STRESS AND ALCOHOL – THE SHORT TERM ‘QUICK-FIX’ BUT WITH WHAT POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES

 

It’s ‘Dry January’ and you may well be refraining from drinking alcohol.  Before you next decide to have a tipple to help you ‘switch off’, ‘relax’, ‘feel more confident when you socialise’, ‘treat yourself’, ‘celebrate an achievement’ I want to help you understand how alcohol can add to your stress levels!

 

Stress and alcohol – what happens when we have a drink?

As you know, alcohol is a drug.  It’s main ingredient is ethanol, which is also used, albeit in a slightly different form, in petrol and solvents!  Ethanol is a very small molecule that gets absorbed quickly into your bloodstream and circulates around your body.   When it reaches the brain, alcohol (ethanol) alters the signal transmission between the neurons in the brain, suppressing the parts of the brain associated with inhibition which can lead to the ‘short-term’ and ‘quick-fix’ feelings of relaxation. It is a depressant.

As your blood (and the alcohol) naturally passes through your liver, the liver prioritises breaking alcohol down (metabolising it) to get it out of the body as fast as possible because alcohol is a ‘hepatoxin’ meaning it is toxic to the liver.  Hence why you might go to the toilet more often when you’ve had a drink!  And, because of this diuretic effect, why you might feel dehydrated and the need to drink more.  

Whilst the liver is focusing on breaking down the alcohol in your bloodstream, it has less resources available to do it’s other jobs including detoxifying all the other substances (e.g. artificial sweeteners, additives, preservatives and pollutants) that may be circulating which can lead to a build up of toxins in your body. The liver is amazing in what it does but it can only break down one unit of alcohol per hour!  

The liver does all of this detoxification work and also helps balance your blood sugar levels, metabolise fat and protein, produce substances to help blood to clot and produce cholesterol. We get approximately 20% of our cholesterol from food, the liver produces the other 80%.  Sub-optimal liver performance, for example due to alcohol intake, can lead to an over-production of cholesterol.

 

Stress and alcohol – how we might notice the impact in our body?

  • You might lose your sense of balance, alcohol can impact your brain
  • Alcohol affects your nervous system so you might notice a difference in your breathing and/or your heartbeat
  • It can reduce the ability of the stomach wall to produce stomach acid which can impair digestion, leading to indigestion and other symptoms
  • A couple of drinks can interfere with your sleep, hence you feeling tired when you wake up instead of feeling refreshed
  • It can lower your body temperature, which may lead to hypothermia
  • It has the potential to stop your gag reflex working properly and can irritate your stomach which can lead to vomiting, choking and other more serious events 
  • It can impact blood sugar levels which can contribute to increased anxiety and stress
  • You might notice you catch more colds as alcohol and stress both impact the immune system which can lead to increased risk of diseases such as pneumonia
  • Alcohol is high in ‘empty’ calories’, as they are of no nutritional benefit to you (seven calories a millilitre, nearly as many as pure fat!). You may gain weight, because the body focuses on removing the alcohol from your body, reducing the amount of fat it may burn for energy.
  • Alcohol can enhance the toxicity of medication which can place additional burden on the liver and contribute to side effects
  • The structure of protein can be altered by Acetaldehyde, a toxic by-product of alcohol.  Their changed structure prevents them from doing their many jobs inside the body properly and may lead to autoimmune reactions (when the body gets attacked by its own immune system).

 

Stress and alcohol – what about the more serious long term effects of alcohol?

Research has shown that for every 2 units of alcohol drunk per day, the risk of bowel cancer goes up by 8% (Ferrari et al 2007).  ‘Alcohol has been identified as a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions…and increases your risk of cancer’ (PHE, 2016).  Effects such as:

  • Increased stress, anxiety and mental health issues
  • Depression
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Pancreatitis
  • Mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers

 

Stress and alcohol – why should I reduce my alcohol intake if I’m about to enter peri-menopause or menopause?

The liver breaks down oestrogen so it can be eliminated from the body.  It also produces Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) which controls levels of circulating oestrogen and testosterone and removal of excess oestrogen from the body.  The more you can do to support your liver to do this essential work as you transition through the various stages of peri-menopause and menopause the better.

 

Stress and alcohol – how does it impact the food I eat?

Alcohol is an ‘anti-nutrient’ – it has no nutritional value at all!  It can lead to sub-optimal absorption of essential B vitamins (support energy production, stress response, digestive system, brain health, nervous system health), zinc (skin health, digestive system health), calcium (bone health) and magnesium (muscle health, relaxation and many body processes).  When we are stressed the body uses up Vitamin C, magnesium and zinc more rapidly so we need to reduce alcohol intake to support the body’s ability to digest and absorb these nutrients.  Alcohol can also affect the conversion of essential fatty acids which can lead to increased inflammation in the body.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO REDUCE MY STRESS LEVELS AND ALCOHOL INTAKE AND SUPPORT MY BODY?  

 

TOP 10 TIPS:

  1. Government guidelines recommend drinking no more than 14 units per week – use this calculator to help you know what you’re consuming https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/tools/unit-and-calorie-calculator
  2. If you do regularly drink 14 units a week, spread it evenly across the week and have alcohol free days
  3. Drink slowly, alternate an alcoholic drink with water 
  4. Drink with a meal 
  5. Swap alcohol for ‘light’ or ‘alcohol-free’ variations, there are some nice alternatives and ‘mocktails’ available now
  6. Foods such as artichokes, dandelion greens, onions, leeks, garlic, cruciferous veg (e.g. cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts), blueberries, beetroot, asparagus, nuts, oily fish, pears, watercress, kale help support the liver
  7. Next time you reach for the ‘quick-fix’, pause, take 3 deep abdominal breaths and ask yourself if it gets you closer to your long-term health goals or is there something else you can do.  If it’s because you need to switch off and relax, try this relaxation technique.
  8. Go for a walk in the fresh air, do some exercise or something you enjoy
  9. Continue to do the deep breathing mentioned above until the feeling has passed and ask yourself is it possible to change the thing that is causing you stress
  10. Find someone to help you, someone you trust that you can talk to, journalling may also help.

 

Stress, Alcohol and the workplace

  • £7 billion lost productivity each year in the UK economy due to alcohol use 
  • 25% say drugs or alcohol have affected them at work, with 23% saying they had experienced decreased productivity as a result
  • Workplaces don’t just suffer the effects of alcohol, they can exacerbate the problem.  27% of people say that workplace stress makes them drink more.
  • Many workplaces also encourage drinking, whether through informal socialising or workplace events where drinking is considered the norm and alcohol is often made available for free.
  • In 2015 there were an estimated 167,000 working years lost due to alcohol in England

 

How can you help your greatest asset, your employees?

‘The increased the cumulative effect of stressors throughout life can impact drinking’ (Anthenelli & Grandison, 2012). 

Making changes to help reduce stress in the workplace can help your work family.

You can also:

  • Implement an alcohol policy
  • Offer alcohol-free alternatives at social events
  • Offer social events that have a different focus than alcohol

If you are an employer and would like to reduce stress in the workplace that may contribute to increased alcohol intake, research (Thorissen et al, 2018) suggests you focus not on alcohol consumption but on supporting their overall health and wellbeing with a ‘systematic and preventative approach to wellbeing’ (CIPD, 2023). 

‘The stress resulting from a traumatic event can produce changes in drinking behaviour’ although taken from a research study by Anthenelli and Grandison in 2012 where they give the example of an earthquake as a traumatic event, I would suggest, that the recent pandemic should also now be counted as a traumatic event.

 

How NOURISH Holistic Wellbeing can help you:

If you are an organisation based within 30 minutes of Telford, TF1, contact us for your complimentary Workplace Wellbeing chat with Colleen our Director.  NOURISH Holistic Wellbeing Ltd specialises in bespoke, holistic solutions for Workplace Wellbeing, Stress Management and Mental Health.  

We also offer 1:1 bespoke wellbeing solutions for everything but cancer, such as: Wellbeing Kickstart, Annual health MOT (Wellbeing 360 Plus), diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, overwhelm, mental health issues including depression, obesity and weight management, menopause, high cholesterol and stress management.

 

MAKE 2024 THE YEAR YOU REDUCE STRESS AND ACHIEVE MORE!

 Contact Colleen today.

Colleen is a PSA accredited, NNA registered, Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist, providing customised holistic wellbeing strategies for organisations and individuals, giving you a blueprint to more time, more energy, more productivity, enhanced performance, more clarity, more focus, more calm, more health and happiness, enabling you to reduce stressors and achieve more.

Colleen Founding Director

REFERENCES

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/574053/alcohol_public_health_burden_statistics.pdf

https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-in-the-workplace

Association between alcohol consumption and impaired work performance (presenteeism): a systemic review, Thorrison, M., et al (2018) https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/9/7/e029184.full

Effects of Stress on Alcohol Consumption, Anthenelli, R., & Grandison, L., (2012) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860387/

https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/information-about-alcohol/alcoholic-drinks-and-units/what-is-an-alcohol-unit

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Registered address: Suite 104, The Studios, Mansell Road, Wellington, Telford, TF1 1QQ. Registered in England and Wales with a company no. 11671005