It's been a rough day at work, and it's time to wind down. In looking for a way to detach from your stress, you might have a drink to take the edge off. The problem is, not only does alcohol diminish your capacity to adapt to stress by reducing your sleep quality and increasing inflammation, but, according to research out of the University of Pennsylvania, it's shrinking your brain.
Let's start with how alcohol impacts sleep. Yes, alcohol is a relaxing agent that may put you to sleep faster, but research demonstrates that when you fall asleep, the quality of your sleep is greatly diminished.
A 2018 study with more than 4,000 subjects found that alcohol intake was dose-dependently associated with disturbances in the autonomic nervous system, measured via heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a standard metric used by popular wearable devices to quantify recovery. Fewer than two servings of alcohol per day for men and one serving per day for women reduced HRV-derived recovery by 9.3 percent. Oh, and by the way, one serving is just five ounces of wine, not the full glass most people drink. When male subjects drank two full servings and females drank slightly more than one, their HRV decreased by 24 percent.
Chronic alcohol consumption not only decreases your sleep quality, but it also increases systemic inflammation and can cause organ damage. And one of those organs is your brain.
New research leveraging the UK Biobank and MRI data from more than 36,000 adults reveals that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption of just one to two daily units was associated with reductions in global brain volume. These changes in brain volume were equivalent to the effect of aging two years, and an increase from two to three daily units was equivalent to aging 3.5 years.
To make matters worse, the relationship between alcohol consumption and brain volume changes wasn't linear. It got worse the more the subject drank. Moving from zero to one alcoholic unit was associated with aging for half a year. But the difference between consuming zero and four drinks was similar to aging the brain by 10 years.
Let's face it. Alcohol is not a good solution for regulating stress. If you find yourself consistently wound up at the end of the day, here are three simple things you can do to lower stress and improve your health.
Get Into Optic Flow
Optic flow is a pattern of motion in which objects move past you in the visual field. Going for a walk, jogging, or cycling outside puts you in a state of optic flow, which has a powerful effect on your nervous system.
Optic flow dampens neural activity in the amygdala, a structure in your brain that suppresses feelings of fear and anxiety. Therefore, simply moving your body through forward ambulation can dramatically impact your stress level. The key is you must be outside. A treadmill or stationary bike won't work.
Practice Cadenced Breathing With an Emphasis on Exhalation
Our bodies are equipped with a unique neurological system that enables us to move up and down a continuum of stress and relaxation. This system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and it can be manipulated through breathing.
By performing cadenced breathing wherein the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation, you can immediately begin to shift your body from a stressed state to a relaxed state. As long as you stick to the 1:2 ratio, you can get creative with the duration of the breathing sequence. For example, you could perform two or three minutes of cadenced breathing wherein you inhale for three seconds and exhale for six seconds.
This simple mechanistic behavior can provide you with immediate stress relief and control when life feels out of control.
Finally, simply taking a few moments at the end of the day to take note of the good things in your life can profoundly impact your well-being. Research suggests that a gratitude practice can improve optimism and resilience, reduce biomarkers for stress and inflammation, and enhance sleep quality.
If you want to implement a gratitude practice, I suggest the three good things exercise.
First, write down three good things that happened during the day. Then, give each event a title and write down what happened in detail. Next, include how this event made you feel at the time and how this makes you feel later (as you are writing it). Finally, sit with the positive experience and let positive feelings bubble up and soak in.
Replacing your nightcap with these recommended behaviors will improve your physical and mental health and well-being. And if you find that you're having a hard time coping without alcohol, please consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for professional help.