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What Alcohol Does to the Stressed Brain

May 14, 2020 4 min read

What Alcohol Does to the Stressed Brain

What Alcohol Does to the Stressed Brain

The Covid-19 lockdown saw a sharp rise in alcohol sales across New Zealand. Whether it was the stress from an uncertain few months ahead or simply the fear that your favourite drop might not be available for some time, Kiwi's rushed to their local bottle shop. While we don't know exact sale figures it was widely reported that alcohol dispensaries were experiencing shortages and struggling to keep up with demand [1].

Professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine from the National Addiction Centre, Doug Sellman, says that in stressful times people will look for comforting habits to form. That's pretty self-explanatory though right? You're stressed and living in the not-yet new-normal so if something helps you cope a bit better you form a habit out of it. What's not as self-explanatory though are effects on your brain when mixing alcohol with stress over a longer period of time. Is alcohol really an elixir that soothes the troubled mind? Without diving in too deep, we can assume, that all the effects alcohol has aren't immediately visible and can persist longer than just a bad hangover.

So what does happen to the brain when we use alcohol to combat stress. Can it work to calm the nerves and provide some stability, or should we be wary?

Alcohol, history's favourite choice for taking the edge off:

You don't have to look far for messaging that alcohol relaxes even the most stressed individual. Movies, music and pretty much all forms of media are filled with examples of pouring a drink in stressful moments. James Bond to Robert Muldoon and everyone in between can be seen pouring a tipple at the end of a long day.

Michael Sayette, PhD, alcohol researcher and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, says 'There’s a widespread assumption that alcohol reduces stress.' Sayette goes as far as to say that this belief is not just publicly held but common with doctors as well. Sayette points out that this belief goes back a few millennia with the Greek poet Alcaeus, writing, “We must not let our spirits give way… Best of all defences is to mix plenty of wine, and drink it.

Is there any scientific evidence to support this commonly held belief?

In short, yes, but it's few and far between. A 2011 study in the journal Alcoholism found two alcoholic drinks immediately following public-speaking helped reduce the standard spike in cortisol [2]. A 2009 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed by raising people’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to a level of 0.08% their startle response reduced, but the same study goes on to conclude 'that alcohol selectively reduces anxiety but not fear' [3].

Dr Rajita Sinha, founding director of the Yale School of Medicine Stress Center, says 'Alcohol is an anesthetic,' so it dulls pain or stress. She also says that 'physiologically, alcohol affects the body’s stress pathway' and alcohol has the ability to numb the brain and the body’s response to stress.

Combining these pieces of evidence it looks like alcohol does have the potential to provide a short term solution, but no meaningful assistance with the root causes of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, to Dr Sinha's point, the longer-term effects can be damaging as the alcohol begins to affect how your body manages stress, rather than actually helping with the stress.

To summarize, there's little evidence to support mixing alcohol and stress, and it seems to be case dependant where success is observed. Also, these studies don't take into account the longer-term effects of alcohol during a sustained period of stress in your life.... like a pandemic lockdown.

Further putting water on the fire Sayette says 'we now have 50 years of laboratory research that suggests it’s far more complicated than one would believe.'

So what are the risks of mixing alcohol and stress?

A 2011 piece in Behavioral Neurobiology of Alcohol Addiction, argues the opposite of the above's findings and shows drinking can actually increase cortisol levels [4]. This goes along with increased blood pressure and heart rate. From biochemistry point of view, this is obviously not a great side effect. 

Sayette says 'If you’re consuming quite a few drinks to reduce stress and you do this all the time, what happens is that you start to alter your brain chemistry... the brain's normal non-alcohol state begins to change, and in some cases, it may become a more anxious one.' When this happens, alcohol is no longer assisting with stress, but is contributing to the stress. It's a snowball effect where stress and alcohol feed off each other, says Sayette.

Sinha reconfirms these points, saying people used to drinking away stress can feel anxious or out of kilter when they can’t get alcohol. 'There’s very little data to show that the anti-stress effects of alcohol are sustained,' she says.

The takeaway from Sinha and Sayette's messages is that over the long term its not good to mix alcohol and stress. While you may feel some momentarily release when you crack that beer after work, you're not addressing what the real issues are. Over enough time, the risk to your neuro-chemical balance is concerning.

For people experiencing long term anxiety brought about by COVID, alcohol doesn't seem like the answer. COVID will continue regardless of whether you drink or not, so creating the situation where your brain isn't 'balanced' without alcohol is only going to make your stress worse.

Looking for an alcohol-free alternative? Check out our article on 6 reasons why Ārepa is the perfect red wine substitute.

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