After alcohol exposure, threat-detecting brain circuits can‘t tell the difference between a threatening and a non-threatening social situation.
Working with 12 healthy participants who drink socially, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity in emotion-processing brain regions during alcohol exposure. When participants received a placebo instead of alcohol, they showed greater activity in the amygdala, insula, and parahippocampal gyrus -- brain regions involved in fear and avoidance -- when shown a picture of a fearful facial expression.
Alcohol, meanwhile, activated striatal areas of the brain that are important components of the reward system, but did not increase brain activity in areas involved in fear. If you’ve ever had one too many cocktails, you’ve felt the direct effects that alcohol has on your brain: slowed reaction times, slurred speech, loss of balance and even impaired memory.
You’ve also felt the “buzz” that drives many people to drink in the first place -- the one that eases your inhibitions and worries.
This happens because alcohol raises the levels of dopamine in your brain. It also alters levels of other brain chemicals, like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits impulsiveness, and glutamate, which excites your nervous system.
Over time, drinking excessively can cause levels of your brain chemicals to get entirely thrown off kilter, which is why people with alcoholism get to the point where they must have a drink to feel good.
But what this study really highlights is the fact that if you’ve been drinking, you’re likely to take dangerous risks because you won’t realize if you’re in a threatening situation. And this happens to everyone -- even those of you who think, “Alcohol doesn’t impact me.”
Alcohol is a Toxin
Aside from being a well-known neurotoxin, alcohol can damage your body’s ability to respond to stress. This not only impacts the ability of your immune system to fight infection, but it can alter your brain cells’ ability to learn and remember.
In fact, if you abuse alcohol, your body loses part of its ability to respond to additional stressors, which is part of the reason why alcoholics become plagued with health problems.
Alcohol use can also disrupt your hormonal balance, and can increase your risk of getting numerous cancers, including:
- Mouth, larynx and esophagus
Many health agencies suggest that drinking in moderation is ok, and perhaps even healthy, for your cardiovascular system and brain function, but I disagree. In general, it is best to not drink alcohol at all.
If you are healthy and would like to have an occasional drink, red wine is your best choice. This is due to the antioxidant resveratrol that it contains, and its unique relationship to alcohol.
Because this antioxidant is soluble in alcohol, you will get far more absorption if you consume it in an alcohol base as opposed to swallowing it from a pill. So while there are clearly negative consequences to consuming alcohol, these are partially compensated for by its ability to increase the absorption of resveratrol into your blood where it performs its magic.
Keep in mind, though, that if you decide to drink red wine, you need to check on the growing conditions of the grapes and how the wine is made. If the wine isn't made with organic grapes, it may contain no resveratrol at all.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
While 12-step programs can be helpful, and certainly will not hurt, they often don't address an addiction's underlying cause, especially if the cause involves a tangle of unresolved emotions. The drinking may stop, but the cravings remain, and suppressing those cravings can be a full-time job.
This is where the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) becomes an invaluable tool for any recovering alcoholic. It works by going straight to the source of addictive behavior through focused thought combined with gentle tapping on key acupuncture points.
In the case of something as serious as an alcohol addiction, you should get help from an EFT practitioner before trying it out on your own.