to drink or not to drink
To drink or not to drink, that is the question

To drink or not to drink, that is the question

Having a drink is an acceptable and common social activity that many of us enjoy – be it sharing a beer with friends, celebrating an occasion, or even enjoying the way a glass of wine compliments the taste of our food. It is also common to turn to alcohol when dealing with stress, anxiety or insomnia.

However, although alcohol may seem like a useful social buffer, or a safe way to cope with challenges and life stressors, perhaps we may want to think again.

Why does it feel good to drink?

Alcohol disrupts the chemical balance and processes in the brain, which is why we feel relaxed when we drink alcohol. With these chemical changes, the part of our brain which is responsible for inhibition begins to depress. Although this may create a good feeling at the time, the next day our mood and brain take a serious pummelling. When we drink, dopamine – the “feel-good hormone” – spikes. This allows us to feel all the good stuff, but this is only for a short while. Once the dopamine levels in our brain drop, rebound anxiety, and potentially depression, come rolling in.

What does alcohol do to our mind and body?

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and slows down the body’s neurological functioning. This means both brain activity and excitatory nerve pathway activity slow down. As a result our breathing and the beat of our heart slow down. Although this may create a sense of calm and reduce feelings of anxiety, the long term effects of alcohol on the mind and body are concerning.

Alcohol interferes with the way in which nerve cells communicate in the body. It destroys brain cells and tissue through the way in which it interacts with our brain receptors. Although it feels like it does, alcohol does not actually assist with enhancing our confidence in social environments, or help us to cope with stress and challenges. It merely covers up our truth, as we splurge on a release of “happy” hormones, which then makes us more vulnerable and susceptible to several risks. Even after having one alcoholic drink our bodies often respond negatively, feeling groggy, or hungover. The more we drink, the more used to it our bodies tend to become; and then we often require more alcohol to access that “happy” feeling.

Drinking alcohol over a long period – even in small amounts – has negative effects on the mind and body. These effects can lead to ongoing health problems; such as digestive issues, memory loss, disruptive sleep patterns, increased levels of anxiety and depression, and mood changes. Furthermore, large amounts of alcohol increases our risk of weight gain, obesity, heart failure, cancer, having a stroke, accidents, violence and suicide.

Alcohol can also negatively interact with medications, and put us in danger if we have pre-existing conditions; such as a weak heart, diabetes, liver disease, or a history of alcoholism in our family. Consuming alcohol whilst pregnant can lead to problems during pregnancy and the development of the baby, resulting in chromosomal issues such as foetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol and sleep

Drinking alcohol can change both the length and quality of a person’s sleep. Our central nervous system effects our sleep, and alcohol depresses the central nervous system. Although some may find alcohol to help with relaxing and being able to fall asleep, alcohol actually disrupts our sleep cycle and can worsen current sleep problems.

Having enough sleep – or having too little sleep – effects our mental and physical health and well-being. Sleep assists with stress management, injury recovery, nervous system functioning and hormone release (learn more). During sleep our body rests and restores energy. Certain parts of the brain are active during sleep to assist with certain brain functioning, such as memory.

Alcohol reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, increases the amount of time spent in deep sleep, and reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep. REM sleep is particularly important as it simulates areas in the brain that are essential for learning and memory. REM sleep is also where vital neural connections occur which are key for our mental health and well-being.

A healthy amount of sleep allows for a balanced amount of hormones to work through the body, resulting in a healthy appetite, mind and body. In contrast, when we lack sleep the body releases high amounts of cortisol – the stress hormone – which can lead to insulin resistance, hunger and anxiety. The brain regulates hunger and the feeling of being “full” by interacting with the hormones ghrelin and leptin, leading to energy homeostasis. However, when there is a lack of sleep the endocrine system is disrupted and the energy homeostasis in the body is irregulated. This often leads to increased hunger and appetite. This disruption of our cortisol levels and energy balance can have long term effects on our health and well-being, such as imbalanced hormones, weight gain, irregular eating and obesity.

Balance is key

Life is not black and white, and although alcohol may not be good for our body and mind, we do live in a world of adventure and socialising, and so balance is always important. We need to be able to go with the flow, and be kind with ourselves. So, if we are going to drink, let’s make an informed and conscious decision. Let’s embrace our freedom of choice, and do this from an educated space. Let’s ensure that we are aware of what we are putting into our bodies, and what risks are aligned with what we are consuming. Let’s take the time to research and educate ourselves.

Red, red wine

Red wine, in moderation, has interestingly been perceived to have a positive effect on the heart. Although the connection between red wine and a healthy heart are not completely understood, it is perceived that the key ingredient in red wine – resveratrol – is an antioxidant which has been found to prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce “bad” cholesterol and inflammation, and prevent blood clots. Although these benefits have been researched, it is not recommended to start drinking alcohol to gain such benefits. Resveratrol comes from the skin of the grapes used to make wine, therefore it is also possible to can gain these benefits by rather eating grapes than drinking wine.

The hard stuff

When it comes to drinking spirits the alcohol percentage is always higher than wine and beer, and so puts us at even more risk. There appears to be motive for choosing tequila and whiskey over other spirits as a healthier approach. Both tequila and whiskey do not have any additives and sugar, therefore they are perceived to be the alcoholic drinks with the least calories. The tequila plant is perceived to enhance the body’s ability to absorb calcium, thus improving bone health. However, it is doubtful that tequila is going to prevent – or cure – calcium deficiency and osteoporosis. Whiskey has shown to have similar detoxing effects to that of red wine, which may decrease risk for heart disease. However, if you are looking to gain such benefits, perhaps rather than putting yourself at risk of other factors, enjoy other rich anti-oxidant foods, such as dark chocolate.

A mindful and informed approach

So let’s be aware – let’s use our power of choice, and make decisions from an educated space. The first step is to consider why we are drinking. Maybe you do not depend on alcohol, but perhaps you can reflect, and take a moment to think, why? Once you know the why, you will be able to determine what you could perhaps do instead to achieve that same result, and maybe choose to partake in something that comes with a more positive result.

Yes, alcohol can negatively impact your mind, body and mood. However, a glass of wine can also be a delicious and hearty compliment to your meal, on occasion. The most important thing is to find balance and moderation, whilst taking care of our health and well-being. So, consider your approach, be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to make more mindful and informed choices about drinking; but still live a little, and don’t forget to have fun!

An insightful exercise

Make a note on the days you drink over the next two weeks. Write down how you feel, what you feel in your body, and mind. Write down hours of sleep, maybe even your moods. Use this exercise as a tool to explore your relationship with alcohol, and to observe how your mind and body feel during and after.

Thereafter perhaps aim to reduce the amount of days that you drink alcohol during the week. Consider the upcoming events in your life, and plan accordingly. Set out your intentions of when you will, and when you won’t, drink.

The goal is to find balance through building awareness, insight and connection with your mind and body. It is the small steps that make such a big difference!

This article is written by Bianca Aimée Kramer.

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