What does Ginuary have to do with Mental Health?
You may have noticed that some people mark the start of the year by getting involved in “Dry January”, where they opt out of drinking any form of alcohol over the 31 days of January. In fact, 130,000 took part in 2021!
GINuary is a different kind of thing altogether.
Instead of abstinence from alcohol, GINuary is a celebration of all things gin, whether that’s writing about it, buying or trying new versions of it, or simply sharing and promoting the ones you like.
But what’s the connection between Ginuary and mental health?
For me this seems like a much more sustainable way to enjoy alcohol, reducing the potential negative impact on our physical and mental health.
While I can see the obvious benefits of encouraging people to consider their drinking habits and give their hard-worked liver a rest after the potential excesses of Christmas, it can be hard to forgo what many consider a valuable part of socialising. And as with diets, there is the potential to feel restricted and denied one of life’s pleasures, with the inevitable resentment and likelihood of rebounding back to it, which can’t be good – all things in moderation, after all!
Just for the record, I’m not suggesting in any way that if you’re a non-drinker you are missing out and should be drinking, nor that if you already drink gin you should drink more, to the point of irresponsibility. I simply hope that by sharing some of the world of gin I can inspire you to try something a little different from the mainstream brands of commercial gins.
My Love of Gin
I love gin. And I have loved gin even before the recent explosion of boutique and craft gins, which has just encouraged me to add to my collection! If you follow me on social media you may well have noticed my regular Friday night gin posts, when I share my chosen bottle for that evening’s cocktail.
Looking back over those posts, I’m not sure if I’m proud or shocked to realise that I haven’t repeated any gins this year…..told you my collection was extensive!
My “Friday Night Gin” posts on social media mark my weekly alcoholic treat to myself, and also function as a way to connect to my friends and family on Facebook and Instagram, who share their tipple of choice!
But what does this all have to do with Mental Health?
The ‘solution focused’ hypnotherapy that I practice, when supporting clients with their mental health, is based on developing a real understanding of how the brain functions, from a neuroscience perspective, and, importantly, how we can influence that functioning to get the most out of what I often refer to as our body’s control panel.
My background as a pharmacist helps here, too, and all my clients are used to me talking about how what we do and think and feel impacts our brain.
The alcohol in my weekly gin impacts my brain, of course; but there’s more to it than that. The feelings I have around my gin – the appreciation, enjoyment and connection to my friends – impact it, too, via neurotransmitters – chemicals my brain uses to communicate.
Let me explain….
The first gin I tried back in the 80’s was, like many, Gordons London Dry gin. My parents, who are not big drinkers at all, liked to relax with a Gordons G&T on a Sunday, along with the traditional Sunday roast, so I suppose for me, a part of of the draw of a G&T was nostalgia.
To this day, there’s a sense of ceremony and anticipation around choosing and pouring my Friday night gin that harks back to that sense of it being special.
Here comes the neuroscience bit
From a neuroscience point of view, that sensation comes from my brain re-playing the warm, family-related emotions from that time along with the memories, causing a chemical called oxytocin to be released in my brain.
Oxytocin is our ‘bonding’ hormone. It makes us feel connected to those we value and care about, so the comments and conversations my social media posts generate remind me that I have a network of people around me – friends who share my appreciation of gin.
We all need that feeling of having those who share our hobbies, interests and passions – it doesn’t have to be those we’re related to or in relationships with; simply having like-minded people that understand our interests is an important way to feel connected and get that oxytocin boost!
Jump forward from my introduction to gin in the 1980’s to the 2010’s and the explosion of gins that became available, with the selection available in every pub expanded far beyond just Gordons, with most proudly offering a wide choice.
This is where my gin experimentation started, with a Spanish gin called Gin Mare. This gin, with the addition of olive and rosemary to the traditional gin botanicals, was so different from Gordons that I was curious to see what else was on offer.
This curiosity and exploration of becoming interested in the history, heritage and culture of gin are linked to other neurotransmitters.
Learning requires a whole array of neurotransmitters (including acetylcholine and glutamate, among others) to be released in the brain to lay down memories, while how well we remember is influenced by others including dopamine and serotonin. You will have heard me talk about these last two before as they are linked to other brain functions such as happiness and motivation – we tend to remember things we enjoy more easily, which is why I can’t remember how to do algebra as well as I can remember the ingredients for a classic French 75 gin cocktail!
Neurotransmitters are also behind the enjoyment I get from finding a new gin, on a recommendation from a friend perhaps -that’ll be serotonin – and the appreciation of the beautiful bottles that gins come in these days. They’re a far cry from the plain ones that, to me, call to mind gin’s start as a juniper infused medicine distilled by Benedictine monks. The bottles in my collection are interestingly textured, coloured, shaped and labelled to evoke the history of their origin, ingredients or makers.
Turning them into ambient lighting with the addition of LEDs makes me very happy!
The effects of alcohol, from relaxation, to excitation and onto inebriation, are of course, due to its effects on the brain. You’ll be unsurprised to hear changes in neurotransmitters are involved, with some being boosted and others lowered.
One important neurotransmitter that is raised when we drink alcohol is dopamine. Dopamine is our brain’s reward neurotransmitter. It ‘rewards’ us for things that feel good, like relaxing on a Friday with a G&T, and encourages us to do it again.
This is where, if we’re not careful, things can get out of control. If our only source of ‘reward’ is from alcohol, you don’t need me to explain how that will end badly.
But if we can source dopamine from Positive Action – a variety of feel-good activities that may include sport, achieving something at work, completing a challenge or even just ticking things off our ‘to-do’ list – then the dopamine we get from alcohol is less important and less likely to lead to dependency.
The parts of our brain that communicate using a neurotransmitter known as GABA are the parts that are hijacked by alcohol, which mimics and then boosts the effects of GABA, making us feel relaxed and sociable at low levels of drinking and therefore more likely to engage in and enjoy the benefits of Positive Interaction. It’s why I enjoy my G&T most when it’s shared with friends – making the most of all the positive neurotransmitters like serotonin and oxytocin, that come from being together.
In addition, when we plan ahead for activities we know we are going to enjoy we also create dopamine and serotonin in our brain. And conversely when we reflect on the positive actions and interactions that we planned, we also get another wave of these feel good neurotransmitters. Planning ahead and reminiscing on happy memories are both great examples of Positive Thought. Sharing what’s been good about my week with my family and friends over my Friday night G&T adds extra positive thoughts in too, giving our serotonin levels another boost.
As a hypnotherapist, I talk often to people about sleep, and am very aware of the link between drinking to excess and poor sleep which happens when alcohol ‘overreacts’ with our brain’s systems, so again, I feel I should clarify that my love of gin is not about getting drunk, but more about that community and interaction between us.
Using alcohol in small doses to enhance social bonding was quite possibly how it came to be the social drug of choice today! Even some animals, such as baboons, have been known to deliberately eat fermenting fruit, to get the effects of the fruit alcohol, but who knows if they regret overdoing it the next day…
Gin has a rich, evocative and abundant history, stirring (or shaking!) our emotions as well as our neurotransmitters.
Why is it still so popular now?
I think it is partly because of its ability to be flavoured so variably, in a way that allows it to reflect the area or the history of a locality. Gins can reflect stories and folklore and legends with their botanicals in a way that wine, based solely on grapes, cannot.
Legally, gin has to contain juniper, and by tradition nearly always has coriander, some kind of citrus and a dried root such as orris or angelica, but other than that, it may contain any number of botanicals.
I have gins that, through their diversity of ingredients, as well as their bottles, evoke history and tell tales, sharing the history of their makers and their locality in a way that is intensely personal and endearing.
I try to buy a bottle of the local gin wherever I travel, particularly if I can visit the distillery – I have found without exception that the owners are so very passionate about their product and love to share that passion with visitors – back to oxytocin again, and bonding with other gin lovers!
Closer to home, in Maidstone, where I live, we have an especially old tradition of gin distilling. George Bishop, a particularly entrepreneurial and solution-focused gentleman, went to all the effort of travelling to Holland to learn more about distilling gin. By 1803, ‘our’ gin was renowned throughout Europe and allegedly the favoured gin of no less than Napoleon, as immortalised in a famous engraving from that time. Maidstone’s modern distillery is now run with that same passion and drive by a local couple, continuing the same entrepreneurial and solution-focused legacy of their predecessor. The new gin draws heavily on the imagery and tradition that George Bishop instigated, not least by making a brilliant, award-winning gin, and we can only hope that it becomes as successful.
So next Ginuary, remember that while gin is historically part of our great British tradition, capable of reminding us of our determination, encouraging our entrepreneurial spirit, preserving our heritage and celebrating our culture, as well an enjoyable way to relax and see in the New Year, and beyond, do make sure it’s in moderation or, I’ll be seeing you in my clinic for more than just poor sleep!
About the Author:Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
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