Stress and alcohol consumption go hand in hand. Anyone who’s ever hit the bottle after a grueling week of work or a particularly traumatic election cycle will probably understand the feeling. But it was never clear why that was the case. Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that sheds light on what happens in the brain to cause us to drink more when we’re stressed out. And the findings could especially benefit those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to the research published in Neuron, stress leads to changes in the brain’s reward system which ends up encouraging more alcohol consumption. Researchers conducted the study by exposing rats to acute stress for one hour. 15 hours later, they measured the amount of sugar water laced with ethanol the mice consumed. Compared to controls, stressed mice didn’t respond as well to dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, so they tended to self-medicate with alcohol in dramatically greater volumes. And this effect lasted for several weeks.
“The stress response evolved to protect us, but addictive drugs use those mechanisms and trick our brains to keep us coming back for more,” said the study’s lead author, John Dani, PhD.
But the research also comes with good news. Scientists successfully reversed the effects by giving rats a chemical called CLP290. The chemical restored the brain’s circuitry back to normal, which in turn corrected the firing of dopamine neurons.
“These effects happen at the minute level of potassium, chloride, and other ions moving across the neuron outer membrane via channels and transporters,” Dani said. “In addition, by chemically blocking stress hormone receptors on neurons, we prevented stress from causing increased drinking behavior.”
This could have great implications for people who suffer from PTSD, a chronic form of anxiety disorder caused when someone experiences a traumatic event. Warfare or sexual assault are just two examples of common events that can trigger the condition.
While it’s normal and evolutionarily beneficial for humans to react to dangerous situations with a heightened sense of anxiety, it becomes a problem when the feelings of panic last long after the danger is over. The condition tends to lead people to heavy substance and alcohol abuse as they struggle internally with depression and recurring panic attacks.
If we can come up with a way to offer relief from alcohol addiction and combine that medication with other treatment options for PTSD sufferers, it would go a long way to help them as they try to return to living normal lives again.