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Alcohol and Mental Health: 5 Ways Alcohol is Hurting your Wellbeing

People and alcohol have a long, complicated history. Archeological evidence suggests that we’ve been producing and consuming alcoholic drinks from as early as 10,000 BC. Since then, alcohol production and consumption has had a profound impact on the course of history across the world; in various times and places, it’s been valued as a gift from god, to a public health danger, which leads to violence and moral failure.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has worked to raise public awareness in April of each year to encourage discussion and promote a focus on tackling alcohol-related issues. The theme for 2018 is “Changing Attitudes: It’s not a ‘rite of passage’” – raising a spotlight on the hazards of alcohol use by youth including binge drinking and the aggravating effects of peer pressure.

In universities and colleges across America, it’s no secret that drinking is a significant part of student culture. Research shows that more than 80 percent of college students drink, with nearly half reporting binge drinking (4-5 drinks within a two-hour period) within the past two weeks.

Given this year’s youth focus, in today’s blogpost, we’re going to look at 5 ways alcohol could hurt your wellbeing and success in school.

  1. Alcohol alters your chemistry
    Chemically speaking, alcohol is a depressant, which means that it lowers neurotransmission levels, which reduces the function of the central nervous stem; reducing arousal, stimulation in the brain. Other drugs that fall into this category include sedatives, tranquilizers and anesthetics. The chemical changes that can result from the use of depressants can impair thinking, coordination, perception and more. At best, the depressant effects can lower inhibition and create feelings of euphoria. At their worst, depressants can lead to nausea (and vomiting), unconsciousness and even death. It’s important that when you consume alcohol, you understand it for what it is and the unintended effects it can cause.
  2. Alcohol can exasperate depression
    While we’ve covered that alcohol is a depressant, it’s important that we don’t assume that depressants inherently cause depression. That being said, the evidence shows that alcohol can antagonize and worsen depression. Regular consumption can lead to lower levels of serotonin – a chemical that helps to regulate mood. Becoming dependent, alcohol negatively affecting relationships and feeling physically weakened after drinking can also all cause or exasperate feelings of depression or sow the conditions for it. Depression can significantly affect your motivation and ability to complete your classes, maintain relationships and succeed. And alcohol can aggravate it further. On an even scarier note, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that more than one fifth of suicide victims had a blood-alcohol content at or above the legal limit.

 

 

  1. Alcohol can damage your memory
    Ever woken up after a night of heavy drinking without the foggiest idea of what happened and how you ended up here? Blacking out or alcohol related amnesia happens when your blood alcohol rises too quickly and your brain temporarily loses the ability to create new memories. Research shows that some people are more genetically predisposed to blacking out than their peers. Obviously, a lack of memory is a liability – not remembering what happened can cause serious stress and anxiety.
    It’s not just short-term memory either – alcohol can impact your long-term memory If you’re studying for an important exam while drinking, you’ll be facing an uphill battle.
  2. Alcohol can increase risky behaviour; injury
    Hold my beer! While we often drink because we want to lower our inhibitions and increase confidence, it’s important to remember that these behavioural processes are also important for helping us make smart judgement calls. High confidence and a lack of judgement spurred by alcohol can lead to an overestimation of physical prowess (can you even do a backflip sober?) to a false assumption that you’re sober enough to drive. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly one-fifth of emergency room visits in hospitals world wide have alcohol as a factor. While a few scrapes and bumps might not dampen your studies, a serious concussion or life-altering accident could.
  3. Those who drink more fall behind
    Research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that students that students that reported poor mental health and consumed alcohol were 29% more likely to fall behind in school work. A 2013 study corroborates these results and finds that “heavy episodic drinking” is very likely to have negative consequences on academic motivation and performance; citing knock-on effects like sleep disruption, memory loss and more.

What can be done?
For students, avoiding alcohol entirely can be a challenge. In these cases, moderation is key. Being aware of the risks of alcohol, avoiding binge drinking, seeking counselling when alcohol becomes a crutch are critical ways to ensure that you don’t let alcohol negatively impact your mental health.

If you feel that alcohol has become a problem for you, get in touch with your school’s counselling and mental health support services to see a counselor or see if there are alcohol abuse support programs in your community. Acknowledging you need help – and seeking it – are the first and most important steps to taking back control of your wellbeing from alcohol.

And as part of Alcohol Awareness Month, the NCADD encourages trying out an alcohol-free weekend. Give it a shot – you might be surprised about how well you can feel (and productive you can be) on a Saturday or Sunday morning!


taking your lunch break can actually make you a better employee

In our first March blog post, we took a look at how eating a nutritious breakfast can help ensure you’re starting your day with a healthier body and a healthier mind.

While hobbits and some others might subscribe to the idea of a second breakfast and even “elevenses” (Middle Earth’s spin on brunch) following breakfast, for the rest of us, lunch and dinner are the other cornerstone meals of our day. In today’s blog post, we’ll focus on how important these meals are as well.

Let’s start with lunch. For many of us during the weekday, lunch represents the first extended break during the school or workday, where we can sit with colleagues and peers and chat, grab a favourite meal at the restaurant down the road or escape the office, relax and eat a snack in the park. Not only is lunch important for keeping distracting hunger pangs at bay but taking your lunch break can actually make you a better employee. In a Harvard study of nurses, higher meal breaks were linked with lower psychological distress.

And as the Harvard Business Review explains, what you choose to lunch on can play a part in determining your productivity at your desk: eating foods that release glucose quickly, like fries or soda, can lead to mid-afternoon slumps. Choosing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts or fish will leave you working smarter; not harder.

Another tip: if you have a cafeteria at school or work, try to choose what you’ll eat before you go to buy lunch (perhaps do some recon or find out the day’s menu ahead of time). This will help prevent you from submitting to cravings and spur of the moment decisions for foods that won’t give you the mental boost you need.

As for dinner, for those of us on the go, this can be the first meal of the day that we’re able to eat at home. With eating at home comes the benefit of a home cooked meal – but what if you’re not a culinary cavalier? Try taking a cooking class, which not only has social benefits but will equip you with the knowledge to take full advantage of healthy ingredients and whip up a nutritious meal. Studies show that people who cook and bake are more likely be happier and more enthusiastic about achieving goals. Similarly, a 2016 study found that teenagers with cooking skills were likely to have “better mental health, less depression and stronger family ties”.

Not to mention that on average, a home-cooked meal will cost less than take-out – reducing the mental health worsening effects of financial stress.

Another healthy dinner tip: try not to eat too late at night. In addition to several physical risks, like an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or experiencing a heart attack, eating late can negatively affect your memory and increase your risk of “bizarre or disturbing” dreams.

Just like breakfast, lunch and dinner have an important part to play in establishing better mental health and helping you go further. Taking the time to eat right can help put you on the path to a happier and healthier you.

For some more healthy lunch and dinner ideas, check out the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s many resources here and take a look at the University of Waterloo’s handy student survival guide for studious snacking!


Healthy Habits: Cooking and Eating Your Way to Better Mental Health

Have you ever sat down to a nutritious, home-cooked meal and felt healthier, happier and inspired to continue eating right? What about being worn-out and hungry, indulging on fast food and feeling more irritable than you were before? As we explored in our last blogpost, a growing body of evidence is showing that the foods we eat can influence our mental health. Conversely, our mood and our emotions can affect our food choices and eating patterns – the sadder we are, the more likely we are to forgo wholesome choices for unhealthier “comfort” foods.

If you think about it, these emotions and dietary choices can lead to a perpetuating cycle; meaning it can be difficult to break out of a bad food habits when you’re already feeling low. Never mind that many of the salty or sugary foods that we eat can have addictive qualities that can make it harder to break out of an unhealthy rut. So, how can we escape the junk foods that are making us feel like junk and start eating for a happier future? In today’s blogpost, we’re going to explore some small steps that you can take to help to build better nutrition habits and achieve a healthier body and healthier mind:

Stay Hydrated
We all know that we really should drink more water but why don’t we? In 2013, 40% of Americans were drinking less than half of the recommend amount of water daily. Instead, they’re drinking sugary or artificially sweetened sodas, which in addition to being bad for your body, are bad for your mind as well. Research shows that heavy soda consumption can lead to a smaller hippocampus – an area of the brain important for learning and memory. Even mild dehydration can alter our mood and make us more irritable. The solution: drink water throughout the day to keep your brain working at its best.

Simply, Substitute
As the title says, this one is quite simple: instead of abandoning your favourite foods, find ways to improve them with healthier ingredients. Love dipping potato chips in sour cream? Try veggie sticks with Greek yogurt. Can’t start your day without some toast? Instead of white, try some whole grain out for size. With healthier ingredients, we can transform our guilty pleasures into hallowed habits without totally abandoning our favourite meals.

Follow a Meal Plan
As a collection of our habits, routines for better or worse are responsible for our mood patterns over a period of time. Healthy routines will help sustain motivation and wellbeing; unhealthy routines will keep you in a funk. To escape the bad groove, set up a new routine and follow it, like a meal plan. Planning healthy meals in advance and sticking to it can ensure you maintain your healthy habits and avoid falling off the wagon. You can also try cooking your meals in advance when you’re not busy to stay on track when you’re pressed for time. Take a look at Harvard’s 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating for some examples.

Stick to Regular Meal Times
Life comes at you fast. Admittedly, we’re not always going to be able to keep our schedules flowing down to the minute. But when you can, try to eat your meals around the same times everyday and you’ll be ticking towards better mental health. As we explored in our last blogpost, consistent meal times can also lead to a healthier heart. And when possible, try to share your mealtime with a family member, friend or colleague: eating together can help improve your wellbeing and your partner’s wellbeing, too.

Big changes can be daunting, but the first paces don’t have to be. Making small steps can ultimately lead to bigger and better strides into healthier habits and a happier life. For some more healthy eating habits, check out the Mayo Clinic’s 5 Key Habits of Healthy Eaters.


Go Further With Food

Spring has arrived and soon, slumbering creatures will emerge from hibernation, ready to fill their bellies with nature’s bounty.

Which makes it fitting that March is National Nutrition Month. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has declared this year’s theme is “Go Further with Food”.  In our March series of blogposts, we’re going to explore the link between diet and mental health and how eating right can help you go further with your wellbeing and achieve more. Today, we’re going to look at breakfast.

At one point or another, perhaps as we’re running out the door, late to class or work, we’ve all been cautioned not to skip breakfast because it’s the most important meal of the day – but is it?

Yes – according to a 2017 study, foregoing breakfast could be hurting your heart. In response to hunger pangs later into the day, those who skipped breakfast were more likely to eat more and rely on fast food alternatives throughout the work day to meet their caloric needs. Those who ate breakfast at home generally consumed healthier alternatives to fast food and were sated longer, leading to more moderate eating throughout the day. And it seems that the American Heart Association agrees: people who adhere to regular meal times, including eating breakfast are less likely to have high cholesterol and blood pressure than those who skip breakfast. As we’ve explored in other blogposts, there is a strong link between a healthy body and a healthy mind – some food for thought.

So, we now know that having breakfast is important but what about what we’re choosing to eat in those early hours? Luckily for you, nutritionists and researchers have been working hard to crack the code on what you should be consuming to start your day off right.

Let’s start with coffee: a 2017 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal reviewed research that concluded coffee consumption had a “consistent association with lower risk of depression and cognitive disorders”. Additionally, a 2012 study found that drinking two to three cups of coffee a day was correlated with a 50 percent reduced risk of suicide. According to Psychology Today, coffee’s benefits on wellbeing can be traced on its effect on dopamine release – a neurotransmitter linked to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

Eggs, a long-time breakfast staple, have also been evidenced to enhance cognitive performance and can help pregnant mothers reduce the risk of developing schizophrenia in their babies. Yogurt and other fermented foods contain probiotics (healthy bacterial cultures), which have been linked to reduced anxiety and stress hormones. Breakfast favourites, like whole grain toast or oats release glucose slowly, providing steady fuel for the body and mind throughout the day. Fatty fish, like salmon, contain omega-3s, which can also benefit your mental health by reducing symptoms of depression and ADHD, while boosting learning and memory.

With all of these healthier options, there’s no better time than now to put away other traditional breakfast choices, like processed cereals and fruit juices, which loaded with added sugars, spike blood sugar and insulin, leading to an energy crash and irritability later in the day.

While the field of nutritional psychology is relatively new, there are thousands of researchers studying the link between diet and mental health and a growing body of evidence is helping connect consumers with options that are good for the body and the brain. We’ll explore more of these links in the rest of our March blogposts. Until next time!