Combat 'hangxiety' and improve mental wellbeing by taking care of gut health

Date: 24th January 2024

  • Several mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety have well-established links to the way our gastrointestinal system works
  • Looking after our gut health can improve mental health and protect us from alcohol addiction

As ‘Dry January’ gains momentum, a leading UK psychiatrist from Priory, Dr David McLaughlan, is emphasising the importance of maintaining gut health to avoid the negative consequences of alcohol consumption.

While the end of January may bring a sense of relief and anticipation, it's crucial not to undermine the progress made during this abstinent month by engaging in excessive alcohol consumption as soon as February begins. Dr McLaughlan warns that such behaviour can directly impact gut health, leading to low moods, depression, and the well-known phenomenon of 'hangxiety' - a combination of hangover and anxiety.

Home to 95% of the body’s serotonin levels – the happy hormone – the gut doesn’t just help us to digest food, it also helps to regulate our moods[i]. And according to Dr David McLaughlan, a consultant psychiatrist and addictions specialist at Priory, and co-founder of[ii], many people remain unaware of the importance of gut health when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.

“Serotonin is an incredibly important neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, anxiety levels, appetite and sleep,” he says. “It also reduces our experience of pain.”

The vast majority of serotonin production takes place in our gut, but this important task is highly influenced by having a healthy balance of 'good' bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. These provide an effective barrier against toxins and 'bad' bacteria such as proteobacteria and bacilli. A healthy balance also reduces inflammation and helps us to absorb nutrients from food which are important for mental wellbeing and healthy cognitive function.

“Healthy diets fell by the wayside for many during the festive season,” says Dr McLaughlan. “Excessive alcohol consumption, in particular, can kill off good bacteria, decreasing the production of serotonin in our gut and leading to post-drinking low moods, depression and hangxiety. Additional issues can include bloating, diarrhoea and flatulence, as well as gut inflammation, food sensitivities and intolerances. While a period of abstinence - particularly for people taking part in Dry January - can do wonders to recuperate gut health, the benefits can wear off quickly if people immediately overindulge in February.”

Research[iii] also shows that binge drinking, particularly during adolescence, is associated with changes in our gut microbiome, which in turn is linked with alcohol addiction in later life.

According to Dr McLaughlan, while increasing numbers of people are beginning to appreciate and value their microbiome and gut health, they've not made the link with alcohol and, in particular, binge drinking. “The gut microbiome has received a lot of attention in recent years and when speaking to my patients about this, many are aware of the fermented drinks and yoghurts that support gut health. Yet, they remain oblivious to the negative impact their drinking has on their gut health and microbiome. I think if more people recognised this, they would drink less."

Dr McLaughlan continues: "Our brain and our gut communicate with each other, in all sorts of ways. Many of us can relate to having anxious thoughts and feelings, then experiencing butterflies in our stomach. However, it's a two-way conversation, meaning our gut can talk back to our brains and I think that's fascinating.

“We call this the gut-brain axis – a bidirectional communication network linking the enteric and central nervous systems. This network isn't just anatomical via nerves, it also includes chemical messaging through hormones and immune signals from our cells. When excessive alcohol is consumed, the gut can no longer communicate with the brain to produce those feel-good hormones.”

Dr McLaughlan provides top tips for maintaining gut health:

  • Wash your hands and use hand gels
  • Avoid sharing glasses by labelling your drink
  • Avoid excess alcohol by using mindful drinking techniques
  • Enjoy a healthy varied diet (diversity of plant products, fruit and veg and other probiotics = healthy gut microbiome)
  • Make sure you're well hydrated
  • Get enough sleep

Dr McLaughlan also provides some tips to help encourage mindful drinking when Dry January comes to an end:

  • Drink with a sense of awareness – know why you're drinking. What need is the alcohol serving, and what emotions are driving your motivation to drink? For example, are you anxious, sad, happy, excited or bored?
  • Drink with a sense of intention - how many drinks do you plan on having? Do you need to set yourself a limit, in terms of number of drinks, how much you'll spend or when you'll stop drinking and go home?
  • Have a drink refusal plan - what will you say if someone pressures you to drink more than you want to?
  • Alternate your drinks, for example, have one alcoholic drink followed by a non-alcoholic drink
  • Start your evening with at least one non-alcoholic drink. And never drink alcohol to quench your thirst! This will make you drink faster than you might have planned)
  • If you're going out for dinner, always have water on the table
  • If you're at a dinner party, always have/offer water on the table
  • For wine drinkers - it's easy to lose track of how much you're drinking if friends or waiting staff keep topping up your glass. Ask people to wait until your glass is empty before refilling it
  • For group drinkers – be careful of drinking in rounds. The fastest drinker ends up setting the pace and people rush to finish their drinks as a result

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health and addiction services. For addiction withdrawal treatment, people can contact their GP or receive a free private addiction assessment at a specialist Priory service by calling 0330 173 7690.


Contact: [email protected]


[ii] Curb Health is an interactive app to support people to avoid high-risk health behaviour and is offering free access for ‘Dry January’.


About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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