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Alcohol Use and Stress Share a Bi-Directional Relationship
Alcohol is characteristically thought to suppress stressful feelings and thoughts following a period of high anxiety, which may explain why those with acute stress tend to consumer more alcohol than others. Yet a new study reveals that alcohol use and stress share a bi-directional relationship, with either habit aggravating the other. While the presence of stress decreases the intoxicating effects of alcohol use, leading to more consumption for the same effect—alcohol on the other hand inhibits the body’s natural ability to recover following a stressful episode, thereby elongating the stressful experience.
Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience sought to discover the biological mechanisms that connect acute stress to increased alcohol consumption, which have scientifically remained uncertain. Prior to their investigation, lead researcher Emma Childs, PhD and her colleagues considered one theory which suggests that alcohol dulls the negative physiological effects and feelings of stress, although this is hard to prove in the laboratory. Additionally, the researchers considered if stress can reduce the depressing (intoxicating) effects of alcohol, requiring the drinker to consume more alcohol in order to achieve the same level of relaxation normally desired.
When stressed, the human body goes into the ‘fight or flight’ response as it releases adrenaline and glucose to heighten blood pressure, heart rate, tension, and agitation in preparation for either action. When there is no ‘fight’ or ‘flight,’ these increased emotional and physiological responses slowly dissipate, and the body releases cortisol in order to subside the effects of the stress hormones. Stress can cause these increasing physiological and emotional responses to peak at different rates from person to person, which also results in the dissipation of these distinct feelings at different rates as well. The combination of alcohol use during certain stages of this process can interfere with the body’s natural breakdown of stress by encouraging the increase of the stress response and causing stress to remain for longer periods of time. This variable reaction is also dependent upon the amount of alcohol consumed during the period of stress.
In their new study, Childs and colleagues investigated whether different phases of the stress response have subjective effects on the use of alcohol. The team recruited 25 healthy male subjects who participated in one standardized stressful public speaking task as well as one non-stressful control task. The public speaking task, known as the Trier Social Stress Test, is preferred by researchers since it closely resembles a likely real-life scenario in which individuals must perform public speaking and causes them to experience stressful events including increased blood pressure, heart rate, tension, and mood. Following their performance of each task, the participants were administered intravenous infusions containing alcohol (equivalent to 2 standard alcoholic beverages) and placebo. One group of the participants (11 men) was given the alcohol infusion within one minute following either task, then the placebo 30 minutes later. The other group (14 men) received the placebo first, then the alcohol infusion a half-hour later. During the experiment, the researchers measured the participants’ subjective effects such as anxiety, stimulation, alcohol cravings, as well as physiological effects like heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol both prior to receiving the infusions and at repeated intervals thereafter.
In their results, stress was found to alter the sedative and stimulants effects of alcohol—i.e., reducing the pleasant feelings of alcohol and increasing alcohol cravings. Likewise, alcohol alters the way the body manages stress by dampening the body’s natural release of the hormone cortisol and thereby prolonging the negative effects of stress hormones. Alcohol and stress, therefore, have a bi-directional relationship in which alcohol influences the body’s stress response and stress changes the body’s reaction to alcohol. However, the researchers also note in their findings that the extent of this bi-directional relationship will vary among individuals based on their levels of stress and consumption.
Alcohol use as a mechanism for coping with stress can actually exacerbate a person’s stress response and ability to recover from stressful episodes, according to the researchers. On the flip side, because stress diminishes the effects of alcohol, it can increase alcohol cravings and consumption. As a result of this complex relationship, a person’s risks for stress-related conditions as well as alcohol addiction are increased.
The researchers’ study will be published in the October issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Childs, E., O’Connor, S. and de Wit, H. (2011), Bidirectional Interactions Between Acute Psychosocial Stress and Acute Intravenous Alcohol in Healthy Men. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01522.x. Accessed July 18, 2011: //onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01522.x/abstract.