When you hear have “a cup of cheer” this holiday season, it may be more than just a figure of speech. A new study shows that when clinically depressed people have a few drinks, it actually makes them feel better.
This flies in the face of the “conventional wisdom” that alcohol acts only as a depressant. And it also debunks the idea that the euphoria, excitement, exhilaration, or energy we experience after a couple drinks aren’t real feelings. So-called experts have always claimed these feelings occur because the alcohol “deadens” our brain and body’s signals that tell us we’re tired, worried or unhappy.
But this new study found that alcohol actually produces the same neurological effects as quick-acting antidepressant drugs (the ones that actually do work). In other words, alcohol doesn’t simply dull or deaden the thoughts and feelings that lead to depression, as many people have assumed. Instead, it has a physiological antidepressant effect.
And the news gets even better. The researchers found that alcohol can also improve a person’s mood for at least 24 hours.
Raise your spirits with spirits
The researchers discovered that alcohol follows the same biochemical pathways in laboratory animals as so-called rapidly acting antidepressants like Ketamine. (A single dose of Ketamine has been shown to relieve depressive symptoms within hours, and lasts for up to two weeks, even in the many people who don’t respond to typical antidepressant drugs.)
The researchers also found that alcohol produced euphoric feelings in lab animals.
This is not news to forensic pathologists and toxicologists (my own practice specialty of medicine). Thousands of studies over many years have shown the following effects of alcohol intoxication.
After two to three drinks over one to two hours (0.03 to 0.12% blood alcohol), a “euphoria” stage ensues in most people. (Although smaller women might want to limit their drinks to one or two over the same period.)
Sociability, talkativeness, self-confidence, and lowered inhibitions characterize this euphoric stage — but with some loss of attention and control.
Ultimately, what’s not to like about this moderate amount of alcohol for after-work hours or holiday revelry? It sounds like a generally desirable antidepressant effect. (As long as you’re not getting behind the wheel, of course. In many states, it’s a crime to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher. Whether or not that level truly impairs your driving ability is debatable. But either way, it’s better to not spend the holidays behind bars.)
However, I typically advise you stop things right there, because….
After four to five drinks over one to two hours (0.09 to 0.25% blood alcohol) in most people, an “excitement” stage takes over — characterized by emotionality, loss of inhibitions, and loss of judgment.
There is also decreased sensatory response. So, as Shakespeare famously wrote, “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” Why go there? Especially because…
After six or more drinks over a short time period, many people experience confusion, stupor, coma, or even death. Obviously, this is far more drinking than you ever want to do.
The confusion stage includes disturbances of sensory perception, such as double vision and the proverbial “blind drunk,” because the eight extra-ocular muscles that allow the two eyes to focus together for visual convergence won’t work anymore. And in the stupor phase, there is inability to stand or walk — the proverbial “falling down drunk” — because the skeletal muscles become uncoordinated.
Know when to say when
Hopefully you’ll never need this information. But just in case, you now know what to avoid, and what to look for in someone who becomes dangerously inebriated during the holidays.
These are the “problem drinkers” who are typically involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents, in my experience. They are not the people who had one drink too many, but rather a half-dozen drinks too many.
But instead of focusing on these problem drinkers, the government seems to harass good citizens who have become afraid to get behind the wheel after having a glass of wine with dinner.
(We don’t yet have this level of scientific detail in drivers who are intoxicated on drugs such as marijuana. But make no mistake — they are just as intoxicated or more so, and with the skyrocketing motor vehicle fatalities to show for it in states where marijuana has been legalized.)
The nonalcoholic way to boost your spirits
Aside from the antidepressant effects of moderate, social drinking, there are the mood-boosting benefits of simply being social itself.
Don’t believe me? Try going to a holiday party and not having a drink. You will probably still feel a lot of what happens in the “euphoria” stage of alcohol consumption — simply from the social interaction and festive holiday surroundings.
I think that’s because there is something in the atmosphere at this time of year. It is not just the nip in the air and the chestnuts roasting, etc. — because I have felt it all over the world, in any kind of weather, at this time of year, from Southeast Asia to South America.
There is a collective consciousness and a kind of positive energy in the air when everyone eases up and enjoys the moment. And science is beginning to show how these kinds of positive personal and collective energies can be projected and influenced.
So this holiday, take the time to savor the season. And remember that the terms “raising spirits” and the “spirit of the season” can have more than one meaning.
- “FMRP regulates an ethanol-dependent shift in GABABR function and expression with rapid antidepressant properties.” Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12867