Why Drinking When You’re Stressed Is Risky Business

Why Drinking When You’re Stressed is Risky Business

Research Probes The Effects of Alcohol & Stress on The Brain

Here’s something to keep in mind as the holidays unfold: if you drink alcohol when you’re stressed, you may be flipping a brain switch that makes heavier drinking all the more likely. That’s the finding of a new animal study on the neural effects of drinking, and stressed humans should take note of the results.

David DiSalvo is a science writer and public education specialist who writes about the intersection of science, technology, and culture. He is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life, and the best-selling What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, which has been published in 12 languages.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

A group of rats was put under heavy stress for an hour, and 15 hours later their blood was tested to find out how much a sugar-water and ethanol solution they’d been drinking (rodent version of a stiff cocktail served at an open bar). The researchers found that the stressed rats drank significantly more of the solution than an unstressed control group. And here’s the really interesting part: the booze slurping went on for weeks after the original exposure to stress.

Yes, these are rats, and, no, humans aren’t rats, but the brain chemistry involved is surprisingly similar, offering a convincing reason to think a similar thing is happening in human brains when we imbibe while stressed. Scientists think high levels of stress reduce the brain’s normal response to alcohol, specifically the dopamine response in the vector of brain areas known as the reward center. When you throw back a drink in a low-stress situation, your brain receives the booze with a predictable reward center response. But when you drink in a high-stress situation, that response is subtly blunted–it doesn’t quite deliver the same chemical goods–which prompts more drinking.

At least that’s what happened with the rats. In fact, the process was profound enough to produce identifiable changes in their brains. The researchers reported that the reward circuitry in the rodents’ brains was visibly altered after the rats started drinking—neurons that would normally put the brakes on the reward response were switched to “go” mode, compelling the rats to keep drinking with no sign of stopping.

To figure out if the effects were reversible, the researchers gave the rats a chemical to restore the altered neural circuitry to its pre-stress condition, and it worked. The rats started drinking less of the booze and water solution as their brains returned to normal.

This research pairs up well with a wealth of recent studies showing that our brain’s reward center is prone to subtle hijacking. The slow roll of addiction likely begins just this way for many people, with stress playing a key part in triggering the process.

“The stress response evolved to protect us, but addictive drugs use those mechanisms and trick our brains to keep us coming back for more,” said study co-author John Dani, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.