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Is alcohol affecting my mental health?

It’s common knowledge that excessive alcohol can affect your health in a serious way. We know that liver damage, poor nutrition and stomach ulcers are common when alcohol is abused. We can see the physical effects of long term use with  malnutrition and ‘drinker’s nose’; where bulbous acne and rosacea cause a distinctive appearance.

When we drink we might sometimes worry about the physical effect it could be having; both now and in the longer term. However, it is easy to convince yourself that if you don’t have ‘drinker’s nose’ or your liver enzymes aren’t raised then you’re doing okay. Even in moderate amounts alcohol can impact the way our bodies function and over the longer term, these issues become more entrenched and problematic.

Alcohol irritates digestion, it disrupts digestive enzyme secretion and causes inflammation in the cells of the stomach. Over time, this makes nutrient deficiencies more likely, but in the short term you might notice looser stools after drinking, stomach cramps or nausea. The digestive symptoms that come with a hangover are signs of irritation and inflammation.

That’s the morning after, but the night before, alcohol would have caused disruptions in biochemistry to ensure that you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, challenged your body to deal with increased ‘stress’ and might even have caused food ‘binges’ and poor food choices. Drinking alcohol can cause neurons to activate ‘starvation mode’ that causes you to increase your food intake during a drinking session.

Regarding sleep, the production of calming neurotransmitters, which can make alcohol appealing, helps us drift off to sleep but after a few hours it wears off. A subsequent increase in stimulatory glutamate or surge of adrenalin wakes us up. Consequently sleep is disrupted, this along with dehydration causes a higher release of stress hormones the following day. This can cause an increased craving for sugary foods, or more alcohol and long term this depletes  our energy and can cause mid-section weight gain.

The influence of alcohol intake on our eating habits and sleep combine to increase oxidative stress in our bodies. Oxidative stress is an ongoing process where our body deals with the by-products of biochemical reactions. This is a  normal body process that needs to be supported by a nutritious diet and self-care. Alcohol intake adds to oxidative stress, which if not properly counteracted results in damage to our bodies. Ageing is primarily the result of ongoing oxidative stress. Drinking alcohol can age us prematurely, increasing the development of wrinkles and grey hair. Increased oxidative stress can also cause fatigue, brain fog, headaches, muscle and joint aches.

The signs of ageing and oxidative stress can be exacerbated by the effect alcohol has on gut health. Over time, digestion and absorption of nutrients is lowered leaving the body less equipped to deal with the impact. Drinking alcohol can make you more susceptible to food intolerances, the gut lining becomes more permeable allowing food proteins to interact with the immune system. This also increases the workload for the liver and can cause acne and other skin issues. We know that fat soluble nutrients and B vitamins are particular vulnerable when alcohol intake is ongoing. Vitamin A, E and D are all important for skin health and function of the immune system.

We are learning that alcohol intake can increase the growth of harmful bacteria in our gut. Our gut bacteria play an important role in the function of our immune system and our overall mood. It’s likely alcohol affects gut bacteria by influencing digestive secretions, leaving a higher likelihood of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and associated skin conditions like rosacea. Our gut bacteria play an important role in our mental health and an overgrowth of less beneficial bacteria can affect our mood via the gut/brain connection.

It is difficult to determine how much alcohol is too much and to identify the point at which it will affect your health. The threshold will be different for each individual and will depend on other factors. Your diet, environment, genetics and stress levels will all play a part in determining the ‘breaking point’ for your body.