Alcohol has been a constant throughout my life. I have pondered ditching it many times, but haven't wanted to commit to letting it go completely. It’s been a spice of life many times, but also a shadow in just as many experiences. Alcohol, booze, adult beverages, cocktails, “drinks”, happy hour…. This substance is so prevalent in our society. It’s EVERYWHERE. Now serving in movie theaters (that one just snuck in), grocery stores (why?), hair salons, painting classes…..its endless. Alcohol takes a scene in almost every movie and TV show. This celebrated substance is inescapable throughout the majority of the world. In this musing, I would like to bring in my personal experiences with alcohol, my experience working as a nurse and taking care of patients with alcoholism, and some research into what this substance does to our bodies.
I have had an awareness of alcohol abuse since my youth, as my mother suffered from alcoholism. I remember bottles of vodka and Wild Turkey in the freezer but didn’t really understand the severity of her addiction until I was a teenager. She was good at hiding it, as many are. But even with this knowledge, I wanted to try it at a very young age. The first time I got drunk, I was 14 years old. I gave myself alcohol poisoning, but still drank throughout high school. I got a fake ID at 18 years old so that I could go to bars with my older friends and take shots. In all honesty, there were moments of extreme freedom and fun, which is why I continued to drink. I got sick sometimes, I hooked up with random boys, and on rare occasions, I would black out. And all this was accepted and “fun” in my mind, and the minds of the majority of young people. I did this well into my early 30s.
I don’t drink in that way anymore, but as I began walking the path of self actualization and deepening my spiritual connection, I see alcohol with a different lens. Is this substance actually doing anything good for me? I took several month periods of time without it, but never quite wanted to give it up completely. The thought of letting go of this substance that is so linked to the majority of my social activities, frightens me. I don’t feel I have a physical dependence on it, or even abuse it, but I do realize that I have an emotional and social dependence on alcohol. Fact: I gave up dairy and gluten (pizza!!!) to reduce systemic inflammation, but choose to continue to drink alcohol - a known inflammatory. But if I took it out of my life…what do I do after skiing or hiking with my friends? What about camping? What about traveling and being on the beach? What about dinner to catch up with a friend? What about at a party? Or a concert? There are endless associations for me and alcohol, as I’m certain many can relate.
So I begin the deeper questioning of what I am actually dependent on. What is it that alcohol does for me? I feel anxious around a large group of people. “Will they like me?” “What should I say?” “Will they reject me?” It relaxes me, it calms my social anxiety. What if I was just MYSELF and who cares if they like me or not (I’m working on that one). The other factor is my deeply sensitive nature. In large social settings, I can feel so much of the energy around me and alcohol dims that, so I can “just have fun”. But what about in smaller settings, like dinner with a friend? It loosens me up, it allows me to experience joy more easily. Why is joy hard to experience without a substance? That feels like an important question.
"Why is joy hard to experience without a substance? That feels like an important question."
Perhaps it’s societal conditioning that’s made us feel like we can’t truly experience a good time without alcohol. When you watch the media, alcohol is typically depicted in ways that are celebratory. So if we're watching this stuff in our youth, and we’re watching our families partake, it would make sense that we too would grow to feel that alcohol is not only ok, but FUN! And sometimes, it IS fun! The problem typically begins to reveal itself after years of habitual drinking that sort of turns the corner into the “not as much fun” zone.
I’m convinced that alcohol was a major component in my last relationship failing. The level of addiction I have seen in the medical setting is even more upsetting. I have taken care of patients that have gallons of fluid drained from their pregnant appearing bellies 2-3 times a week because their liver is failing… and they continue to drink. Patients that are literally dying....and cannot stop. People lose their jobs, their relationships - their life crumbles around them. It is terribly addictive, whether it’s a physical dependence, or an emotional dependence. First we must have an awareness of the ways in which it affects our vitality and wellbeing with a curious mind, rooted in compassion. Then we can begin to dissect whether alcohol shall remain a player in our lives, or we begin the journey of relearning how to live life without it. For some it’s easy, for others it requires a complete life makeover. The good news is that more and more humans are questioning alcohol. There are more alcohol free events, and many bars now carry alcohol free spirits.
"First we must have an awareness of the ways in which it affects our vitality and wellbeing with a curious mind, rooted in compassion. Then we can begin to dissect whether alcohol shall remain a player in our lives, or we begin the journey of relearning how to live life without it."
So, here’s the dirty deets about what alcohol does to your body. I am a big fan of knowledge - after all, knowledge is power. I think it’s important for us to understand the “whys” behind our choices. My hopes are with this information you can decide what’s best for you and your relationship with alcohol. (P.S. I am sitting at a Kava bar sipping on a delightful kava drink while writing and researching this topic. This might be my new favorite place to work...WAY better for my nervous system than coffee.)
The More Immediate Effects
Let’s begin with the more acute effects. Alcohol increases activity in the dopamine neurons in the
reward pathway, as well as opioid cells that release endorphins. Both produce feelings of joy, pleasure, euphoria, depending on the type of activation. That’s why drinking can be so pleasurable. At least at first. The acute hangover is caused by dehydration, widespread inflammation, and the effects of too much acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol metabolism. Acetaldehyde is a major contributor to headaches, nausea, and fatigue and over prolonged exposure leads to liver and DNA damage.
Effects to the Gastrointestinal Tract
Alcohol-induced fatty liver disease occurs when excessive alcohol consumption overwhelms the liver's ability to metabolize and process fats. The liver normally breaks down fats, but when alcohol is present in large quantities, it takes precedence in the metabolic process. Additionally, alcohol-induced inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to liver damage, exacerbating the development of fatty liver disease.
Alcohol also increases the risks for certain cancers like, esophageal, liver, and breast cancers. The mechanisms aren't completely understood, but we do know some of the most harmful effects to the body could contribute. Alcohol overwhelms and decreases one of the main detoxification systems (the fabulous liver!) and we then become overloaded with metabolites or hormones that are meant to be excreted by the liver. The large majority of our immune system resides in our intestinal lining. We know that drinking alcohol disrupts the microbes and inflames the gut lining, reducing the efficacy of your immune system, in turn lowering your body’s ability to stop the growth of tumors.
Alcohol also disrupts the gut barrier, leading to increased permeability and allowing harmful substances to enter the bloodstream (think food sensitivities!). Alcohol alters the composition of the microbiome, reducing beneficial bacteria and promoting the growth of potentially harmful ones. This imbalance can contribute to inflammation of the gut lining which in turn can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Mental Health Disruption
I think this is one of the most important factors to understand with alcohol consumption. We are seeing a rise in anxiety and depression in our society. There are MANY factors contributing to this, but if you are experiencing these symptoms, here’s a slew of reasons that you may want to consider letting go of alcohol, or at the minimum, reducing consumption drastically.
Alcohol affects neurotransmitters like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play key roles in regulating mood. Disruption in these neurotransmitter systems can contribute to depressive and anxious symptoms.
Brain Chemistry Changes:
Chronic alcohol use can alter the brain's structure and function, affecting regions associated with emotional regulation. These changes may contribute to an increased vulnerability to mental health disorders.
Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to poor sleep quality. Sleep plays a crucial role in mood regulation, and disturbances can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
As alcohol leaves the system, withdrawal symptoms can include increased anxiety and mood swings. This can create a cycle of dependence and contribute to mental health issues.
So you Want to Quit Alcohol?
I have decided to stop drinking for the foreseeable future. I'm finding new ways of living and calming my nervous system - new ways of spending time in social settings. New ways to spend time with friends where it is not revolved around alcohol. There are many options! I am sitting at a Kava bar sipping on a mouth-numbing, nervous system-calming beverage. There are people playing chess, a sweet woman is knitting, there's at least 3 dogs here, others are working, or just socializing while sitting at the bar. It feels comfortable and social without having an emphasis on getting f*cked up.
Therapeutics to Help You Quit Drinking
There are many amazing herbs that can help reduce anxiety, improve depression, and contribute to better overall mental wellness. Let's highlight a few! ***DO NOT TAKE IF PREGNANT***
Kava (of course!)
People who live on Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga have used Kava for hundreds of years in social gatherings and traditional medicine. Kava acts much like alcohol on your brain, making you feel calm, relaxed, and happy, but without the negative effects. The plant is also thought to relieve pain, prevent seizures, and relax muscles. It's overall a fantastic plant medicine and very effective. ***WARNING: If you have known liver issues, please consult a professional before use. You may still be able to utilize this herb but in small doses.
This is a wonderful herb for calming the nervous system in tightly wound individuals. It can cool and relax digestion, reduce irritability, anxiety, headache, muscular tension, overt inflammation, and insomnia. A little goes a long way with this one and is really effective.
St. John's Wort
The Doctrine of Signatures is an ancient philosophy which refers to herbs which mirror different body parts to help with their healing. I love the fact that the leaves of St. John's Wort have little holes in them, letting the light through. This plant medicine has been studied extensively and works similarly to SSRIs. I have had personal experience with this working REALLY well to help me brighten my mood, and have seen my clients have success as well.
Iboga and Psilocybin
These are two psychedelic medicines that have been studied and found to help decrease cravings and help people experience more joy in their life without dependence on a substance. Both of these have become legal for personal use here in Colorado. Hallelujah because our society needs some assistance in remembering that even through the challenges, we can feel joy and connection to something bigger than ourselves.
Other Therapeutics that Can Assist You in Quitting Alcohol
Exercise, exercise, exercise!!! It's LITERALLY the thing that will lift your mood, increase longevity, and make life a hell of lot more fun to live. When you exercise, your body secretes dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine - all the "feel good" hormones. All you have to do is make a commitment to start. Go for 30 minute walks, do pilates, swim, hike, bike, yoga.....choose what feels good to you, because it will!
Studies have found that meditation can increase dopamine secretion. It also calms the dysregulated nervous system. Look, our modern life is hella dysregulating. Emails, texts, calls, meetings, plans, health.....blah blah the list goes on. We need a way to calm our hearts and our minds. Even if you take 5 minutes every day, you will be training your nervous system to go back into parasympathetic function.
Whole Food Diet
Listen closely....we cannot have a healthy mind, nervous system, or emotional wellness if we don't take care of our bodies. Every cell that makes you YOU is made up of the food and drink you consume. If it's fast, convenient, or has a barcode on it, its most likely not very rejuvenating for your beautiful body. It's also important to make space for indulging, but less often! And if you're just coming off the booze, you want to load up on detoxifying and antioxidant rich foods: blueberries, dark leafy greens, beets, purple cabbage, ginger, turmeric, lemon peel, carrots. Eat the RAINBOW!
Psychotherapy and Psychedelic Therapy
If you dig a little deeper, often the catalyst for reaching for the bottle is some sort of emotional dysregulation or discomfort. Begin to ask yourself these important questions. Why? What are feeling that you don't want to feel? What habits have perpetuated to avoid feeling a certain way. A psychotherapist may be able to ask you thought provoking questions to get to the root. Take it a step further and utilize these fantastic plants and fungi that our dear Mama Gaia is providing so that we may heal.
You got this.