miles per day, eating Haribo for dinner and taking a laissez-faire attitude towards washing our hands after using the Portaloos that literally thousands of people have emptied their bacteria-ridden effluence into.

And yet, our bodies stand firm. We wake achey and befuddled, but after a couple hours of moaning and quiet conversations about going home a day early, we carry on. How do we manage this? How do we last three, four, even seven days at a festival without actually dying, or at least being hospitalised?

I called Guy Jones, Director of Reagents Test UK, and an expert in this kind of stuff, to find out.

Photo: Jake Lewis

VICE: Hey, Guy. Is there anything the body does especially whilst at a festival. Like go into survival mode?
Guy Jones: I guess you could say that. Your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol, recognises the conditions are unusual and tries to alter things accordingly. So it will recognise it didn't go to sleep, that it has completed demanding physical activity and that it has been exposed to what it might consider poisons. So it starts to activate repair systems that enable it to cope with this.

What would these repair systems entail?
Take MDMA as an example: if the brain detects a neuron that is damaged by a metabolite of MDMA, the body recognises that and starts to repair that cell or replace that cell, in some cases.

I’ve noticed that sometimes I feel worse after a one or two-day festival. It’s almost like once you get to the third day, your body starts to think, 'This is what life is now.'
Your brain receives signals from all the external factors of a festival [staying up late, taking drugs, etc], but your body doesn’t know that it's only going to be four days. Its job is to adapt the system to deal with everything as best it can, and it's pretty adept at this. So if it's getting these external signals that you're now going to bed at 5AM, it will acclimatise to that.

So your sleep quality will be better and you’ll feel more refreshed?
Potentially, though you'll still be sleeping in a tent with lots of sensory disruptions around you. But it will stop trying to wake you up at 9AM.

Isn't it just alcohol covering up how awful you feel?
Potentially, sure. If you're drinking for three days, then start drinking again, you can mask it. It does mean the next day it's going to be worse, but you might not mind because you've just got to deal with that at home.

How important are the vibes of the festival in keeping you strong?
You definitely have to consider the social aspect. The camaraderie of everyone feeling a bit drained on the last day, but knowing they’re going to give it one last go, is powerful. Imagine, for instance, if someone teleported you out of a festival and back home. If someone then asked you if you wanted to go clubbing, you just wouldn’t do it! Of course you wouldn’t.

What about social pressure? Like, wanting an early night but not wanting to be "that guy"?
Well, if your group's intention was to come and party for three days, then that is certainly going to be a factor. You also have to consider what's going to give you the longer-lasting memory. If you're going to bed at 11PM and getting up at 9AM, your story is going to be very different. It really depends on what your motivation is. That motivation will hugely affect your body's ability to keep partying even when it's feeling tired.

Thanks, Guy.