Why alcohol is NOT helping you cope right now
Besides toilet paper, alcohol was probably the most stock-piled item in many homes prior to lockdown. The jokes about Quarantinis flowed and the Zoom wine-time invites piled in. It’s not surprising that in a time of major uncertainty and heightened anxiety, people would turn to the world’s most loved drug to cope. But is alcohol helping or harming you during this time?
Immune system Drinking alcohol, especially if you drink heavily, weakens your immune system. This means that by drinking you’re making yourself more susceptible to contracting an infectious disease like Covid19. And furthermore, if you do contract it, your body is less equipped to cope with it and fight it off. The World Health Organisation has recommended that alcohol be avoided altogether during this time so as not to compromise immune function.
Mental health Alcohol exacerbates negative mental health. It’s a common misconception that alcohol relaxes us. It actually doesn’t. As Holly Whitaker says, the nett effect of a glass of wine is more stress, not less. This is because alcohol causes dopamine to be released by the brain providing a temporary relaxing effect, followed by an onslaught of stress hormones like cortisol to counter the dopamine and bring us back to balance. The dopamine doesn’t last long in our system, but the stress hormones do. Effectively, we do more damage than good when we drink to relieve anxiety or stress. Drinking regularly also bring our happiness levels down in a generalised way. This happens as our brain develops a tolerance to alcohol so we can function more normally while under its effects. The way the brain achieves this is by killing off dopamine receptors which results in us not feeling as effected as we would if all our dopamine receptors were intact. The problem here is that we’re then less able to experience pleasure in relation to other things that stimulate dopamine release such as connecting with our friends, eating a good meal or making love to our partner. We’ve lost our ability to experience the full pleasure of these things, which leaves us feeling ‘meh’ about most things.
Sleep Even though alcohol is a somnogen, meaning it makes you fall asleep faster, it totally messes with the quality of your sleep. Instead of having seven REM cycles, you’ll have around two which means your sleep is less restorative. It’s also a diuretic, meaning you’re more likely to need to get up and pee. I could go on, but you get the picture. Not getting quality sleep has horrible knock-on effects in your life. You’re less patient, less tolerant, less productive, less likely to exercise, more likely to eat crap. Basically, everything is harder when you’re tired and you’re less likely to make healthy choices for yourself which leads to further negative effects.
Productivity Lockdown means many of you are home-schooling kids and trying to work, cook, clean and be everything to everyone. When you spend a few hours buzzed every evening, you rob yourself of hours of time that could otherwise have been productive. Not just those lost hours in the evening, but the early morning hours the next day where a sober person could spring out of bed and get an hour or two of work in before her kids wake up.
I’m not encouraging you to be productive every second of every day. We all need our downtime. But, when you’re overloaded, it really helps to have the time expansion sobriety gifts us. So, next time you think of reaching for the wine in isolation, ask yourself if it’s worth it (spoiler alert – it’s not!). Then ask yourself what you’re really needing in that moment. If it’s relaxation, have a hot bath with essential oils and a good fiction book or do a YouTube yin yoga class. If it’s connection, phone a friend. If it’s excitement, blast some 90’s hits and dance around your living room. This time we’re in is a perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on how we’re living. And I’m sure for many, that will involve a soft but wise voice whispering that it’s time for alcohol to go.