By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
The coronavirus pandemic is causing a recent spike in alcohol sales, The Washington Post reported. Americans’ new stay-at-home lives are causing some people major stress, which is a factor that leads to increased drinking. How does it affect us biochemically?
According to The Washington Post, sales numbers for alcohol have skyrocketed since last month. “A recent survey by the market research firm Nielsen reported off-premises sales of alcoholic beverages across the United States have grown 55 percent in the week ending March 21,” the article said. It goes on to cite testimonials from Americans who mentioned a seemingly unending litany of bad news as well as uncertainty about illness, isolation, and the future of their careers as reasons for drinking.
However, it’s well-known that alcohol can cause problems for our brains and bodies. So what’s going on in our bodies when we reward ourselves with a drink or two at the end of a long day?
Alcohol and the Brain
The first thing to understand regarding our bodies and alcohol is how alcohol interacts with our brains on the biochemical level.
“Neurons in the brain typically communicate using special chemicals called neurotransmitters,” said Dr. Thad Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. “One neuron releases a bunch of neurotransmitter molecules and these molecules bind to receptors on neighboring neurons, potentially activating these receptors and producing specific biological effects.”
Dr. Polk said that recreational drugs usually bind to those same receptors but produce abnormal activity. While there are many differences between alcohol and other drugs, this is one area in which they overlap. Alcohol interferes with two key neurotransmitters in the brain—one of which is an excitatory neurotransmitter, the other is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. The inhibition of neural activity in both neurotransmitters explains alcohol’s sedative effects.
Alcohol and the Body
Increasing our alcohol intake also affects us in a variety of other ways, especially in the long term. Central to this discussion is our tolerance to alcohol, which changes for a variety of reasons.
“If someone drinks heavily for years, their body will begin to produce more of the enzymes that break down alcohol in the stomach and liver,” Dr. Polk said. “Having more of these enzymes means they can break down alcohol faster than they could originally. Consequently, less of the alcohol they drink actually gets to the brain, and so they need to drink more to have the same effect—that’s tolerance.”
Our brain contributes to this heightened tolerance as well. As was mentioned earlier, interfering with key neurotransmitters in the brain causes diminished neural activity. So what happens when this becomes a habit?
“In most people, alcohol produces sedative and hypnotic effects because of the way it inhibits neural processing,” Dr. Polk said. “But the brain of the chronic alcohol drinker has reduced its ability to produce inhibition. Consequently, alcoholics won’t experience the same amount of sedation; they become tolerant to the effects of alcohol, a clear sign of physical dependence.”
As we face our anxieties and fears about the coronavirus and its short- and long-term effects on our world, it’s understandable that many Americans are turning to alcohol to cope with the stress. However, biochemically, it’s important to exercise restraint for the sake of our bodies, both above and below the neck.
Dr. Thad A. Polk contributed to this article. Dr. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.