Lauren Pelley · CBC News · Posted: Jan 24, 2023 2:00 AM MSTRetrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/alcohol-drinking-brain-science-1.6722942?_cldee=WqmxvHZh89naExonMzwr109zCHEWiuymx_eIqm0t5a_Tm39jIirLW0ERXy9KbwUO&recipientid=contact-e551c9199c4ce8118147480fcff4b171-bd325f752e8248b689ca6f737470728a&esid=6da4d6c1-be9c-ed11-aad1-0022486dc98c
Last year, Jesica Hurst began to re-evaluate the role casual drinking played in her life, and what it meant for her wellbeing and mental health. Around six months ago, the Toronto resident gave up alcohol entirely. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)
For Jesica Hurst, kicking off the weekend used to mean having a glass of wine.
Drinking was also her go-to for all kinds of situations, from combating social anxiety before a big night out, to winding down after a stressful day at work.
But it came with a downside — feelings of sadness, anxiety and stress in the days that followed. And for someone with diagnosed anxiety and depression, the Toronto resident began to re-evaluate the role casual drinking played in her life, and what it meant for her wellbeing and mental health.
Around six months ago, Hurst gave up alcohol entirely.
Since then, “I’ve noticed that things are a lot more balanced,” she said. “I still deal with the day-to-day anxieties… but it’s a lot more manageable.”
It’s no secret that a night of drinking can rattle your head — from the brain buzz it provides in the moment, to the morning-after headaches and feelings of ‘hangxiety’ people often get after having a bit too much booze.
But what does science actually tell us about how alcohol affects your brain?
While liver issues, heart disease and various types of cancer are typically talked about as potential impacts of long-term drinking, research also suggests alcohol can negatively affect mental health conditions or hike the risk of cognitive problems and dementia. On the flip side, cutting back — or cutting it out — could give your brain a boost.
“We see the world through rose-tinted glasses when we’re drinking,” said Tim Stockwell, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and professor at the University of Victoria.
“However, that’s the short-term effect. The longer-term effect is that, even just over a few hours, alcohol is a [central nervous system] depressant, and that lift of mood is replaced by tiredness, fatigue and anxiety.”
There’s a growing body of evidence of both alcohol’s negative impacts on the brain, and the benefits of cutting back, echoed researcher Dr. Henry Kranzler, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“Sleep is disrupted by alcohol, even modest amounts of alcohol,” he said, adding that heavier drinking has also long been associated with a depressed mood.
One review of published medical research in the late 1990s suggested that, even then, “abundant evidence” showed patients with mood and anxiety disorders should abstain from even moderate drinking, as it “adversely affects their clinical course and response to treatment.”
Heavier drinking, Stockwell says, can further accelerate and exaggerate emotional ups and downs.
“Anxiety is more pressing, it’s more intense,” he said. “The alcohol will take it away and alleviate it for a short while, but it bounces back more lively than ever.”
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A sweeping report on alcohol-related harms released in 2018 by the World Health Organization (WHO) described alcohol as a “psychoactive substance” affecting various neural pathways and parts of the brain.
That means the brain is affected both while someone is drinking — which can show up as increased confidence, reduced inhibitions and reaction times, and eventual impairment that can make activities like driving a car far more dangerous — and after the fact.
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