April marks National Alcohol Awareness Month, which campaign started in 1987 by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) to spread awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol and to educate families and communities about alcohol prevention. Now that we are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic during this time, it has been especially trying, as many individuals may be sick, out of work, stuck inside and fearful of the unknown. As a result, many individuals are turning to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with the stress associated with COVID-19. In fact, Nielsen has reported that sales of alcohol rose by 55% in March 2020 compared to a year ago. Even with this alarming statistic, it is more important than ever to shed light on why alcohol is an unhealthy coping mechanism, particularly when physical health is on the line.
Alcohol and depression
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows down the brain. It is also a sedative that causes a deep state of relaxation and drowsiness. This could be why many individuals use alcohol to cope with their anxiety or depression. Individuals may be drawn to the sedative effects of alcohol as a kind of medication to help distract them from the persistent feelings of sadness related to their depression.
Although alcohol may temporarily relieve some of these feelings, it will ultimately worsen depression over the long-term. It can lead to complications associated with depression, such as suicidal thoughts. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism can also result in an alcohol use disorder. Depression is not only a trigger for alcohol consumption but can also be the effect of alcohol use disorder. Over time, this depression can worsen, spurring the need to consume more alcohol perpetuating the cycle of depression and alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol and immunity
Our immune system is the main defensive system our bodies use to prevent any infection or inflammation. Our immune systems are comprised of a complex network of cells that release chemicals to fight off foreign invaders. Alcohol consumption in the form of binge drinking or chronic alcohol use can have drastic effects on our immunity, making our bodies more susceptible to the common cold, influenza, cancer, and other viral and bacterial infections. Alcohol works by interfering with particular white blood cells, known as T-cells, and their chemicals, known as cytokines. A single episode of binge drinking can result in an immune system failure against exposure to illness within the first 24-hours of alcohol consumption.
The link between immunity and depression
Research has been slowly linking the puzzle pieces together in regard to immunity and depression. It is believed that depression causes a lot of stress on the brain, and as a result, the body is stressed, which can lower the immune system, inviting infections into the body. On the flip side, studies have also found that when the body is under stress, it can trigger an immune response that, over time, can lead to depression, hence why many individuals with autoimmune disorders also have co-occurring depression. When we add alcohol consumption into this mix, it creates another link that can potentiate worsening depression for individuals with weakened immune systems.
Taking care of ourselves during stressful times
Because alcohol is known to worsen depression and weaken the immune system, it is incredibly important to nourish our bodies and refrain from drinking during stressful times. We currently are knee-deep in one of the most significant pandemics in modern history, and as a result, our bodies and minds are under an immense amount of stress. Many of us may feel triggered to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism to wash away our current stressors, but in the long run, this can create more stress, weaken our immune system and result in depression. During this time, it is essential to take care of our mental and physical health by practicing healthy coping skills, relying on our community support systems, taking care of our bodies and strengthening our immune systems.
How can we help?
We offer mental health and addiction treatment services for you and your loved ones. Our goal is to provide individualized treatment in a safe and secure environment so that you can live a happier, healthier and prosperous future. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health or are practicing unsafe coping mechanisms, please call us at (844-803-0813).
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Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics for the vital world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.