Alcohol and Anxiety: What's the Correlation?
Alcohol has been part of society for more than 9,000 years, all across the world. Although alcoholic products have changed and evolved over time, the basic concept is still the same. We drink alcohol for many different reasons (mostly social) but, in some situations, alcohol may make underlying conditions worse or even potentially become a problem.
But is there a correlation between alcohol and anxiety? And, if so, how serious is it?
Alcohol - What is It, Exactly?
Alcohol is often made up of many different ingredients, but its primary ingredient is ethyl alcohol (more commonly referred to as ethanol). No matter the type, whether beer, wine, whisky, etc., the main ingredient will be the same.
Ethanol is the component of alcohol that is the “intoxicant,” or the part that makes you feel drunk. It is commonly produced by a chemical reaction created by fermenting yeast, starches, and sugars. It’s the same ethanol we use in our automotive fuel, interestingly enough!
What “Counts” As Anxiety?
So we know alcohol is essentially ethanol, but what exactly is anxiety?
Most people have heard of the fight or flight response. It’s the natural response that our body triggers when faced with something that could be considered a threat, like a rabid dog or someone threatening to fight us.
It is mostly started when the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that help us prepare to fight. These hormones, like adrenaline, increase the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
With anxiety, the same response is triggered… only without appropriate stimuli. Instead of a bear, the sympathetic nervous system tells us that things like public speaking, feeling trapped in a public space, or even nothing at all is just as big of a threat.
We get the same symptoms without the same life-threatening reasons. It can be a quick burst of anxiety, like a panic attack, or longer term, chronic anxiety like generalized anxiety disorder.
How Does Alcohol Work?
Much like anxiety, alcohol affects every single organ and system in the body.
Essentially, it functions as a depressant for the central nervous system (or CNS). As it enters the body, it gets rapidly absorbed by both the stomach and the small intestine and enters the bloodstream. This is why you feel the effects so quickly.
Once it is in the bloodstream, it gets metabolized by the liver using your body’s enzymes, mainly an enzyme appropriately called alcohol dehydrogenase. The problem is, the liver is only able to metabolize it a little bit at a time.
As it’s working hard to process what it’s able to, the remainder of the alcohol is allowed to continue to circulate through the bloodstream. Peak effects generally occur between 45 and 90 minutes after the start of consumption.
In addition, the byproduct that is created by alcohol dehydrogenase breaking down the ethanol is a fairly toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. If your body builds too much of the chemical up and is unable to clear it in a reasonable amount of time, it’s what causes the dreaded morning after issue… the hangover. If your body can break it down, it turns into acetic acid (basically, what we know as vinegar), then into one of three final products - water, oxygen, or carbon dioxide.
Does Alcohol Impact Anxiety?
The short answer is yes, it does. Even when you’re taking care of your mental health in other ways, like mental wellness supplements, anxiety medication, healthy diet, and lots of exercise, alcohol has the ability to override all that, even if for just a short period of time.
This is most commonly an issue for those with social anxiety disorder. Up to 20% of people who suffer from the disorder also have problems with alcohol, and far more frequently are female. It can turn very quickly into a vicious cycle - where you can’t go out in public or feel like you can function without alcohol. However, alcohol addiction frequently goes hand in hand with many different mental health conditions.
While, initially, alcohol consumption feels like it is helping to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, it also negatively affects the mood and mental health as little as a few hours after drinking. It can also continue into the next day, especially for those with hangovers.
It can also lead to people putting themselves into more risky situations that can lead to traumatic events, causing even more anxiety through developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s yet another example of how alcohol and anxiety form a vicious cycle.
What’s the Science Behind the Interaction Between Anxiety and Alcohol Use?
The interaction between the two has been the subject of a significant amount of research for some time.
Studies have scientifically proven a lot of what we already knew. People who have an anxiety disorder are also more likely to have an alcohol problem. It is believed that this is due to people self-medicating with alcohol instead of using appropriate anxiety medications, mental wellness supplements, and lifestyle changes.
It may also be due, in part, to people not having access to things like therapy or health care that can help them better, and more safely, manage their anxiety.
In addition, while alcohol may temporarily increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, it decreases levels over the long-term. Lower serotonin levels directly impact mental health, causing an increase in both depression and anxiety. Long-term alcohol usage can effectively rewire the brain. While most of the studies that have been performed have been done on mice, what the studies show is fairly shocking.
When given alcohol regularly over a long period of time, mice started to develop a differently shaped prefrontal cortex. As we know, the prefrontal cortex (or PFC) is a major factor in our fight or flight/anxiety response. The change not only made the mice more susceptible to developing anxiety, but it also reduced their ability to produce certain neurotransmitters. It literally changed their brain into a shape that made them more likely to be anxious about even normal stimuli.
Although we haven’t yet thoroughly studied this in humans, the concept is fairly terrifying.
Although most people aren’t chronic alcohol users, the idea that anxiety can create problems with alcohol if left unchecked, which can in turn change the brain into a shape that makes it more susceptible to continual anxiousness seems pretty serious.
It’s best to confront any potential alcohol issues before they get out of control to avoid that concern, as well as to take care of the rest of your body.
What Should I Watch Out For?
If you’re noticing your anxiety is worsening with alcohol consumption, there are a few steps to take.
First, check your medications and supplements. Since alcohol is processed in the liver, it’s important to make sure that none of your medications or supplements have the potential to increase any damage. This includes rare issues with supplements like Kava Kava and black cohosh.
Mental health supplements that are generally considered safe for the liver are L-Theanine, Rhodiola Rosea, GABA, Valerian, milk thistle, and ginger.
You should also be familiar with the symptoms of alcoholism. If any of these sound familiar, seek help from a treatment center or your primary care physician right away.
- Drinking alcohol more than four times a week
- Having more than five drinks in a single day
- Not being able to stop drinking once you’ve begun
- Needing to drink in the morning for motivation to get started
- Feeling either guilty or remorseful after you drink
- Have had someone close to you express concern about how much you are drinking
Alcohol is such a common part of life that it may seem difficult, at first, to consider lowering your intake and making changes. You may find yourself without a support system, and feel like you don’t have the ability to cope with things as well. That’s why it is so important to not only work through your alcohol issues but also work to develop a healthier plan and coping mechanisms.
In addition, consider working on changing your diet in a way that can also help you reduce your anxiety. Plenty of people successfully manage their anxiety with diet and nutrient supplementation, removing processed foods and alcohol and substituting with whole foods, plenty of water, and brain-boosting supplements like GABA, L-Theanine, magnesium, etc. When combined with increasing exercise to naturally release endorphins, which also help fight anxiety and depression, the results are undeniable.*
Alcohol consumption, no matter how fun it may be at the time, has the potential to be harmful not only to your body but also to your mental health if it’s abused.
Frequent usage can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, as well as creating larger alcohol dependency problems, so make sure you’re using liver safe medications and supplements and keeping an eye out for any signs of alcohol addiction.
Take your health seriously, both physically and mentally. You only get one body in this life, treat it well, and it will return the favor.
*FDA Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.