After 15 months of lockdown stresses, more of us are drinking more than ever. With drinking at home it can be difficult to know how many units we’re consuming, or we find ourselves drinking more days in the week than we used to. The booze is also so ingrained in our culture, how we celebrate, comiserate, and let off steam, that cutting down our intake can seem like an uphill struggle.
One of alcohols’ unwanted side effects can be feelings of anxiety. In the moment, alcohol does a wonderful job of relieving anxiety and social pressures by increasing the neurotransmitters GABA, providing a feeling of calm, seretonin which lifts mood, and dopamine which drives motiviation and energy.
Alcohol then continues to block glutamate the excitatory neurotransmitter, enhancing that blissed out state. However the body loves balance and tries to correct this imbalanced state by reducing GABA and increasing glutamate, leading to anxiety which can take 1-2 days to settle down. If you suffer from social anxiety anyway, chances are your normal GABA levels may already be low. Government guidelines are currently 14 units a week for men and women, try this unit calculator to see how much you’re drinking.
Tips to consider reducing your intake
Consider 2-3 days a week alchohol free, planning your alcohol in advance.
At home only buy what you intend to drink, rather than buying in bulk or using a wine merchantor subscription service. You are less likely to go and buy more (when inhibitions are lowered byalcohol) than drink what’s already at home.
When drinking socially, consider a soft drink in between alcoholic drinks. Friends are less likelyto pick up this after the first round.
Consider alcohol free alternatives e.g. 0% beers and Seedlip Gin, they look like the real thing, soless likely to give rise to the peer pressure at all.
When going into a bar, plan what you are going to order and have a back up plan if they don’thave. If you visualise these trigger scenarios, you can trick the brain into thinking the scenariohas already happened, so you are less likely to make a snap decision.
Talk to your ‘ringleader’ the one who encourages you to drink the most, and explain you aretrying to cut down, so they can support you in the moment when it comes to making that choiceof drink.
Consider how you react to others trying to cut down; peer pressure and culture are hugereasons why people drink, even when they don’t want to.
Consider finding a new tribe such as https://www.thesoberclub.com/ orwww.oneyearnobeer.com where like minded people can support your good intentions.
Make a list of the potential up sides of cutting down; better sleep, better work performance,improved fertility, more energy and motivation, weight loss, etc. Even better, start a journalwhich can help understand what drives your tendancy to drink.
Failure is part of the process! The failure of New Years’ resolutions are testament to willpower and motivation only taking you so far, and that changing our behaviours is hard! Be kind to yourself if intentions don’t work out first time around.
For more information and support:
Many will be feeling the negative impact of alcohol and food indulgence. In an effort to allow the body to recalibrate and shake-off the resulting low energy, brain fog and low mood, taking up Dry January is often a key strategy to start the year off on a good foot.
However, those susceptible to alcohol cravings may find that a month off the booze is harder than expected. Symptoms such as poor sleep, sugar cravings and a long-winded hangover, are just some of the experiences that people have reported. One of the most common symptoms is an increase in anxiety, perhaps due to the reduction of a very important neurotransmitter called GABA, which is stimulated by alcohol.
What is GABA?
GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it helps the body and brain to relax and promotes feelings/sensations of calm and tiredness. It does this by preventing excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline from over-stimulating the brain and helps to slow down the heart rate and breathing, as well as relaxing muscles.
In those who are deficient in GABA, feelings of anxiety, stress and worry can be common symptoms, leading to alcohol cravings. Alcohol targets GABA receptors and mimics the effect of this neurotransmitter, helping to relax the mind and body. Have you ever craved alcohol after a stressful day and used a glass of wine to help calm the nerves and decompress the mind? This is your body’s way of telling you that GABA needs to be switched on! Whilst alcohol facilitates this, unfortunately the negative side effects of chronic alcohol use far outweigh the temporary feelings of calm and relax.
The Relationship Between GABA and Alcohol
Alcohol can cross the blood brain barrier incredibly quickly – the brain’s very own protective mechanism that prevents things like toxins, bacteria and unwanted hormones from entering the brain and causing damage. This is why after drinking alcohol, its effects can be felt almost instantly.
The brain has a very intelligent way of preventing overstimulation of neurotransmitters, so that balance is maintained. For example, when alcohol intake is high, in an effort to avoid an excessive accumulation of GABA (as well as other neurotransmitters), receptor response is dampened. Meaning that over time, you’ll need more of the substance to provide the same effect, which may lead to potential addiction and alcohol dependency . This can make Dry January almost impossible to achieve, if other ways of increasing GABA aren’t employed.
Below is a list of safe and natural ways you can help activate GABA, which will also enhance overall health and mental wellbeing.
4 Ways to Increase GABA Naturally…
1. Magnesium – nature’s relaxant
Magnesium has been shown to modulate GABA activity in the brain. It does this by acting on GABA receptors to help facilitate GABA neurotransmission and its consequent effects of relaxation. Magnesium also helps to relax the central nervous system, as well as the body’s muscles. It does this by helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of our autonomic nervous system that is responsible for helping us to relax, down-regulating cortisol output and for regenerating cells and tissues. We can find magnesium in foods such as avocado, nuts and seeds, legumes and some wholegrains. However, some studies have shown that supplementing with magnesium (around 300mg a day), can be very effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
2. Consider a B6 Supplement
GABA is produced via the activity of an enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) and GABA transaminase, which require vitamin B6 as a cofactor. Studies show that the B6 status of an individual has significant effects on the central production of both GABA and serotonin, neurotransmitters that control pain perception, and for preventing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Whilst B6 is found abundantly in the diet, studies show that common deficiencies of B12 and B9 (Folate), can also indicate B6 deficiency, so it’s important to take into consideration if you have a history of anemia. In addition, those who have chronic alcohol intake are also at risk of B6 deficiency. B6 can be found in all animal products, as well as grains, pulses, eggs and dairy. However, you may want to consider a supplement that contains all the B vitamins to help boost B6 levels temporarily.
3. Increase Exercise
Researchers have found that vigorous bouts of exercise can increase GABA. In addition, exercise helps to switch on a regenerative substance in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) – helping create new and healthy brain cells and increases neuroplasticity, which prevents anxiety and depression. Engaging in just a small amount of exercise on a daily basis, as well as remembering to take ‘walking’ breaks away from the desk or the sofa is enough to switch on this ‘brain-protective’ mechanism.
4. Engage in a Mind-Body Movement
There is a significant body of evidence that demonstrates how practices such as yoga, can help increase levels of GABA in the brain. For example, in a study comparing the effects of walking and yoga in two separate groups, MRIs that were taken following these activities demonstrated significant differences. Participants in the two control groups did these activities for one hour, three times a week, over a period of 12 weeks. The MRIs revealed a larger increase in GABA levels in a part of the brain called the thalamus amongst yoga practitioners. The yoga practitioners also reported improved mood and anxiety compared to the waking control group.
A final word
These findings give us clues as to what our bodies need in order to maintain health and mental wellbeing. These simple, practical steps are easy to implement and can help reduce alcohol cravings and increase GABA in the brain. In addition, eating a balanced diet that helps to stabilise blood sugar levels, is also essential for preventing cravings. To help provide a sustainable source of energy, eating three meals a day which contain protein-rich foods such as poultry, fish, eggs and pulses, as well as complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, other root vegetables and brown rice, and a wide variety of vegetables, is essential. This helps to prevent anxiety caused by blood sugar lows and highs, which can also leave you vulnerable to craving alcohol and other substances.