National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

By Pam Machemehl Helmly - January 22, 2019


Whether it is an addiction to alcohol, smoking, drugs, technology, or food, they all stimulate the pleasure center or reward system in the brain creating a feeling of happiness, well-being and excitement. In children, the addiction to technology may feel like the only break that parents get while they are staring solidly at the screen. The hard part for children is pulling away from the technology because of the dopamine that is being excreted. Transitioning can be difficult for any of us that are addicted to technology. These feelings occur when nerve cells (neurons) release neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that bind to receptor sites where they either increase or decrease the action of other neurons. The pleasure center of the brain gets stimulated when we consume certain chemicals or substances. This promotes feelings of joy, focus and motivation. However, when the effects of these substances wear off, symptoms of anxiety, low mood, poor sleep, and/or negative feelings come back. It is a vicious cycle. The addictive substance is used again to increase dopamine to feel better, but over time dopamine levels decline and it takes more of the substance to get a similar response or a new substance is sought out to obtain those feelings. And there is the cycle that can drive us to use more alcohol, drugs, food or technology than is good for our health.

Alcohols effects on Neurotransmitters

While the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a large role with alcohol and other substance abuse due to its effect on the reward pathway, it is also key to point out that our primary calming neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin are also key players. When alcohol is consumed infrequently, such as the occasional drink with friends, it acts like a depressant by increasing levels of GABA and decreasing excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters such as glutamate. It essentially slows down the communication between nerve cells which results in alcohols anti-anxiety effects, but also lowered cognitive function, judgement and fine motor skills. If alcohol is consumed repeatedly, it can be a long-term depressant. It does appear that most folks tend to use alcohol as an anti-anxiety drug. Of course, alcohol can be found in many places such as certain cough medicines, herbal preparations and the typical beer, wine and spirits.

Alcohol and Sleep

While that glass of red wine or scotch sounds like a good idea before bed to help you fall asleep, it actually disrupts your sleep cycle in the latter phase which can result in waking in the middle of the night. Getting less hours of the restorative REM sleep can leave you feeling tired and less refreshed in the morning. Alcohol causes us to excrete GABA so it is initially calming, however it does disrupt our sleep cycle in the end.

Studies show that long-term, consistent alcohol consumption may have the opposite effect on GABA by decreasing its receptor site sensitivity. What this means is that the GABA that's being released becomes inefficient and does not produce its calming effects like it used to. Excess alcohol consumption also causes one of our most stimulating neurotransmitters, known as glutamate, levels to increase. Excess glutamate can result in increased agitation, impulsivity, and anxiety. Over time, elevated glutamate can also lead to excitotoxicity (the damage of nerve cells resulting from excess stimulation). Glutamate can also be accidentally consumed as MSG in the diet. It can cause problems whether in food or as a result of consuming alcohol with problems such as migraine headaches. When the stimulating or excitatory neurotransmitters over-excrete, unfortunately, the calming ones like serotonin and GABA get depleted. Studies also show that having low levels of our primary mood and behavior neurotransmitter serotonin increases cravings for alcohol and/or other drugs making it harder to reduce overall alcohol intake despite our best efforts.

Alcohols effect on Vitamin and Mineral Balance

The liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol in the body. It requires additional enzymes, vitamins and minerals to perform this function. These same nutrients that are being depleted are needed for other processes in the body. Alcohol depletes b-vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc which are needed for numerous other metabolic processes including the synthesizing neurotransmitters, wound healing, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Because alcohol also acts as a diuretic, meaning it increases urination too. Our electrolyte balance (sodium, chloride and potassium) can also be disrupted. The diuretic effects of alcohol can occur within 20 minutes after having a drink. Studies also show that excess alcohol consumption leads to increased calcium and magnesium loss, two nutrients that when depleted can lead to muscle spasms, bone loss, and impaired vitamin D metabolism. The increased loss of these vital nutrients can lead to fatigue, experiencing low mood, poor focus and concentration, but also the negative feelings associated after a night of overindulging.

Drug effects on Nutrient Balance

72% of drugs whether they are prescription or recreational deplete the body of certain vitamins, minerals and important co-factors. It is always best to check with your nutritionist to see if you should be supplementing those birth control pills with a B complex to avoid depression or CoEnzyme Q10 with a statin or cholesterol medication. Keep in mind that drinking energy drinks can also deplete the body. Caffeine is an over the counter drug that depletes serotonin and has a diuretic effect so we can lose electrolytes with those large coffee drinks as well. There are many situations where we need medications, but we do need to supplement the body to stay healthy throughout the process. When we see excessive marijuana usage, GABA levels become quite depleted. This is our most abundant calming neurotransmitter that helps us respond to stress properly and regulates our sleep cycle. It is all about the balance!

Foods as Drugs

When I was first in college, they did not believe that food could be addictive. Now we have quite a bit of evidence that shows that sugars and carbohydrates can be addictive to the brain. We have seen in many clients over the last 17 years that low serotonin (that very important calming neurotransmitter) can lead to carbohydrate and sugar addiction. If food is not consumed properly, in a balanced fashion matching proteins and carbohydrates throughout the day, we can see cravings.

Now What?

Remember it is all about BALANCE! Be sure to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water every day, eat 3-4 servings of high-quality lean protein, and take a professional-grade multivitamin and mineral supplement daily. It is also important to focus on eating whole foods and a variety of fruits and vegetables 80% of the time. Consider drinking a full glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. Also, we have to maintain a healthy GI tract to have a healthy brain. If interested in checking to see what neurotransmitter imbalances may be playing a role in your brain health, consider Wellnicity's My Brain Balance test kit. It checks for the 7 main neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, glutamate, and histamine. This would provide a better understanding of why you may be experiencing cravings, low mood, anxiety, focus/memory issues, and sleep cycle disturbances.