Drinking Alcohol May Prolong, Not Relieve, Stress

Stress can also change how booze makes a person feel and boost the desire for alcohol, study shows

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FRIDAY, July 15 (HealthDay News) -- Although many people think that having a cocktail will help them relax, the relationship between stress and alcohol is a two-way street, researchers say.

Alcohol can change the way the body manages stress, the authors of a new study pointed out. Meanwhile, stress can also reduce the intoxicating effects of alcohol, causing individuals to drink more to produce the same effect. As a result, turning to alcohol to alleviate anxiety or tension may actually make some people feel worse and prolong their stress, the findings indicate.

When faced with stress, a person has separate physiological and emotional reactions that occur at different times after the stressful event, the study's corresponding author Emma Childs, a research associate at the University of Chicago, explained in a university news release. "For example," she said, "the increase in heart rate and blood pressure, the release of cortisol [a stress hormone], and also the increased feelings of tension and negative mood each reach a climax and dissipate at a different rate. Therefore, drinking more alcohol might have different effects, depending on how long after the stress a person drinks."

In conducting the study, which was released online in advance of publication in the October print issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the researchers asked 25 healthy men to complete a stressful public speaking task known to increase heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of tension, as well as one non-stressful task for comparison.

Following the tasks, the men were given intravenous fluids containing about the same amount of alcohol as two typical drinks. Within one minute of completing the tasks, 11 of the men were given the alcohol followed by an inactive placebo 30 minutes later. The rest of the men received the placebo first, then the alcohol. During this time, the researchers measured the men's levels of anxiety, stimulation and desire for more alcohol, as well as their heart rate, blood pressure and salivary cortisol.

"The results demonstrated bi-directional relationships between alcohol and stress," concluded Childs. "Alcohol can change the way that the body deals with stress: it can decrease the hormone cortisol, which the body releases to respond to stress, and it can prolong the feelings of tension produced by the stress. Stress can also change how alcohol makes a person feel: it can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol or increase craving for more alcohol."

The study authors added that using alcohol to help manage stress might actually make matters worse. "Stress may also alter the way that alcohol makes us feel in a way that increases the likelihood of drinking more alcohol," said Childs. "Stress responses are beneficial in that they help us to react to adverse events. By altering the way that our bodies deal with stress, we may be increasing the risks of developing stress-related diseases, not the least of which is alcohol addiction."

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on risk factors for alcohol abuse.

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