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Alcohol and Cortisol Levels: How Drinking and Stress Are Related 

It’s not uncommon to come home after a stressful day at the office and pour yourself a glass of wine, crack open a beer, or mix up your favorite cocktail. In fact, in much of American society having a drink to relax and unwind is just a part of life, especially when you consider how it is portrayed in movies, tv shows, and the media. 

While drinking to relieve stress might seem effective, there is no scientific evidence to back it up. The idea that alcohol can relieve stress is a wives’ tale, something that we have convinced ourselves of over generations. 

Recent studies done on the correlation between alcohol and cortisol levels have shown that drinking can make it harder for your body to rebalance after a stressful event. 

In this blog, we will take a deeper look at the connection between alcohol and cortisol levels and debunk the theory that alcohol relieves stress. 

At Sana Lake Recovery Center in Dittmer, Missouri, we help people recover from alcohol addiction through our various treatment programs and helpful resources. 

What Is Stress?

Any kind of change that puts physical, mental, or psychological strain on a person is defined as stress. Your body’s reaction to anything that demands focus or action is stress. 

Everyone goes through periods of stress. However, how you handle stress has a significant impact on your general well-being. 

How Does Stress Work?

Infographic about stress response

Scientifically and medically speaking, stress is anything that challenges the body’s normal function. Anything that can prevent the body from acting as it normally would be defined as stress. 

When our brains perceive stress in any way, it will signal to the body that it needs to work harder to overcome the stress. It does this by releasing various chemicals and hormones, including cortisol. 

Cortisol is an important brain chemical. It helps give us the extra energy boost that we need to help fight off stress by raising our metabolism level, increasing our blood sugar levels, and speeding up the conversion of fat and protein into energy. Cortisol is one of the reasons why when you are feeling stressed you may notice that your great rate is elevated, your body temperature goes up, and you perspire more. 

The amount of time this extra cortisol boost lasts can vary based on the stressor itself in addition to a variety of psychological factors. 

Are There Different Kinds of Stress?

While many people associate stress with events that happen throughout their day, that is only one type of stress. There are four different categories of stress. 

Examples of general stress include: 

  • Major life changes such as starting a new job, moving, relationship changes, etc 
  • Daily life events that can be stressful such as finances, work, school, etc 
  • Illness 

Catastrophic Stress 

Examples of catastrophic stress include: 

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes 
  • War 
  • Epidemics such as COVID 
  • Acts of terrorism 
  • Social upheaval 

Examples of childhood stress include: 

  • Family dysfunction 
  • Abuse 
  • Neglect 
  • Bullying 
  • The trauma of any kind (physical, emotional, sexual, etc) 

Those who are deemed to be minorities in this country are subjected to unwanted stress simply because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. 

How Does Alcohol Play a Role When It Comes to Stress?

One thing that all these different types of stressors have in common is that people tend to drink alcohol to try and relieve the stress that they are experiencing. As you can imagine, the more extreme the stress the more likely the person is to not only drink but drink a significant amount. 

In the short-term having a drink to “take the edge off” might seem as though it is working. However, what is often happening is our mind is playing tricks on us. Long term, drinking to relieve stress can do the opposite of what you are intending it to do and increase your stress levels. 

Drinking regularly to manage your stress can have significant adverse effects. For starters drinking regularly can raise your tolerance level which then requires you to drink more and more to reach your desired effect. Doing so can lead to changes in your brain chemistry as well as how your brain manages and produces cortisol. 

What Is the Connection Between Stress and Alcohol Use Disorder?

Regularly drinking to self-medicate, whether it’s to deal with your stress levels or any other issue can not only make the condition worse, but it can also significantly increase the risk of the development of an alcohol use disorder. This is true for any type of stress, no matter what category the type of stress may fall under. 

While you might think drinking is relieving your stress it is putting extra, unwanted stress on both your brain and your body. It is also slowly changing the chemical makeup of the brain which can cause the development of mental health conditions that can, in turn, exacerbate your stress and anxiety levels to a point where you require professional treatment. 

How Can I Deal with My Stress in a Healthier Manner?

After reading all of this you might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, so if alcohol isn’t the answer for dealing with my stress, what is?” Well, there are several things that you can do to address your stress healthily. 

One of the biggest stressors we as humans have in our lives is our inability to say the word “no”. While there are certain commitments that we have as part of our daily lives, not saying no enough and stretching ourselves too thin can put unneeded additional stress on our bodies and brains. 

While it might be difficult to do so at times, it is important to remember that sometimes it is ok to say no to a request or an invitation. While your first instinct might be to say yes, no matter what is being asked, you also must remember that you have to focus on yourself and your well-being as well. After all, if you burn yourself by spreading yourself too thin, you won’t be able to effectively fulfill your daily commitments which can add even more stress to your life. 

You have probably heard the expression “you are what you eat”. Everything we put into our bodies affects us in some way. When we put something into our body that isn’t good for it, be it food, alcohol, drugs, etc., it adds stress to the body and brain as the body tries to process it. The same goes for not getting enough rest or enough exercise. 

A great, and easy way to alleviate some of the stress in your life is to simply take care of yourself and listen to your body. Make sure to eat well, get plenty of rest and exercise, and, if you are sick or feeling off, don’t ignore it. The healthier your body and your brain – the more effective both can be in fighting off daily stress. At our facility, we have a personal trainer that can help each person adopt a healthy lifestyle before and after their recovery journey. 

Stress is a part of life and no matter how hard you might want to fight it; stress is something that we must live with. During those times when you are feeling overly stressed and want to turn to alcohol, put the bottle down and instead focus on your breathing. 

Yoga and meditation can be great ways to address your stress positively and healthily and, the best part is you can practice yoga and meditation pretty much anywhere. Just make sure wherever you are, it is a safe environment where practicing yoga or meditation can’t pose you or anyone else harm. 

At our Dittmer, MO location, we have a state-of-the-art yoga and fitness center to help people feel centered in themselves and their recovery process. 

What Can I Do to Address the Drinking?

If you have reached a point in your stress-related drinking where your drinking has also become a problem, then you might want to consider professional help to address both your drinking and your stress levels. 

Many treatment centers offer dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders such as alcohol addiction and mental health conditions such as stress and anxiety. By seeking professional treatment, you can get the help that you need to not just address your alcohol issues but any underlying mental health issues as well. 

At Sana Lake Recovery, we offer a variety of treatment options to address both your alcohol and mental health concerns including: 

Are You Ready to Address the Connection Between Alcohol and Cortisol?

Stress is a part of our everyday life. What’s important is the way that we manage our stress levels. So, the next time you find yourself stressed out or on edge, instead of picking up the bottle, consider healthier alternatives to alleviate that stress. 

And, if you are dealing with alcohol issues as it relates to stress, it is never too late to get the help you need. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help with your alcohol and stress-related issues. 

Lovallo, W. R. (2006). Cortisol secretion patterns in addiction and addiction risk. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 59(3), 195-202. 

Anthenelli R, Grandison L. Effects of stress on alcohol consumption. Alcohol Res. 2012;34(4):381-2. PMID: 23729049; PMCID: PMC3860387. 

Keyes, K., Hatzenbuehler, M., Grant, B. F., & Hasin, D. S. (2012). Stress and Alcohol: Epidemiologic Evidence. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 34(4), 391-400. 

Picture of Ashley Murry LCSW
Ashley Murry LCSW
Ashley Murry, LCSW, is the Chief Clinical Officer at Sana Lake Recovery. She oversees clinical operations, ensuring effective treatment strategies and compliance. Before this, she was Program Director at Gateway Foundation, managing care programs and collaborating with state departments. Ashley has also served as Director of Clinical Services at Treatment Management Company, improving staff retention and clinical standards. She holds a Master's in Social Work from the University of South Florida and a Bachelor's in Social Work from Saint Leo University. She is licensed in Florida, Arizona and Missouri.
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