To drink, or not to drink: that is the question that the experts keep batting around, and the jury still is out. One week the news announces that red wine keeps the doctor away; the next it announces that drinking alcohol leads to cancer. For those on the love-to-drink side of the fence, a new study gives you something to toast.
The study, led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Bergen, analyzed data collected on 38,000 Norwegians. The researchers looked at drinking habits and mental health of the subjects, considering how much alcohol they had consumed in the two previous weeks and reviewing results of standardized tests that measure anxiety and depression levels. While it was indeed those who drank the most who turned up the most anxious, the surprise was that those who didn’t drink at all had an elevated incidence of anxiety compared to moderate drinkers. Even more surprising, though, was the fact that those who drank the least registered as most depressed. Those who hadn’t had a drink in the past two weeks were more depressed (and more anxious) than the moderate drinkers; those who abstained from alcohol completely were the most depressed of all.
It seems counter-intuitive that abstinence would bring on the blues since alcohol is a depressant, but in fact, the data showed that the happiest people consumed a few glasses of wine a week, or a bottle of beer, or a shot of hard liquor. To repeat, too much alcohol correlated with increasing depression, but again, not as much as complete abstinence. As the abstract for the study, published in the journal Addiction, concludes, “The risk of case-level anxiety and depression is elevated in individuals with low alcohol consumption compared to those with moderate consumption. Individuals who label themselves as abstainers are at particularly increased risk.”
But teetotalers need not despair. There is a silver lining in this study for them — sort of.
The reason for the increased depression, say the experts, probably has nothing to do with the effects of alcohol on the system, and everything to do with the context in which drinking occurs. According to study director Dr. Eystein Stordal, non-drinkers tend to be social misfits. “We see that this group is less socially well-adjusted than other groups. Generally when people are with friends, it is more acceptable in Western societies to drink than not to drink. While the questionnaire recorded non-drinkers’ subjective perception of the situation, a number of other studies also confirm that teetotalers experience some level of social exclusion.”
For those who don’t cop to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality at cocktail hour, here’s some more unsettling analysis from the pros. Time Magazine says non-drinkers “have fewer close friends than drinkers, even though they tend to participate more often in organized social activities,” and “have a harder time making strong friendship bonds.” And a UPI article says, “…abstinence may be associated with being socially marginalized, or with particular personality traits that may also be associated with mental illness.”
The experts do also note that non-drinkers may have made the choice to abstain not because they’re lunatics, but because they have health issues that prevent them from drinking, and those health issues may have an independent effect on mood. And in fact, according to Dr. Stordal, “We found on average that there were more people with physical complaints among the non-drinkers than in the other groups. These individuals are more likely to use medicines that mean they shouldn’t drink. But it may also be true that having such an illness increases a person’s tendency to be anxious or depressed.”
In other words, if you don’t drink because you have cancer, it may be the cancer that makes you depressed and not the lack of merlot. Or, it could be the medications you take to battle the disease are triggering your depression. On the other hand, if you had a drinking problem in the past, as did 14 percent of the subjects now on the wagon, you might still be facing the internal and external issues that led you to drink in the first place, and now you have no substance with which to soothe yourself, which would lead, of course, to depression.
If you do choose to risk being a pariah and refuse to drink, you can take comfort in knowing that a study several years ago found that after seven days of abstinence from alcohol, brain cell proliferation doubled, and after four to five weeks, new neurons formed in the hippocampus. You can interpret those findings several ways. Perhaps they indicate that ignorance really is bliss — the more brain cells you have, the more miserable you get. On the other hand, maybe the analysts need to go on the wagon for a month or two themselves so they might notice that many non-drinkers don’t have a personality flaw, a physical ailment, a mental illness, or a history of substance abuse — they simply want to be conscious, clear, and happily depressed without the use of intoxicants.