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January 29, 2013

Food For Thought

Why Alcohol and Marijuana Have a Relaxing Effect

I often tell my clients that we are all a “chemical soup,” and that good health is all about balancing the “ingredients.”

When it comes to mental health, balancing our biochemistry is essential to our well-being. If one ingredient is off, it could mean a state of mental distress.

The Messengers of the Brain

There are messengers in the brain known as neurotransmitters. Many different neurotransmitters exist, and each one has a certain effect on both our physiology and our psychology. For example, serotonin is responsible for making us feel happy and dopamine gives us a sense of pleasure.

Alcohol, Marijuana, and GABA

There is one particular neurotransmitter that is implicated in the effects of alchohol and marijuana. This neurotransmitter is called γ-Aminobutyric acid, more commonly known as GABA.

GABA is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter and has the ability to actually calm down certain neurotransmitter pathways. The effect of GABA thus affords the individual  relaxing, anti-anxiety, and anti-convulsive effects. Are you seeing why people might like to use these drugs?

The primary reason many people use alcohol and marijuana is to help de-stress. The de-stressing effect can be attributed to the promotion of GABA.  That is, the drugs have an inhibitory effect on the nervous system, creating a relaxation effect.

There is a wide spectrum and many factors involved when assessing whether someone is addicted to a certain substance. Technically, when someone is addicted, they are physically and/or mentally dependent on the substance, and the stopping of the particular substance causes withdrawal symptoms. I argue that, although many people do not fit this description, they are still relying on these substances in an unhealthy way.

Alcohol, Marijuana, and the Autonomic Nervous System

There are two portions of our autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the fight or flight response and has afforded humans the ability to survive for so many years. The SNS puts us into action in threatening situations.

The PNS comes online when we are resting and digesting. This is when our body no longer perceives a threat and can begin regenerating and restoring our strength. This is when de-stressing occurs.

Everyone needs to de-stress and get into PNS mode. The problem is that many people do not know how to properly slow down their nervous system to get into a relaxed state. The reason is that they don’t teach us how to de-stress in school and, if your parents never taught you how, then you are off on your own to learn this vital skill.

Alcohol and marijuana offer a means to get into a PNS state by stimulating the release of GABA. 1 These drugs are a quick and easy way to slow down a busy mind and unwind from the stresses of life. The person feels more sociable, relaxed, happy, and less serious while GABA levels are elevated but, after an hour or so, GABA levels fall and then the individual wants more alcohol or marijuana. More importantly, the drugs are making up for a skill that the individual never developed.

The really unfortunate thing is that, sometimes, people are prescribed strong tranquilizers if anxiety gets to a non-functional level. These are highly effective at calming the mind in the short-term, but can be highly addictive.

Natural Ways to Increase GABA

There are many great ways to increase GABA levels and promote a feeling of relaxation that does not cause harm. Everyone has a different favorite activity, so I’ve listed a variety of possibilities below:

  • Meditation (all types)
  • Light exercise
  • Deep breathing
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Socializing (with the right people)
  • Yoga 2
  • Tai chi
  • Qigong

There are also some supplements that have a natural relaxing effect, and that can be used along with lifestyle modifications. They are also useful if an individual is trying to decrease or discontinue alcohol and/or marijuana use:

  • GABA
  • Taurine
  • Kava
  • Valerian
  • Hops
  • Passionflower
  • Magnesium

The Bottom Line

Everyone needs to de-stress. There are healthy ways and there are unhealthy ways. Healthy ways build and grow our mind, body, and spirit. Unhealthy ways are detrimental to our mind, body, and spirit. Choose the healthy way and, if you’re going to use mind-altering substances, use them responsibly.

– Josh


  1. Holford. New Optimum Nutrition For The Mind. Basic Health Publications Inc. 2009
  2. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. May 2007, 13(4): 419-426.