Ever reached for a glass of wine to help unwind at the end of a busy day? While you’re not alone, the temporary feel-good effects of a drink may be doing you more harm than good. Prolonged, excessive, alcohol intake may even have lasting impacts on your gut and brain.

Studies show that a major reason to drink alcohol is to change our mood. ‘Self-medicating’ with alcohol can temporarily alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression, with the depressant effects of alcohol shown to dampen the stress response. In particular, alcohol has been shown to dampen the part of the brain that we associate with inhibition – the part that makes us feel self-conscious, on edge, and unable to relax. But beyond that first drink larger parts of the brain can be affected, and that happy buzz may soon be replaced with feelings of anger, anxiety and feelings more sinister.

Alcohol and the brain

Research has shown that regular, excessive, alcohol consumption can alter the chemistry of the brain. It can put the brakes on the brain chemicals that are linked to energy levels and good mood (e.g., serotonin), whilst speeding up the release of others that have more of a sedative effect (e.g., gamma-Aminobutyric acid, GABA). This may explain why you can feel sleepy after a few glasses of wine, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this will lead to a good night’s sleep. Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns causing you to awake tired and unrested. Specifically,  excess alcohol intake can impair the body’s usual restorative process that occurs during sleep, by shifting the focus to ridding the body of toxins rather than restoring vital organs and cells. In a viscous cycle, this can have a flow on effect on your mood with considerable studies proving that lack of quality sleep is linked with anxiety and depression. Additionally, we know that poor sleep quality can be associated with unhealthier eating patterns and this again can result in worse mental health.

Alcohol and the gut

Excess alcohol consumption can also have drastic effects on the gut. In particular, alcohol in the small intestine can inhibit the absorption of certain vitamins, including folate and thiamine. Alcohol consumption can also increase gut permeability contributing to ‘leaky gut’. This means that toxins and bacteria are able to pass more freely from the gut into the circulatory system. This can contribute to inflammation in the body, which is associated with numerous mental disorders including depression.

Alcohol and mental wellbeing

Although excessive alcohol intake has been shown to be detrimental, can it be the case that small amounts are in fact helpful for mental health? In moderation, particular types of alcohol may not be harmful to mental health.  Studies have shown that compared to low intake, light to moderate consumption of wine is associated with better cognitive performance. Studies have also shown that as part of a healthy diet, and when consumed with meals, small amounts of red wine (<200ml/day) may be associated with reduced symptoms of depression. However, it may be the case that these benefits are attributable to other components in wine – such as the antioxidants – rather than the alcohol itself. Numerous foods, such as fruits and vegetables, contain these antioxidants (and also won’t leave you with a hangover!) so it may be best to eat your grapes, rathar than drink them.

The bottom-line

The Australian guidelines recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day, to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. Given the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain, before you reach for your next drink, consider other quick fixes such as exercise and meditation, as these can help boost your mood at no expense to your health.

Meghan Hockey is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and a PhD candidate with the Food and Mood Centre

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