Alcohol as self-medication

Some people are by nature more sensitive to stress than others. It’s genetic. Such people might have a tendency to drink more alcohol to reduce stress-induced anxiety. This 'self-medication' hypothesis is confirmed by researchers of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition of Leiden University.

Provoking stress

Cognitief psycholoog dr. Lorenza Colzato

Cognitief psycholoog dr. Lorenza Colzato

Leiden cognitive psychologist Dr Lorenza Colzato and her colleagues asked healthy university students to hold their hand in very cold water for a minute and a half. This is a well-known procedure for provoking physical stress. All these students were carriers of a gene (the so-called BDNF Met gene) that increases sensitivity to stress. The participants were told beforehand that this would be a painful experience. Repeated tests were carried out to measure stress indicators, for example the level of cortisol in saliva, the blood pressure and heart rate. Subjects with a genetic predisposition for stress proved to anticipate stress sooner and they were more anxious during the procedure. These are the same subjects who drink more alcohol on a weekly basis than the people in the control group.


Self-medication to reduce anxiety

The researchers concluded that carriers of the BDNF Met gene are more sensitive in anticipating stressful events. The results further confirmed the hypothesis that alcohol consumption works as a form of self-medication to reduce anxiety in stressful situations.

L.S. Colzato, A.J.W. van der Does, C. Kouwenhoven, B.M. Elzinga, B. Hommel, 'BDNF Val66Met polymorphism is associated with higher anticipatory cortisol stress response, anxiety, and alcohol consumption in healthy adults'.
Psychoneuroendocrinology (2011)

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Last Modified: 20-01-2012