How does alcohol really make you feel?
Can the highs of 'wine o'clock' lead to a crash that lasts for days
Published 09/10/2013 | 05:00
If you check Twitter on a Friday afternoon, chances are that #wineoclock will be trending. In offices around Ireland, people are eagerly counting down the hours to clocking out and rounding off a week's hard work with a well deserved drink.
But why do so many of us associate alcohol with down-time and de-stressing, especially when a night of drinking to unwind often leaves us more down and depressed than before?
"Alcohol is a relaxant," explains Dr Bobby Smyth, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and board member of Alcohol Action Ireland (alcoholireland.ie). "It's sedating and, by and large, if you're tense or stressed, it offers a degree of short-term relief."
Here's the science bit . . .
The alcohol in that glass of sauvignon blanc or pint of beer affects the balance of chemicals in your brain and alters its processes. That euphoria you might feel after the first few drinks happens because alcohol is interfering with the release of information-carrying chemicals called neurotransmitters.
With alcohol on board the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, which normally deals with thinking and decision making, gets slowed down resulting in you feeling fuzzy.
Meanwhile, it increases the inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, which reduces brain activity giving a sluggish, sedative feeling.
Simply put, after a day where your brain has been whirring a million miles an hour, alcohol dulls the bits of the brain dealing with all that mental chatter.
It also increases the release of the so-called 'happy hormone' dopamine.
"Alcohol, like any drug, skews the amount of dopamine in the limbic system, the brain's 'reward centre'," explains Dr Smyth.
"Normally it just drips away and replenishes itself, but alcohol squeezes all the happy chemicals out in a short time giving a short-term buzz. But, like lots of things that offer a short-term reward, there's a payback down the line."
The flipside to a few hours of chemically generated happiness and suspended stress is an emotional hangover as soon as the sedative effects of alcohol wear off. Once the brain has squeezed out all its dopamine the night before, the dearth of happy hormones in the tank means post-drinking depression can ensue.
"You're depleted come Sunday morning and without that steady drop of dopamine there's a crash after a binge," explains Dr Smyth. "It depends how often you're drinking and how much, but if you're consistently drinking over the suggested limits every four or five days then you're probably never getting back to base-line."
Even with moderate drinking it can take several days for that low feeling to lift and chemical balance to restore.
Research using brain scans suggests alcohol produces increased dopamine release in men compared to women – which may help explain why men tend to be more susceptible to alcoholism. But the morning-after blues don't discriminate between sexes.
"Alcohol is a depressant and it's a drug – these simple facts are exactly the same for males and females," says Imelda McHugh, addiction services co-ordinator at St Patrick's Mental Health Services. "Alcohol is not the solution to dealing with stress, anxiety or a depressed mood because those emotions will still be there when the bottle is taken away and maybe even worse."
Why then, when we know the fallout and vow 'never again', are so many of us back in the pub when Friday comes? It's because the brain tends to associate the immediate, happy effects of alcohol more closely with drinking than the depression the next day.
"From a behavioural perspective, short-term consequences are more powerful than medium-term consequences," explains Dr Smyth. "At an extreme level, it's the same with drugs like heroin or cocaine.
"Logically, the person's brain knows it's not doing them good, but the short-term buzz is so intense it overcomes that."
Of course it doesn't help that the Irish psyche is so intrinsically linked with alcohol. Some 80pc of people over 18 drink in Ireland. Figures from Alcohol Action Ireland show that Irish adults binge drink (consuming six or more standard drinks in one sitting) more than any other European country and more than half of Irish drinkers have a harmful pattern of drinking.
Advertising and media representation re-enforce the belief that alcohol is a part of an evening with friends, celebrating your team's win (or drowning your sorrows after a loss).
Booze is habitually associated with sporting events, music and culture, and drinking, even beyond the suggested limits, is socially accepted and tolerated.
But McHugh reckons blaming our culture is just another way of giving ourselves permission to drink. "Drinking alcohol is being normalised by individuals, not some external force," she argues. "When we visited each other a few years ago we were asked if we'd like tea or coffee – now it's a glass of wine . . . at any time of the day. We're making the choice to drink to make us feel better or have 'me' time or 'I deserve it' time but this rationalising syndrome is on the continuum from sociable drinking to dependence."
She adds: "So you've had a stressful day at the office, so what? Anyone can make stress fit with the belief that alcohol is the answer, the power, the friend, the crutch, the well deserved and relaxant from life's stressors.
"But we give alcohol this power. Association with alcohol for all the above is just that, association, if alcohol had as much cure-all power as we imagine it to have, it would be radioactive!"