4 Problems Alcohol Seems to Help (But Really Makes Worse)
For most, an occasional drink is harmless. But that doesn’t make it an effective way to deal with life’s problems – and, in many cases, only makes matters worse. Here are a few reality checks about what alcohol can and cannot do:
Reason for Drinking #1: To Get a Good Night’s Sleep
What Alcohol Really Does: Reduces Sleep Quality
People struggling with insomnia sometimes use alcohol as a sleep aid.Yet studies show that sleep is actually compromised by alcohol use. We may fall asleep faster and have more deep sleep in the first half of the night but alcohol cuts into our rapid eye movement, or dream sleep, during the second half of the night. The result can be less restful sleep and poorer memory, concentration and motor skills.
Reason for Drinking #2: To Escape Stress and Other Problems
What Alcohol Really Does: Creates More Problems
Stress is one of the primary reasons people drink. Although relaxing for a time, alcohol only gives the illusion of stress relief. Problems get put on hold, exacerbating stress and anxiety, which leads to more drinking.
Over time, alcohol can multiply problems by adding new stressors. For example, alcohol increases heart rate and blood pressure, which can damage the heart and increase the risk of stroke. The burden on the liver – the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol and removing it from the body – can lead to cirrhosis and other types of liver disease.
When the liver can no longer do its gatekeeping job properly, harmful substances make their way to the brain. One potential result is hepatic encephalopathy, a disorder characterized by mood and personality changes, depression, anxiety, and in serious cases, coma. Some develop a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which impairs learning, memory and coordination, in some cases so severe that individuals can’t remember recent conversations or find their way out of a room. Studies show alcoholics are also at higher risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Reason for Drinking #3: To Cope with Unpleasant Feelings
What Alcohol Really Does: Intensifies Depression and Anxiety
Some people drink because it gives them a break, albeit short-lived, from persistent feelings of hopelessness, guilt or worry. They don’t drink for laughs or for an occasional escape; they habitually drink to feel better.
Like other drugs, alcohol “rewards” the brain with a surge of dopamine that produces positive feelings. But as a depressant, alcohol also slows down cognitive processing, response time and coordination, and eventually leaves the user feeling worse than before. This “downer” effect is even more pronounced among people who suffer from depression or anxiety.
Though understandable, efforts to self-medicate can have grave consequences, including a heightened risk of alcoholism. In an analysis of data from the National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions, 40 percent of people who had major depressive disorder in their lifetime also experienced an alcohol problem. Another study found that 13 percent of those who were diagnosed with anxiety disorders that they self-medicated developed a drug problem within three years.
We know that depression and anxiety frequently occur alongside addiction, but it isn’t always clear which comes first. Some people self-medicate the symptoms of mental illness with alcohol and other drugs, while others have abused alcohol in a way that increases their risk of depression or anxiety.
Reason for Drinking #4: To Release Inhibitions
What Alcohol Really Does: Impairs Judgment and Function
Alcohol is often used in social settings, where imbibers hope that if they can just loosen up they’ll have better luck getting to know people. But the reality isn’t always so rosy. The decisions people make when their judgment is impaired by alcohol may be more humiliating than enticing.
In addition, alcohol affects every organ system in the body, including the sex organs. Men who drink too much over time can be temporarily unable to perform, or may have the more serious problem of erectile dysfunction that persists even when the drinking stops. The condition has its own name, “alcohol impotence,” though the connection between the two is often overlooked by both drinkers and their doctors.
For moderate drinkers, alcohol may not have serious consequences. But those who are hoping alcohol will help them escape from difficult feelings or situations may end up, at best, disappointed and, at worst, stuck in an addictive cycle.