It’s been quite an unusual first half of the year, I think we can all agree.
And where there’s uncertainty, there’s often stress. And stress can give way to negative behaviours.
This is where things like eating poorly, going to bed late and increased consumption of alcohol are all done without even thinking. So now lockdown is a bit less restricted, it’s time to get back into good habits or even try and start some new ones.
You have been stuck mainly indoors – unless you have a garden or park nearby – and may have numerous family members vying for your attention. You might still be working from home (or trying to) in a cramped corner of the box room amidst all the junk that’s been stored in there.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I get it.
It’s hard and you need something to help relax you at the end of the day, or even in the mid-afternoon!
But I want to focus on how instead of helping you get in a calm and relaxed state these things will have the opposite effect. Not just at this moment in time but in the future. I’ve chosen alcohol, as that’s one of the products that was cleared from the shelves almost as fast as toilet paper a few months ago! And one that people don’t realise is very toxic, even in small amounts.
So let’s look at why people feel relaxed when they drink alcohol.
Alcohol increases the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre and this is why drinking is (usually) a pleasurable experience. It also affects what are called neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the body. These can either stimulate electrical brain activity, or reduce it. Specifically alcohol affects the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate in a negative way and this causes sluggish movements and more notably, tiredness.
This is why people tend to drink in the evening, as it appears to help you sleep. Norepinephrine is also released when drinking and in conjunction with dopamine, creates a stress-free ‘party’ feeling. Which is why you’re likely to want to get up and dance or in some cases, act like a tit. However, another neurotransmitter which is affected (glutamate) is blocked, and that’s important to note as it causes an overall depressant effect throughout the brain.
Obviously not what you want.
So essentially, after the initial wave of these excitatory neurotransmitters wears off, you’re left with a build up of the ones which inhibit and they make you feel tired and subdued. This is mainly seen in binge drinking but don’t think it doesn’t apply to you, the “I only have a glass of wine a few times a week” people! This is still considered to have a negative effect on the brain over the long-term.
But I imagine a lot of people drink at the end of the day because it induces sleepiness. This is because alcohol affects a part of the brain called the medulla, which handles automatic functions. “This is great” you’re probably thinking, “I can get off to sleep more quickly”. But all is not as it seems.
You may well have heard of the term ‘circadian rhythm’. These 24 hour rhythms are governed by a master clock called a suprachiasmatic nucleus (a word you definitely can’t say after having one too many) which is a tiny region within the hypothalamus. This co-ordinates circadian rhythm through the body. Because circadian rhythms have such a powerful influence over the way our bodies function, the disruptive effects of alcohol can be widespread, affecting sleep and other systems, including:
Poor liver function
The liver acts as a filtering system for the body, helping metabolize food and chemicals (including alcohol itself), and pulling toxins from the bloodstream. Like nearly all of the body’s organs, the liver functions according to circadian rhythms. Alcohol interferes with these circadian rhythms regulating the liver, and can contribute to compromised liver function, liver toxicity, and disease.
The gut and its microbiome are often referred to as the body’s second brain, and operate under powerful circadian rhythm activity. The circadian disruption that can result from alcohol consumption contributes to leaky gut syndrome. Circadian rhythms thrown out of sync can weaken the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, making it more vulnerable to permeation—that’s the leakiness that allows bacteria, toxins, and food to leave the intestines and enter the bloodstream. Yuk.
Alcohol also disrupts the cells lining the gut directly. There are millions of cells in the lining of the gut called epithelial cells, which are tightly packed together and they allow very small materials through i.e nutrients from food that have been broken down into the smallest particles possible, so they can enter the blood stream.
However, when alcohol is drunk over a reasonable period of time, the ‘junction’ between these cells weakens allowing substances like bacteria and other toxins – which should be contained within the intestine – to leave the gut and infiltrate other organs via the bloodstream.
This will naturally cause inflammation in other areas of the body over a period of time as stuff is floating around in areas it shouldn’t be. You will not notice this immediately, only when the cells in another area of your body become affected to such an extent and you get what you might think are unrelated issues. These could be things such as skin irritations, autoimmune conditions, lung diseases etc.
Remember, people drinking even what’s considered a small amount (so I’m not talking binge-drinking or a glass every night) on a regular basis will experience gut issues so it’s worth thinking about.
There’s a complicated relationship between depression, alcohol, and sleep. People suffering from depression likely already have disrupted circadian rhythms, and the presence of even moderate amounts of alcohol may push those rhythms further out of sync.
Disrupted sleep-wake cycles
Alcohol is highly effective at suppressing melatonin, a key facilitator of sleep and regulator of sleep-wake cycles. Research indicates that a moderate dose of alcohol up to an hour before bedtime can reduce melatonin production by nearly 20%.
Alcohol has a direct effect on circadian rhythms, diminishing the ability of the master biological clock to respond to the light cues that keep it in sync. (This is also why going to bed before 11 and getting up before 7 alone will start to improve your health but that’s for another time). Those effects of alcohol on the biological clock appear to persist even without additional drinking, according to research.
Here’s a quick overview of sleep phases to illustrate how alcohol before bed doesn’t do you any favours.
In the first half of the night, when the body is metabolizing alcohol, studies show people spend more time in deep, slow-wave sleep and less time in REM sleep (rapid eye movement). It may sound like a good idea to spend more time in deep sleep… but hold on a minute!
Sleep ‘architecture’ is finely calibrated to meet the body’s needs during nightly ret so changes to the natural, typical structure of sleep aren’t generally good for health or well being. The REM sleep, which got short-changed in the first half of the night under the influence of alcohol, is important for mental restoration including memory and emotional processing.
During the second half of the night, sleep becomes more actively disrupted. As alcohol is metabolized and any of its sedative effects dissipate, the body undergoes what is called a “rebound effect.” This includes a move from deeper to lighter sleep (the opposite of what you want), which causes more frequent awakenings during the second half of the night.
These may be split-second awakenings that you don’t even remember—but they still interrupt the flow, and quality of your sleep. During the second half of the night, sleep architecture shifts again away from normal, with less time spent in slow wave sleep. The rebound effect may include more time in REM—a lighter sleep stage from which it is easy to be awakened.
People who go to bed with alcohol in their system may be more likely to wake early in the morning and not be able to fall back to sleep, another consequence of the rebound effect. You’ll also likely need to get up and use the toilet in the second half of the night. You may even experience sleep-walking or sleep eating (Ever wondered where that packet of chocky biscuits went?).
Here is something else you may not know. Women suffer more with the sleep-disrupting effects of alcohol than men do. Which is why when your partner may be snoring their head off next to you (another symptom of alcohol consumption) you have little to no tolerance!
There are small steps you can take to help yourself.
The most effective time of day for the body to metabolize alcohol, according to research is early to middle evening hours. That’s right, the traditional “happy hour” time is actually when the body is most prepared to process that cocktail.
Be careful that this doesn’t get into another negative behaviour of always having a drink once you’ve finished work. Even if you’ve had a particularly crap day, try to not let alcohol be the thing that ‘relaxes’ you.
If you are already in the habit of drinking at a certain time, just replace that with something else such as taking the dog for a walk, some gentle exercise, reading a chapter in a book or another hobby you may have. Or simply have a non-alcoholic drink. The key is to do it gradually, particularly if you are used to consuming a reasonable volume of alcohol across the week.
You will likely feel quite tired for the first week after cutting down – or if you’re feeling up for the challenge, removing alcohol altogether – as your body has adapted to alcohol and will be expecting you to consume it, particularly if it’s done at a regular time of the day. Remember, you shouldn’t need alcohol to enjoy yourself, it should be seen as a treat.
Does this routine mean opting for something different to drink at times when you might otherwise have alcohol? For many people, the answer is yes. But as so many people, it’s worth it: for the improvements to the quality of their sleep, their increased energy during the day, and the boost many of them experience in mental sharpness and clarity.
So I say cheers to that.
If you need to chat further in regards to working out your alcohol consumption and how it is impacting your health then please drop us a message