5 Reasons Why Too Much Alcohol is Unhealthy for Your Body and Brain

5 Reasons Why Too Much Alcohol is Unhealthy for Your Body and Brain

When clients present with alcohol dependency at The Whitehaven Clinic™ it’s not uncommon to see that the client initially used alcohol as a way to ease tension or nerves or to help lower inhibitions in social settings. However, as they can often discover, using alcohol to relax and ease anxiety ends up being only momentary and can create a cycle of long-term dependency.

It doesn’t help that our Australian culture uses alcohol as a social lubricant.  We’re taught from a young age that alcohol is what we offer people if we’re being “polite”.  In the past, it’s been normal to encourage people to drink at social events and even chastise them if they refuse.  However, alcohol is having a significant impact on the physical and mental health of Australians.

Recent studies released by the National Drug Research Institute showed that alcohol consumption caused a total of 5,219 deaths in 2017-2018 and over 127,000 hospital presentations.  This figure is more than the total illicit drug related deaths put together! 

Aside from the community cost, there is also the physical and mental health cost.  Long-term, heavy drinking has been shown to adversely affect your mood and mental health.  Problematic alcohol consumption is frequently linked to depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. 

The impact on mood and mental health is significant because alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the messages transmitted between your body and brain. 

Here are five ways that drinking too much alcohol can affect your long-term mental and emotional well-being.

1. Depression

Studies show that the more a person drinks, the greater their likelihood of developing depression.  In fact, problematic alcohol use and depression share many of the same risk factors and symptoms —  which makes sense, since alcohol is a depressant.  But which exists first?  It’s the chicken and egg question!

In our experience at The Whitehaven Clinic™ many of the reasons that people start drinking is an attempt to self-medicate to resolve depression and anxiety issues.  Then the drinking itself, being a depressant, creates additional layers of issues further affecting mental health.

These are a few different ways that alcohol affects the brain and can lead to depressive symptoms:

  • Serotonin reduction: Alcohol reduces the amount of serotonin produced in your brain.  Serotonin is a chemical messenger that plays a key role in mood regulation, so by disrupting its natural production, alcohol can cause an imbalance that may lead to depression.
  • Dopamine suppression: Drinking heavily can eventually lead to less production of dopamine which is our natural feel-good drug that our body naturally produces.  Dopamine is a brain chemical that allows us to feel pleasure and motivation.  
  • Norepinephrine system impairment: Alcohol impairs the norepinephrine system, which plays a role in alertness and energy, so it can make you feel generally listless and lethargic.

It’s important to note that the brain is an amazing machine and when clients stop drinking, eventually the body will start producing serotonin and dopamine again.  However, this can take some time to rectify naturally.

2. Anxiety

Whilst there are some people who drink alcohol to feel more relaxed and ease anxiety, long-term drinking can also worsen anxiety and can lead to a cycle of alcohol dependency.  It’s true that alcohol can, in fact, help calm feelings of anxiety. But once you stop drinking, that anxiety is almost certainly going to return. 

Here’s why this might happen: Alcohol prompts the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that slows down and blocks certain nerve signals in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. 

When you stop drinking, though, that influx of GABA goes away and your brain is flooded with an overabundance of the neurochemical glutamate, which can trigger anxiety. 

3. Sleep problems

A common misconception amongst our clients at The Whitehaven Clinic™ is that because alcohol is a depressant, it will help you sleep. And indeed, it seems to work – in the beginning.  Whilst alcohol can make you feel relaxed and drowsy and help you to fall asleep faster, as alcohol metabolizes in your blood throughout the night it can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and prevent you from getting adequate REM sleep. 

Not getting enough REM sleep can in turn impact the way that you feel, your thoughts and your concentration – not to mention your overall physical health. It can also cause you to feel tired or fatigued the next day — which may make other alcohol-related issues like depression and anxiety worse.

4. Difficulty regulating emotions

The prefrontal cortex in your brain plays a crucial part in social behavior, decision-making, and emotion regulation. Research suggests that alcohol can disrupt normal activity in the prefrontal cortex, which can make it difficult to control emotions over time.  This is why we often see clients experiencing anger when under the influence.

5. Problematic Alcohol Consumption

People experiencing problematic alcohol use typically find it difficult to control their alcohol use or stop drinking when they try.  Here are some signs that your drinking is becoming problematic and indicates that you should seek professional help:

  • Missing work, school, or other obligations due to alcohol use
  • Needing an increasing amount of alcohol to experience the same effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as irritability, mood swings, insomnia, headaches, and hand tremors 
  • Difficulty cutting down on consumption or controlling the amount of alcohol consumed

As someone develops a tolerance to alcohol, they often feel the need to drink more to feel the same effects.  This in turn can result in more severe hangovers and withdrawal symptoms.

How Do I Know If I’m Drinking Too Much?

Problematic drinking habits creep up over time so often it’s best to consider if it’s creating an impact on your mental health: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased social withdrawal 
  • Lack of motivation to engage in your usual activities and hobbies
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns

To assess how alcohol is affecting your mood and mental health, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I using alcohol to help me cope with stress or avoid difficult feelings?
  • Do I feel that I “need” alcohol to have fun on a night out?
  • Am I uncomfortable when I don’t drink?
  • Has alcohol caused problems in my relationships with friends, family, partners, or coworkers?

How to stop drinking so much

Participating in a challenge like “Dry July,” – which involves taking a break from alcohol for the whole of July — may help you gain insight into how your mood, energy, and overall mental health improves when you’re not drinking. 

However, it’s important to note that if you drink heavily or frequently, that it’s important to consult a doctor or other medical professional before taking onboard these types of challenges.  Withdrawal can affect not only your mental health, but can also potentially cause dangerous physical side effects such as seizures.

Rather than going cold turkey, you can also try gradually cutting back on your alcohol intake each week until you reach what’s considered a moderate amount. 

It’s important to note that problematic alcohol consumption is rarely just a medical or physical condition.  To resolve the root cause of the problem long term, seeking out professional help is essential.

When to reach out for help

If you’re having trouble stopping or reducing your drinking, we recommend a multi-targeted approach.  If you are experiencing physical withdrawals, it’s important to talk with your doctor before going cold-turkey.  It’s also important for long-term success to get support from a mental health counsellor or alcohol treatment program. 

At The Whitehaven Clinic™ we have an Addiction Recovery Process Program that can offer support with identifying and exploring triggers and reasons for drinking. 

For more information on this program, please email info@whitehavenclinic.com.au or phone (08) 6454 2510.