Alcohol & Stress: At Risk for Alcoholism?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Research and population surveys have shown that persons under stress , particularly chronic stress, tend to exhibit more unhealthy behaviors than less-stressed persons. Stressed people drink more alcohol, smoke more, and eat less nutritious foods than non-stressed individuals. Many people report drinking alcohol in response to various types of stress, and the amount of drinking in response to stress is related to the severity of the life stressors and the individuals' lack of social support networks.

While some research studies show that alcohol in low doses may lessen the body's response to stressors, paradoxically, many studies show just the opposite effect, i.e., that alcohol actually increases the stress response by stimulating production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress.

These observations are particularly interesting given that most people report that they drink alcohol to reduce stress, and the explanation for this apparent contradiction remains unknown. It may be that the mild arousal effect of the stress hormones released upon alcohol consumption is not entirely unpleasant. Genetic variations in the ways our bodies respond to stress also likely play a role in how alcohol affects our bodies in stress situations.

There is little evidence that stress leads to the development of true alcohol dependency or alcoholism. However, stress is strongly associated with alcohol abuse- the misuse of alcohol as self-medication or "therapy." Stress may also be associated with episodes of binge drinking.