Eliminate alcohol and boost your nutrition and fitness for better brain health.
There are many reasons why we consume alcohol. It makes us feel good, boosts our confidence, pairs well with ritual habits, and helps us fall asleep.
However, drinking alcohol regularly or binge drinking will lead to an imbalance in brain chemicals resulting in the reliance on alcohol to make you feel happy.
The usual activities that bring you joy will not produce the same happy result because of what's happening in the brain. This makes it harder to stop at one drink or to avoid drinking altogether.
Your relationship with alcohol may be causing you long-term harm, and it is definitely something to consider as we enjoy the holiday season.
Read on to learn about the effects alcohol has on the brain, what dopamine and the hedonic setpoint have to do with it, and alternatives to cherish and nourish your brain instead of punishing it.
Wine a little, you'll feel better
Alcohol may seem like your friend in the short term while destroying your genuine relationship with life in the long run.
I personally have had a long love affair with wine. The quantity of my wine intake directly reflects my stress levels and circumstances.
I go through phases of what past boyfriends have called my "health kicks," where I can be unbearably nutrition and fitness conscious. Then there are the dark phases of excess wine consumption.
This pattern of ricocheting between extremes has gone on since I turned 21. When I'm in the wine phase, I tend to drink more days than not and often have a hard time stopping at one or two glasses.
As a result, I neglect my yoga and meditation routines and often have difficulty getting through my days with enough energy and enthusiasm.
It never seems like excessive drinking until it's stopped. Then suddenly, alcohol is removed from the picture, and the fog is lifted. Life becomes more accessible, yoga is fun again, energy is not hard to find, and clarity feels so damn good. I always wonder why I was drinking so much before.
Then life hits, and the pendulum shifts. A glass of wine helps with the stress. Two or three glasses really make things better. Then the next day is rough. I'm dragging and struggling to get through the day, only to make it home with a sigh and a need for a glass of the good stuff.
Does this sound familiar? The ebb and flow of alcohol consumption affect the waves of happiness.
I never considered myself an alcoholic. I'm a wino; there's a difference! All jokes aside, I use alcohol as a coping mechanism, only to discover that I've been sucked into the vortex of excessive alcohol consumption.
When I realize what I've been doing to my brain, body, and bank account, I rebound with a health cleanse, eliminating alcohol altogether. No problem, right? I always feel good during these healthy times until something stressful comes up and reminds me that a glass of wine would be nice.
And the pattern continues.
Why we drink
It's a big, scary world out there.
Working with patients in my acupuncture practice, I noticed that many people suffered from this same alcohol consumption problem. Why is drinking so prevalent in our society?
There are several reasons why we drink. First, we consume alcohol as a coping mechanism to manage living in a stressful modern world. Alcohol is part of our regular routines, such as a drink with dinner or during the game.
We tend to feel more comfortable in social situations when we drink, feeling a false sense of confidence as our inhibitions are lowered.
A nightcap may help us fall asleep better, as it relaxes the body and calms the mind. However, research shows that alcohol disrupts the second half of the REM cycle, which means the quality of your entire night of sleep suffers.
If you wear a smart watch or ring that measures your sleep quality and your HRV (Heart Rate Variability), check out the differences between the nights you have and haven't consumed alcohol.
Understanding the science behind why we drink will help us overcome the physiological and psychological barriers to fixing our relationship with alcohol.
It's all in your head
Dopamine and the hedonic setpoint are your recipes for happiness.
Alcohol, or ethyl alcohol (ETOH), is a depressant that releases chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins, into our brains.
Dopamine is our feel-good chemical that works in the brain's pleasure and reward centers.
Our brain naturally releases dopamine in response to doing things we enjoy, such as exercising, baking, or being outdoors.
Drinking alcohol overstimulates the dopamine-mediated pleasure centers, hence why drinking is so good. However, overwhelming these receptors cause our bodies to produce less dopamine. This leads to the reliance on alcohol to feel good and enjoying your healthier activities less.
For example, let's say you really enjoy yoga, and every time you roll out your mat, the brain releases dopamine, and you feel happy. By the end of the practice, you're content and smiling.
Drinking alcohol regularly floods your brain with too much dopamine, your body slows down in producing it naturally, and suddenly you don't feel any burst of happiness anymore when you get on your mat.
Your body now relies on alcohol to feel that burst of dopamine we love. We begin to physically crave the chemical response that currently only comes with the intake of alcohol.
We all have different natural happiness levels. Some people seem naturally uplifted, while others struggle to find joy. This concept of a natural level of happiness is knowns as our hedonic setpoint, which varies across individuals.
When enough dopamine is released through activities we enjoy, we hit our hedonic setpoint, and happiness is experienced.
Drinking alcohol bypasses this happiness level and, over time, will raise the hedonic setpoint threshold as it releases excessive dopamine. So we initially feel outstanding, then crash and become emotionally unbalanced the next day.
The more regularly we drink, the higher our hedonic setpoint becomes, the more dopamine we need to reach it, and the more we rely on alcohol to feel normal.
This process will heal when we separate our bodies and brains from alcohol. The longer between our last drink, the more our brains can heal.
Nourish your big beautiful brain
Swap the alcohol for delicious hydration and nutrition. Your brain will thank you for it.
Instead of reaching for that glass of wine or drink of choice, try substituting something more fulfilling for your body and mind.
Swap water for alcohol one night, quantity-wise, and see how good you feel!
Make your drink fancy to satisfy that adult beverage reward. Mocktails are fantastic and leave you feeling refreshed and hydrated instead of hungover and regretful. Be wary of excess sugar, though!
Green or cold-pressed juice is a great way to get your beverage on while rewarding your body with nutrients.
Hot tea provides the ritual, creation, and gentle sweetness that can curb an alcohol craving.
I love the company Kin Euphorics for an alcohol-free substitution. Enjoy a beverage day or night that is a carefully curated mix of adaptogens, nootropics, and botanicals that gently enhance cognition, boost immunity, and fend off stress.
Eat these smart foods to get the best from your brain:
Nuts & Seeds: a significant source of vitamin E, these healthy fats protect the brain's iron from oxygen exposure, which can break down the brain like a rusting piece of metal.
Egg Yolks: free-range hens lay an egg nutrient rich in choline. Lacking choline has been linked to insomnia, fatigue, and memory issues.
Avocados: with their plentiful amount of monounsaturated fat, blood flow is increased through the brain, blood pressure is lowered, and cognition is cleared.
Wild Salmon, Sardines, & Herring: these fish are essential for brain function as they contain omega-3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory properties. Disorders such as depression, fatigue, and dementia are closely linked to brain inflammation.
Blueberries: try them fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried and enjoy the reduction in age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.
Moving for joy
Physical activity releases dopamine to feel healthy, whole, and happy.
Whatever movement you prefer, pay attention as the happiness returns to your favorite activities.
Once the alcohol is removed or reduced, your brain and body can heal. This allows your dopamine receptors to regulate and your hedonic setpoint to return to your natural threshold.
Try this writing exercise:
Make a list of activities or experiences that used to reach your pleasure baseline but no longer do.
Now choose one of those activities to do once a week after eliminating alcohol, and notice how your happiness levels increase.
Walk on the wild side. Countless research studies show regular exposure to nature leads to better cognition and memory retention. In addition, nature walks help to reduce brain activity associated with ruminative, self-destructive thoughts (Newsweek- Your Body edition).
I'll have another
The most common drink ordered at any bar is One More.
Instead of getting hammered this holiday season or waiting to treat your body better for the new year, love yourself now.
The chemistry within your brain, when harassed with alcohol, is directly linked with your ability to live a happy and healthy life.
Start now and choose to nourish your brain and nurture your body. Don't worry, be happy now.
Let me know how you plan to reduce or eliminate alcohol and if this blog inspired you.
Don't forget to check out my favorite alcohol-free alternative drinks to substitute your daytime and nighttime drinking rituals: Kin Euphorics Holiday Duo kit.