Let’s face it, alcohol is everywhere in human culture across the globe, and has been for quite some time. It’s the social beverage of choice for a night out on the town or a low-key night on the couch watching movies.
But is this cultural habit of drinking alcohol to “unwind” really a healthy one? If you’re stressed out and can’t relax, Is using alcohol for anxiety a wise decision?
It’s common knowledge that chronic, excessive alcohol consumption is detrimental to health and longevity, but what about intermittent drinking? Can alcohol cause anxiety even in the short-term?
Many people assume that alcohol is a good way to relieve anxiety since it’s a sedative and “relaxes” the mind. Curiously, research suggests the opposite – that people who use alcohol for anxiety are actually more likely to develop alcohol-induced anxiety syndrome and depression. In addition, consumers of alcohol are at a greater risk of hangover anxiety.
So, how long does anxiety last after drinking alcohol? Will there be more anxiety after quitting alcohol? Should you eschew alcohol altogether if you’re prone to anxiety and panic attacks?
Read on as we answer these pressing questions and take a deeper look at the connection between alcohol and anxiety.
Using Alcohol for Anxiety: Why It’s Not a Smart Choice
The harsh truth is that alcoholic beverages, particularly beer and hard liquor, serve virtually no biological purpose since ethyl alcohol (ethanol) – the alcohol we commonly associate with “drinking” – is not an essential nutrient.
In fact, ethanol is classified as a toxin due to its metabolism and the byproducts it produces when you consume it. The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines toxins as substances created by plants and/or animals that are poisonous to humans; ethanol is one such substance, especially when consumed frequently in large amounts.
Being “drunk” is essentially another term for “ethanol poisoning”; hence, you start throwing up, just as you would from food poisoning.
But the insidious ramifications of habitually using alcohol for anxiety are what’s most alarming.
Like with most any drug, the liver is the predominant site of ethanol metabolism in the human body. When you drink a hard beverage – the body produces acetaldehyde and various reactive oxygen species (which are highly reactive, oxidative molecules that essentially “attack” other molecules in the body). While reactive oxygen species are a part of normal/healthy cellular biology, they are also responsible for inducing oxidative stress in cells.
Hence, drinking large amounts of alcohol leads to an accumulation of pro-oxidants in the body, which consequently start to damage cells by “stealing” electrons from essential molecules like lipids and oxygen.
As you likely inferred, antioxidants are molecules, most of which are vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, that block the actions of reactive oxygen species/pro-oxidants. This is why it’s imperative to consume ample amounts of antioxidants regularly, especially if you drink frequently.
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What Causes Hangover Anxiety?
After the acute symptoms of drunkness wear off, a dark cloud that we call “hangover anxiety” starts to creep in. Hangover anxiety is often the most debilitating ramification of drinking to excess.
Clinical evidence suggests that alcohol dependence and abuse impairs the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitter systems in the body, thereby robbing the brain of chemicals that make us feel happy and motivated. This is one reason why people feel like they are in a hazy fog and just want to lay on the couch when they’re going through hangover anxiety or hangover depression.
Regularly consuming alcohol to excess leads to a surfeit of NADH (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide plus Hydrogen) in the blood, which reduces the pH and makes your body more acidic. In turn, this can significantly increase the risk of fatty liver disease, cardiovascular complications, mental health disorders, and weight gain.
Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
The general consensus among the scientific community is that alcohol is bad for anxiety since those who drink alcohol frequently tend to be more anxious. In other words, alcoholism and anxiety disorders are comorbid. This also means that anxiety can cause people to use alcohol for treating their symptoms.
Interestingly, a recent research study found that people with social anxiety disorder were 4.5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.7 Another study found that adolescents and young adults with anxiety disorders were more likely to develop alcohol use disorders, which many of the subjects justified as a “coping” mechanism.
So, does alcohol cause anxiety or does anxiety cause alcohol dependence? Well, it goes both ways.
Alcohol and anxiety essentially feed into each other. This can initiate a vicious cycle of alcohol dependence/abuse and increasing anxiety symptoms, such as mood swings, paranoia, and panic attacks.
Some people may experience short-term anxiety relief after consuming alcohol, but regular drinking appears to induce anxiety in the long-term. If alcohol truly was an effective treatment for anxiety, physicians/psychiatrists would just tell anxious patients to drink more.
Is Alcohol Bad for Anxiety?
Ultimately, you should not be consuming any alcohol if you’re on prescription anti-anxiety medication, especially Xanax (alprazolam) or other benzodiazepines as these have drug-to-drug interactions that can be fatal.
Alcohol is a sedative and depresses the central nervous system, much like benzodiazepines. The effects are additive when you consume the two in conjunction, which drastically increases the risk of addiction and drug-induced fatality.
While there is some evidence that alcohol may help relieve short-term anxiety, it’s not a reliable treatment considering the risk of developing dependence and the fact that alcohol is not the most healthful beverage of choice, to begin with.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to alcohol and anxiety. Observational studies suggest that the symptoms of alcohol-induced anxiety syndrome correct themselves after an ongoing period of sobriety has been established.10 It’s important to note that many people experience an initial increase in anxiety after quitting alcohol, but the withdrawals fade significantly over time.
Is Alcohol Always a “Bad” Thing?
It’s imperative to keep in mind that the quantity of any substance/drug/nutrient is ultimately what determines is healthfulness or toxicity. As the adage goes, “The difference between medicine and poison is in the dose.”
For example, many people assume cyanide is a lethal compound to ingest when it’s actually a natural constituent of apple seeds and can be safely consumed in minute amounts. We’ve all let a few apple seeds slip down the gullet before, yet we’re still alive! The body is truly a resilient and remarkable machine when you think about it.
Likewise, alcoholic beverages can be safely consumed in small amounts. Alas, this is where the vast majority of the population falls off the wagon.
When was the last time you asked your buddies to catch the Sunday night football game while kicking back one or two can(s) of beer? Chances are it was more like five or six cans of beer on top of a triple-shot vodka nightcap.
Intuitively, this is not conducive to longevity, nor is it beneficial for your mental health.
Now, does this mean you can’t enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine with dinner if you have anxiety? Of course not.
Again, modestly consuming alcoholic beverages every so often is not likely to magnify anxiety. In fact, drinking a few glasses of red wine every week may actually promote cardiovascular and metabolic health thanks to its unique polyphenol composition. But don’t misconstrue this to mean that pounding a six-pack or an entire bottle of wine is “modest.”
The fact of the matter is excessive drinking can cause anxiety, panic acttacks, paranoia, and mood swings. Clinical research suggests that chronic alcoholics are also at a greater risk of developing alcohol-induced anxiety syndrome, which consequently makes it even harder to stop drinking.
The key is moderating the amount of alcohol you consume and not letting it become your go-to everyday beverage, especially if you are prone to anxiety and/or panic attacks.
How to Beat 2-Day Hangover Anxiety
In the event you do drink too much, the next best thing you can do is “damage control” by giving your body the right nutrients for avoiding hangover anxiety.
Your liver is a vital organ involved in removing ethanol metabolites from the body; its primary job is to filter the blood coming from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, before passing it to the rest of the body.
Not only does the liver inactivate and help remove toxins that are ingested, but it extracts residues and metabolic waste material from the blood so that they can be excreted by the intestines or kidneys (either via urine or bowel movements).
Thus, if you’re a regular drinker, it’s essential to provide the body with the necessary nutrients to support alcohol metabolism and boost your body’s inherent toxin defense systems.
In any case, do your best to limit your consumption of alcohol. We realize it’s easier said than done, especially if you thrive for nights out with friends and going to bars, clubs, and concerts. Alcohol is the primary source of “fuel” at these venues, and that won’t change. You, however, can be smarter about what you do and don’t put in your body on such occasions.