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5 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Anxiety (Hint: It's more than just a Drink)

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

If you’re looking to unwind after a stressful day, an alcohol-induced haze may seem like the perfect way to relax. The reality, however, is that alcohol can be quite detrimental to your anxiety levels and overall emotional well-being over time. The more you know about how alcohol affects anxiety, the better prepared you can be to reduce your dependence on it in favour of more effective coping methods. Here are five ways alcohol affects your anxiety levels, along with some alternative ways to manage your stress that won’t leave you hungover the next day.

1) What is GABA?

GABA, also known as gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. GABA is responsible for reducing neuronal excitability and reducing inflammation. The primary function of GABA is to counterbalance the stimulatory effects of glutamate and acetylcholine in the brain. Studies have shown that GABA plays a crucial role in regulating anxiety, depression, seizures and sleep. Some research has suggested that low levels of GABA may lead to symptoms such as generalised anxiety disorder, social phobia and panic attacks. Anxiety disorders are much more common among those with substance abuse problems compared with the general population.

2) What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?

The parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, is one of two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The PNS is responsible for stimulating the body's rest and digest functions, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system which activates your fight or flight response. The many roles of GABA in anxiety: GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps send messages from one neuron to another in the brain.

GABA has several different jobs related to anxiety.

GABA can act like an inhibitory neurotransmitter by calming brain activity, blocking signals from other neurons, and reducing neuronal excitability in general.

3) How does sleep affect our neurotransmitters?

Sleep is vital for our health. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in your brain that regulate mood and anxiety, among other things. When you don’t get enough sleep, the neurotransmitters in your brain have less of an effect on regulating your mood, leading to feelings of depression or anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system also becomes inhibited when we don’t get enough sleep.

4) The Endocrine System and its effects on anxiety

The endocrine system is made up of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones can have both positive and negative effects on our health, depending on their function. Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin reduce anxiety, whereas cortisol is associated with increased anxiety. As alcohol disrupts the endocrine system by inhibiting hormone secretion and blocking receptors, it may lead to long-term hormonal imbalances.

Certain neurotransmitters can also exacerbate anxiety in the brain called GABA, which regulates neural activity. When GABA levels become too high, there is an overstimulation of nerve cells which leads to excessive production of glutamate. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that signals other neurons to fire. High concentrations of glutamate cause anxiety symptoms because they cause your neurons to fire at a rapid pace and make you more sensitive to stimuli around you.

A person who has been drinking will experience sleep problems because alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which helps regulate the sleep cycle. Research shows people who drink heavily get less REM sleep or deep sleep where most memories are stored in your brain’s hippocampus region.

5) How alcohol impacts anxiety in more ways than you think!

Alcohol is often used as a way to alleviate anxiety and stress. But did you know that alcohol affects your anxiety on levels beyond the obvious? Let's look at the five ways alcohol can affect your anxiety.

1. Alcohol reduces GABA - GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it has the ability to reduce activity in the brain. When GABA is reduced, our brains are less inhibited and more anxious. Drinking alcohol can cause this reduction in GABA and increase anxiety levels 2. Alcohol depresses your parasympathetic nervous system- The parasympathetic nervous system helps us feel calm and relaxed when needed. Drinking alcohol impacts the parasympathetic nervous system, which can lead to feelings of increased anxiety 3. Alcohol raises histamine levels- Histamine is a chemical that causes allergic reactions and increased heart rate, both of which can contribute to feelings of anxiety 4. Alcohol disrupts sleep patterns- Most people experience insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns when they drink alcohol. If you have problems sleeping due to anxiety, drinking alcohol can only make those problems worse 5. Alcohol lowers blood sugar levels- Low blood sugar may not seem like a major contributor to anxiety but it can actually worsen your feelings of panic and fear.

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