While you may reach for a glass of wine or a beer at the end of a night to unwind and relax, it’s important to be aware that too much can impact our mental health.
Excess drinking – also called binge drinking – is defined for women as 4+ standard drinks and for men as 5+ standard consumed within 2-3 hours. Alcoholism is defined as 4+ drinks in a day or 14+ drinks in a week for men and 3+ drinks in a day or 7+ drinks in a week for women .
Why We Drink: The Effects of Alcohol
When drinking alcohol, the first thing many notice is a bit of lightheadedness and sensations of warmth and relaxation. Many find they become more talkative, feel less self-conscious, and feel more free.
These effects can be understandably appealing for people struggling with anxiety, depression, or daily stress. Alcohol can help us temporarily relieve stress and forget our problems by reducing our awareness, so we perceive and think less. However, research  suggests chronic or excess drinking actually increases anxiety and depression in the long haul, rather than lessening them.
Other not-so-positive short-term effects of drinking often feature:
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination and balance
- Impaired decision-making
- Mood swings
- Memory loss
- Increases in anxiety and depression
Alcohol and Your Brain
Alcohol acts on both excitatory (glutamate) and inhibitory (GABA) neurotransmitters that facilitate communication and information transfers within our brains. Some neurons prompt more brain activity (excitatory, glutamate) while others organize and suppress excitatory signals (inhibitory, GABA).
By reducing excitatory signals and increasing inhibitory signals, alcohol literally slows the brain, making it harder to perceive, think, and take action, thus earning its classification as a depressant.
With occasional drinking, our brains have time to repair the damage and return neurotransmitters to healthy levels. But with long-term or excessive drinking, the brain adapts to alcohol by producing less GABA and more glutamate. This adaptation cycle is a key indicator of dependence, where the brain relies on alcohol to raise GABA and reduce glutamate to appropriate amounts.
Once the brain is dependent, suddenly stopping alcohol use can lead to raised glutamate that triggers a set of symptoms identified as withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mood swings
If you plan on going through alcohol withdrawal, it’s best to seek the assistance of a medical professional who could help lessen the severity of your symptoms.
Alcohol and Anxiety
Alcohol presents an attractive escape for people with anxiety. Whether clinical anxiety or anxiety from daily stress, many find alcohol temporarily washes away all worries – the keyword being “temporarily.” Alcohol reduces anxiety in the short term, but often increases anxiety later.
As a depressant, alcohol both suppresses excitatory signals and increases inhibitory signals, reducing anxiety. But as the brain adapts and becomes dependent, it produces more excitatory signals to compensate for alcohol’s effects. When alcohol isn’t reintroduced, those excitatory signals can stay raised, contributing to higher anxiety levels. Alcohol-induced anxiety typically lasts through withdrawal.
Alcohol and Depression
Depression and heavy drinking are often heavily entangled and can lead to a vicious cycle. As a depressant, alcohol slows brain functioning and provides an “escape.” However, this escape is short-lived and ultimately increases depression . As the brain adapts to alcohol, it becomes dependent on it to regulate mood and feelings of wellbeing. When we then go without alcohol, our brains can’t regulate themselves, leaving many with increased depression.
Alcohol and Suicidal Thoughts
It’s vital to note the strong correlation between excessive drinking and increased suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and suicide . When we develop a drinking habit, we may isolate ourselves from friends and family, which can increase feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and despair. For individuals previously struggling with depression or anxiety, this heightens an already significant struggle.
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to your local distress centre or hotline. For more information, visit https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/crisis-resources.
Alcohol and Memory
Alcohol impacts our memories in several ways. First, alcohol limits our awareness. Regardless of memory, we tend to notice and process less when we’re intoxicated, making recall of details or even full events difficult. People may also “black out” when binge drinking, leading to large chunks of missing memories.
More harmful is alcohol’s long-term impact on our hippocampus and white brain matter . The hippocampus is associated with memory, mood, emotion, and motivation in the brain. Habitual or excessive alcohol causes hippocampus shrinkage, which is highly correlated with decreased memory retention and disorders like Alzheimer’s. White matter – the part of the brain responsible for facilitating neurotransmitter communication – also grows weaker, leading to slower cognitive functioning.
Alcohol and Vitamin Deficiencies
Chronic or binge drinking can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients like thiamine. Thiamine – more popularly called vitamin B1 – is a dietary nutrient that helps convert food into energy.
Most western diets consume the recommended daily amount of thiamine – 1.2mg for men and 1.1 mg for women . For this reason, thiamine deficiencies in western cultures are strongly linked to alcoholism and excessive drinking, rather than malnutrition or lack of dietary access.
Thiamine deficiency can contribute to a whole host of unpleasant symptoms, including ataxia, seizures, tachycardia, dyspnea, and the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff .
Wernicke-Korsakoff (WKS) is a combination of two disorders – Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy features three main symptoms: paralysis of eye nerves that disturbs movement, mental confusion, and difficulty coordinating movement (especially of the lower body). Of the people who develop Wernicke’s from excessive alcohol consumption or alcoholism, 80-90% will develop Korsakoff’s psychosis . Korsakoff’s psychosis impacts memory, causing retrograde amnesia (remembering old information) and anterograde amnesia (storing new information).
Research suggests that increasing your thiamine intake can help reduce symptoms of WKS and thiamine deficiency.
Thiamine-rich foods you can add to your next grocery trip include :
- Enriched white rice (½ cup)
- Breakfast cereals fortified with thiamine (1 serving)
- Egg noodles (1 cup cooked)
- Pork Chop (3 oz, bone-in & broiled)
- Trout (3 oz, cooked in dry heat)
- Black beans (½ cup, boiled)
If you’re struggling with your mental health, we at Bhatia Psychology Group are here to help. Learn about our approach and please odn’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.