Does alcohol relieve stress? Why we need more studies…

My Fellow Inebriates,

I’m still pondering whether our moving-related alcohol consumption is helping our stress.

What the hell is stress anyway?

There’s bad stress (distress), and there’s good stress (eustress).

Distress can make you feel like you’re in a life-threatening situation, even when you’re not

Distress is what we’re talking about when we experience flight-or-fight symptoms despite not being chased by a leopard. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and anxiety all arise from a threefold assault on the body’s systems—the central nervous system, the adrenal system, and the cardiovascular system—which, if prolonged, threatens homeostasis, or equilibrium.

Eustress, or positive stress, describes the feeling of completing a grueling run, planning a wedding, or completing a demanding task—mental,  physical, or both. While the same physical symptoms may present, the critical differentiator here is often that you’re in control of the situation, and the outcome corresponds with satisfaction and well-being.

And I forgot to mention the kids…

So if I spend most of my time trying to lose control, that’s stressful, right? In a bad way? And when I don’t manage to lose control, I find myself hanging out with characters like Scarybear and Fluffy, who scare me with apocalyptic and paranormal threats respectively (although Scary also throws in some old-fashioned physical violence). LBHQ is a stressful place!

(I haven’t even mentioned the silverfish in the bathroom, which Fluffy is apparently summoning from the Other Side. He didn’t think of doing it at the townhouse, I guess, but he must have remembered that particular Dark Power when we moved here.)

Okay, then, can alcohol help?

The stress response is much too complex for my two brain cells to understand, but apparently chronic stress initiates a cascade of equilibrium-adverse events in the body:

Corticotropin Releasing Factor (CRF)

  • The hypothalamus secretes CRF (corticotropin releasing factor), which gives the pituitary gland a kick.
  • The pituitary secretes ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormone), which gives the adrenal glands a kick.
  • The adrenals secrete steroids that affect temperature, appetite, arousal, alertness, and emotional state, priming the body to direct oxygen and nutrients where they’re most urgently needed.

All this is okay, but you wouldn’t want it to go on all day, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to chronic stress.

Researchers have found that stressed-out people will seek alcohol if:

  • Other resources are unavailable.
  • Alcohol is accessible.
  • They think it will help.

Wow! That seems like a bit of a no-brainer. What’s more interesting is that monkeys raised by their peers consume twice as much alcohol as monkeys raised by their mothers. And rats exposed to unavoidable electric shock (omg!) demonstrate a greater appetite for alcohol than rats who can control whether they receive a shock.

The take-home message is that lab animals are getting a lot of alcohol. So if the well is indeed drying up here at LBHQ now that the stress of moving is almost over, perhaps I could moonlight at a lab.

I contacted the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR).

Some studies show that low doses of alcohol actually improve the stress response and even enhance performance. Other studies show that alcohol initiates the stress response. Moreover, the response depends heavily on whether the subject is an occasional drinker or an established alcoholic. Stress may play a role in relapse among abstinent alcoholics, but genetics may also play a dominant role.

We definitely need more alcohol studies, using lots of different subjects, especially bears.

20 tell-tale symptoms you’re in an alcoholic abyss

This week my parents announced a drying-out period of indefinite length, initiated (in their case) for budgetary reasons and (in my case) because they are sadists.

Oh, there may have been some financial grounds. Most Canadian families spend 1.8% of their monthly budget on liquor, and my parents see this area as “trimmable.” Obscenely, they want to trim to below 1%. And just to ensure they reach the target, they’re not buying any booze right now. OMG!

After I spent an afternoon fruitlessly tweeting to various booze producers in BC, a very dark sadness came over me. I tried to cheer up by watching Dexter murder somebody, but I was preoccupied. Symptoms were creeping over me.

Holy crap, my fellow inebriates, have you ever tried to dry out before? If the idea fills you with as much horror as it does me, you might want to do this quiz.

Alcohol Withdrawal Quiz

  1. Do you get the shakes?
  2. Do you feel anxious?
  3. Do you feel nervous or jumpy?
  4. Do you get irritated or easily excited?

Maybe it’s just the DTs talking, but these four questions seem to ask the same thing, to which the answer is Yes, damn it. But let’s qualify things. I live in a house where any minute I might get ambushed by kids. They might slap a leash on me or chain me to a bed. They might give me a bath. They might introduce me to the next-door neighbor’s dogs. Liquored-up or not, I live in a state of constant anxiety.

  1. Do you feel depressed or fatigued?
  2. Do you have difficulty thinking clearly?
  3. Do you experience rapid emotional changes?

Yes to all four. But these are drying-out answers, not the usual answers, when everything is in boozy equilibrium. How can anyone be fatigued when they have 18 hours a day to sleep off benders? How can anyone be depressed with a fresh influx of alcohol? As for thinking clearly, did I ever, people? Just read one or two blog posts and you’ll see the answer is no. And yes, damn it, some profound emotional changes might ensue when you cut an animal off from the only thing it ever consumes.

  1. Do you get a headache?
  2. Do your face or hands sweat?
  3. Do you experience nausea or vomiting?
  4. Do you have trouble sleeping?
  5. Do you experience a rapid heart rate?
  6. Does your skin feel clammy?
  7. Are your hands tremulous?
  8. Does your body make involuntary movements?

These questions assume a different physiology from my own peculiar one. Do I get headaches? Sometimes I’m not even aware I have a head. I’m kind of like the tree that falls down in the forest when nobody’s listening. What am I doing when nobody’s around? Probably staring at the wall and/or getting my 18 hours of sleep (with my eyes open, they tell me).

Question 9 did make me curious about whether wild bears are supposed to sweat. Like dogs, they lack sweat glands except on their noses and tongues, so they suffer during the summer, seeking out streams and shady areas, not to mention panting. The more civilized ones pour a gin & tonic, unless their parents have decided to be assholes.

Tenderheart Bear

The family would be very surprised to find bear vomit around the house, although my friend Scarybear insists he leaves his scat out in the garden and that when the kids dig in the flower beds, that’s what they’re handling. I don’t know if Scary’s delusional about this or not, but he also thinks the Earth is reversing its magnetic field this week. Neither of us is clammy unless we get thrown in the toilet, and if I said we had hearts, well, you might equate us with Care Bears and want to exterminate us.

Involuntary movements are the norm at LBHQ. Most of what we bears are involved in is involuntary.

  1. Do you become confused?
  2. Do you have hallucinations?

Ahh, back to the brain. “Become” confused? That would imply having not been confused in the past. So the answer is no.

I have plenty of hallucinations and even get accused of having them when I’m not. I’m hoping Fluffy is a hallucination.

  1. Do you feel like you have a fever?
  2. Do you experience convulsions?

Back to physiology. Anyone with a coat of fur would be feverish in the summer. Next. Convulsions are another story. I have to keep those somewhat contained. If I spent the day going into convulsions my parents might decide I was too unwholesome for the kids.

  1. Do you have blackouts or memory loss?


And the results. If you haven’t guessed, you get one point for each yes. Add ’em up and you’ve got your score.

What an awesome score!

And if you got 3 or more, welcome to the Pleasuredome.