New research on drinking and anxiety
Photo: Jay Muckle/Studio D
Nearly everyone has taken a stiff belt to shake inhibition. Whether you're mustering the courage to cut loose on the dance floor, approach someone gorgeous, or make a point at a dinner party, a glass of wine can loosen lips and hips while eliminating self-doubt. But our sudden confidence can't be explained by intoxication alone, which is just the result of alcohol interfering with nerve signals. Recent research suggests drink does much more than make us stupid or incautious: It boosts levels of a brain chemical that calms anxious thoughts. And these findings indicate that you can achieve the same effect without booze.

Scientists have been turning up links between anxiety and alcoholism for a couple of decades, though few had spent much time figuring out how the two are related. A couple of years ago, Subhash Pandey, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began offering rats a drink—rats that had been bred to dislike alcohol and others bred to crave it. After analyzing a section of the rats' brains known as the amygdala—it's where emotions are processed—Pandey found that the drinkers were suspiciously low in a protein called CREB that helps nourish key neurotransmitters in the amygdala. Pandey theorized that when the rats—and by extension, humans—are low in CREB, those neurotransmitters wither, and communication between neurons suffers. The outward result is anxiety, driving the urge to hit the bottle—hard.

To test his theory, Pandey monitored brain activity in alcoholic rats as they drank. Sure enough, soon after the first sip of alcohol, CREB levels shot up and anxious behavior subsided. Next he injected the rats with a chemical that boosted CREB function, and, magically, the rats drank much less. To complete his test, he injected alcohol-avoiding rats with a substance that blocked CREB function. Right on cue, the teetotaling rats became anxious and began hitting the alcohol-containing bottle.

Pandey's focus has been alcoholism, but he believes that even casual drinkers may be unconsciously seeking a CREB boost. "Without question, mildly low levels of CREB could explain the kind of anxiety seen in inhibition," he says. Other research points to nonalcoholic means of triggering this brain protein, including regular exercise, music, and antidepressants like Prozac. In one study, a beta-blocker called propranolol—it's favored by performers and public speakers—helped raise levels of a CREB-related gene. Pandey believes his results will lead to more effective alcoholism treatment. But the findings can also help anyone looking to shed their shy ways. And it's nice to have alternatives to alcohol, especially for those of us who have ever blurred the line between loss of inhibition and loss of control.