A few drinks can relax you – but, says scientist David Nutt, that morning-after feeling is the booze playing tricks with your brain
If you are looking forward to your first stiff drink after a dry January, be warned: it may feel bittersweet. You may feel you deserve an alcoholic beverage after toughing it out all month – but have you forgotten what it feels like to wake up haunted by worries about what you said or did the night before? These post-drinking feelings of guilt and stress have come to be known colloquially as “hangxiety”. But what causes them?
David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, is the scientist who was fired in 2009 as the government’s chief drug adviser for saying alcohol is more dangerous than ecstasy and LSD. I tell him I have always assumed my morning-after mood was a result of my brain having shrivelled like a raisin through alcohol-induced dehydration. When Nutt explains the mechanics of how alcohol causes crippling anxiety, he paints an even more offputting picture.
Alcohol, he says, targets the Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor, which sends chemical messages through the brain and central nervous system to inhibit the activity of nerve cells. Put simply, it calms the brain, reducing excitement by making fewer neurons fire. “Alcohol stimulates Gaba, which is why you get relaxed and cheerful when you drink,” explains Nutt.
The first two drinks lull you into a blissful Gaba-induced state of chill. When you get to the third or fourth drink, another brain-slackening effect kicks in: you start blocking glutamate, the main excitatory transmitter in the brain. “More glutamate means more anxiety,” says Nutt. “Less glutamate means less anxiety.” This is why, he says, “when people get very drunk, they’re even less anxious than when they’re a bit drunk” – not only does alcohol reduce the chatter in your brain by stimulating Gaba, but it further reduces your anxiety by blocking glutamate. In your blissed-out state, you will probably feel that this is all good – but you will be wrong.