Saturday 31 January 2015

How does alcohol really make you feel?

Can the highs of 'wine o'clock' lead to a crash that lasts for days

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.

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."

Irish Independent

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