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Taking a break from Alcohol

I have always known that when we drink too much alcohol we become “intoxicated”, but I never appreciated the implications of this “intoxication”. I was not aware of the details regarding what actually takes place inside our body when we take a drink or two, or five. 

The following is an excerpt from The Quantum Wellness Cleanse by Kathy Freston.  In her book, she does an excellent job of describing what happens to our bodies, specifically the brain when we imbibe.  I hope you will find this information as helpful as I have in your quest to detoxify your life.
How Alcohol Works in the Brain
Alcohol can interfere with the brain’s chemical messengers, specifically the neurotransmitters serotonin, GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), and dopamine.  Neurotransmitters will either encourage and quicken, or slow down and cease, impulses between neurons in the brain, dramatically affecting our moods, our ability to think clearly, and the signals the brain sends to the body.  It’s not a stretch to say that how our neurotransmitters are functioning affects how we experience the world and ourselves.

            Serotonin affects our thinking patterns, memory, appetite, body temperature, and endocrine regulation.  Dopamine is involved with feelings of pleasure and reward.  (That’s why it is affected by nearly all addictive drugs.  Stop feeding your brain these pleasure-giving substances and dopamine levels go into instant decline, making you acutely aware of its absence, which is why it’s so hard to quit.) GABA is involved in memory and cognitive functioning.  Alcohol ingestion has, to a greater or lesser extent, some impact on all these functions.  How does that happen?

            For one, drinking alcohol temporarily increases the level of serotonin in the brain, which in turn increases its influence on mood and thinking, elevating each.  This is why we often crave a drink at the end of a tough day.  Stress and modern life decrease our serotonin level, and alcohol is one of the quickest and easiest ways to raise it.  Once you take a drink, that alcohol begins circulating throughout your bloodstream within five minutes.  Your serotonin level goes up and you feel better.

            However, this is just an artificial boost, and those serotonin levels can fall just as fast as they rise.  On top of that, excess alcohol, or continued use, can actually lower serotonin levels overall, causing mood swings, depression, and other problems related to serotonin depletion.  It also interferes with the essential amino acid tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin; tryptophan has been called “nature’s Prozac,” and although that is an overstatement, it does help us feel relaxed, with a general sense of well-being.

            GABA, by contrast, is an inhibitor, meaning it inhibits signals between neurons, and alcohol heightens its effect.  Since GABA is involved in many areas of the brain, multiple functions will show signs of slowdown.  The most obvious are motor skills.  Sluggish motor response can be seen in anyone who has “had a few.”  This can also affect memory, making associations and connections slow and difficult.

            As for dopamine, which is associated with reinforcement behavior and feelings of reward, alcohol boosts its level as well.  These increases can easily lead to the loss of inhibition and judgment, a quality that makes alcohol consumption so popular?  Dopamine also gives one a feeling of well-being, and when it is in decline, the urge to raise it again can be overpowering.  After the initial effects of alcohol wear off, dopamine levels fall below their normal non-drinking state.  This is another reason why even moderate drinkers can feel deprived if they don’t have a glass or two.

            Alcohol has strong effects – not all of which are understood – on these neurotransmitters, each of which has some effect on one or more of the others.  But what is clear is that drinking even moderately does not leave us with our nature-given brain chemistry, and what we do drink, in large part, to affect that chemistry.  And even beyond that, our brain chemistry is actually affecting our desire to drink.  See the vicious cycle we can get caught up in?

            Let’s take a deeper look at the mechanism through which alcohol is metabolized in the body: metabolism is the process by which the substances we eat and drink are converted into other compounds, most less toxic than the original, some more.  Because our bodies treat alcohol as a toxin, a poison to be purged (because, for your liver, that’s exactly what it is), it is detoxified and removed from the blood through the process of oxidation.  The liver is where most of the metabolism takes place.

            But the liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol in any given time, no matter how much is consumed, and that rate is affected by genetics, which vary from person to person.  Generally, the liver metabolizes alcohol more slowly than the body absorbs it into the bloodstream so when we drink, a certain amount of the alcohol nearly always affects the body and the brain.

            Curiously, alcohol does not raise your blood sugar level.  In and of itself it will actually lower it.  What does raise our blood sugar level when we drink are the carbohydrates contained in the drink, and that is what is turned into glucose in our body.  Alcohol actually inhibits the liver from releasing glycogen (carbohydrates stored in the liver and released for energy when you’re between meals), which is how it lowers blood sugar overall.  Your liver treats the alcohol like a toxin and goes about the detoxification process, putting off releasing glycogen until it is complete.  And since this is a slow process, that means you can go without a steady release of glycogen for a long time, which can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

            Further compounding their effects, most alcoholic drinks have a high simple carbohydrate content because of the sugars in them (i.e., the grapes in wine, the malt in beer or Scotch), and this will flood your system with glucose.  Your pancreas releases insulin in order to handle the glucose at the same time that the liver is impaired by detoxification.  What you can get is a fluctuating blood sugar level with all its attendant problems (including insulin resistance).  Something to keep in mind: good health depends on stable blood sugar levels.

            This is why it is much easier to give up sugar and alcohol at the same time.  If you were trying to quit one without the other, you’d still have to deal with destabilized blood sugar levels and the quitting would be much harder.  You might notice a friend who has given up drinking alcohol addictively turn to eating sweets in large amounts; this is because their system is used to being loaded up on sugar, and they haven’t quite gotten off that old sugar/insulin roller coaster.  To achieve a healthy state of equilibrium, it’s wise to forego all the substances that will throw your system back into the old craving cycles.

            Alcohol causes stress-related issues in the body as well.  One way is by raising Cortisol levels.  Cortisol is the “stress hormone,” and elevated levels of it can destabilize blood sugar levels and also add fat to the body by keeping us in continuous, low-grade fight-or-flight metabolism.  Alcohol also depletes vitamins B6 and B12 as well as folic acid – nutrients the body needs to cope with stress – and can interfere with REM sleep, leaving you less rested when you wake up in the morning.

The Benefits of Taking a Break
So, you see, alcohol puts stress on your body in a number of ways and an occasional break does your body a favor.  You give your brain a chance to find its natural, uninterfered-with chemical balance.  Your body is once again able to produce serotonin at healthy levels, and this includes recovering from its daily depletion from stress without artificial stimulation.  You are able to keep dopamine in balance so your brain isn’t always craving a drink to temporarily elevate its levels.  The fact is, if given the chance, the brain has an amazing capacity to readjust neurotransmitter levels and effectiveness all by itself, and clearing it of alcohol frees it to do that.
            Also, by reducing the toxin load, you give your liver the opportunity to regenerate itself (unless it has already experienced serious scarring-cirrhosis- from heavy drinking).  And the liver is brilliant at doing this.  Remember, your body reacts to alcohol as though it were a poison and the liver gives priority to metabolizing it out of the system, putting on hold the important function of releasing glycogen to stabilize blood sugar levels.  If you want your liver to heal itself from a lifetime of heavy (or even mostly moderate) alcohol use, and you want to see your blood sugar levels reach the optimum range for good health, it is a good idea to give yourself this kind of “vacation”.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 3rd, 2012 04:07 am (UTC)
Alcohol's Influence on Society
Any society where alcohol is freely used and available is invariably afflicted by the problems of acute alcohol intoxication (drunkenness), alcohol dependence, and alcohol-related disorders including liver disorders, heart disease, hypertension and neuropathy. Alcohol is also an important factor in vehicular and industrial accidents, domestic violence, marriage breakdown, child abuse and other types of crimes.

Why is it then socially acceptable and promoted to drink?

Thanks for another great article!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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