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Your Alcohol And Mental Health Questions Answered

Even in moderate amounts, alcohol can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health. Taking a break from alcohol can yield an array of health benefits. Leaning into these benefits will give you the extra motivation you need to go the distance.

In our recent event with Steve Kay a clinical nurse consultant and mental health specialist took us through the journey of alcohol through the body, and the physiological processes that take place when we drink. Kaye discussed what healthy alcohol consumption looks like and both the short and long term benefits of reducing how much we drink, along with how to safely reduce or stop drinking. In the following Steve Kaye answers our community’s questions.

1. What does alcohol ‘look like’ in a blood test?

So you can look for alcohol - blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Normally that will be done by the police, if you are involved in a road traffic accident for example. Blood tests looking at alcohol from your GP would look at liver enzymes, it’s called a hepatic panel work up. So they would look at various liver enzymes and blood markers to determine the health of your liver. A GP wouldn’t screen for alcohol in its essential form, it would be around looking at your liver and your blood work and they can detect quite a lot from that- whether you’ve got fatty liver for example.

2. Would alcohol be able to be traced in the body after a day or two?

No it would be cleared, it can be traced up to 12 hours from the last drink from blood. Urine maybe but alcohol is processed by your body quite quickly.

3. How does alcohol affect energy levels?

That’s an interesting one, dopamine levels increase so you get a buzz, sometime people can feel a bit energized but alcohol is actually a depressant, it’s a sedative in terms of people often feeling their energy levels dropping if they are drinking quite a bit and it can be quite sedating. They find the next day with that dopamine increasing to counteract that GABA that makes them feel calm and chill and relaxed, they can often feel anxious, jittery, on edge, irritable so alcohol really can impact a person's energy levels and irritability and sleep.

4. Why would alcohol affect sleep if it is meant to be a depressant?

So it can help people get to sleep quicker because they are feeling more relaxed, at that point they still have GABA floating around so they are feeling pretty chill but the second half of the sleep cycle is disturbed so that rapid-eye-movement stage and deep sleep stage can be really disrupted from alcohol and that’s how alcohol can disrupt that standard sleeping pattern. We know that if someone is not getting regular good quality sleep that it’s an indicator of poor mental health so it’s a double whammy because you’re going to wake up feeling hung-over from the alcohol possibly and not have had a good sleep. It’s not good for your mental health and wellbeing. 

5. How is alcohol and inflammation related?

There is a direct link, so heavy alcohol consumption can contribute to systemic inflammation so it interferes with the body’s natural defences such as the gut microbiome. It has an inflammatory impact, it can flare up irritable bowel syndrome for example and it can affect the systems in the body differently, so it can cause acute inflammation or chronic inflammation. If someone is drinking quite regularly it can cause a low-grade inflammation which isn’t good and again we know that if someone’s got inflammation it can impact their mental health as well. There are studies to indicate that chronic low-grade inflammation over a period of time is not good for mental health. 

6. Alcohol helps me wind-down at the end of the day and I really look forward to relaxing. How can this be a bad thing for mental health?

Yes a lot of people use alcohol to relax, that’s why it’s so widely popular because it does help people relax and people feel chilled and have that really nice warm fuzzy feeling. It’s not a bad thing if it is once or twice a week within the recommended guidelines. However if you’re drinking daily and you are relying on alcohol every day to help you wind down - that’s not a good thing because you’re essentially retraining your brain, your rewards system, that alcohol makes me feel good, makes me feel chill and relaxed. What we need to do is broaden our toolbox of coping strategies, whether we employ mindfulness, exercise, art therapy, whatever it may be, another activity that doesn’t involve alcohol. We need to broaden and strengthen our resilience and how we manage life stressors because if you are relying on alcohol every day just to get through the day because when something bad comes along how are you going to cope and react to that - you would need much more alcohol to help you cope and feel relaxed. So long-term it is not good to rely on alcohol as your sole coping strategy, you need to employ that toolbox kit of healthy eating, socialising, good sleep hygiene, exercise, self-care to maintain good mental health. 

7. If I stopped having a wine or a beer I would probably still have a soft drink so I don’t feel left out, isn’t that worse because of all the sugar?

So sugar plays on the same pathway as dopamine so when someone is reducing alcohol they have cravings for sugar, so lollies, chocolate, sugary drinks. An average 750ml bottle of red wine has about 7 grams of sugar, a 330ml can of coke has 35 grams of sugar. So you do not want to substitute alcohol for soft drink. You can get sugar-free alternatives, you can get sugar free drinks, sparkling water. I remember some patients telling me that they would use a wine glass but have sparkling water in it so it felt like they were still having a drink, so that is a good strategy. So I wouldn’t encourage people to substitute alcohol for sugary drinks long-term, short-term it can help with cravings because you will crave sugary things when you decrease your alcohol intake. 

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