There is increasing evidence that stress and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation interact with drugs of abuse and influence drug-taking behaviors. Both studies with laboratory animals and survey data with alcohol users suggest that acute or chronic stressful events increase alcohol intake. One mechanism for the increase in alcohol intake may be that stress alters the subjective effects produced by the drug in ways that enhance the reinforcing properties of alcohol. Therefore, in this study we determined whether an acute social stressor alters subjective responses to ethanol in humans. The stressor was a modified version of the Trier Social Stress Test, an arithmetic task that increases cortisol levels.
Twenty male volunteers participated in two laboratory sessions, in which they performed the Trier Social Stress Test on one session and no task on the other session, immediately before consuming a beverage that contained ethanol (0.8 g/kg in juice) or placebo (juice alone). Eleven subjects received ethanol on both sessions, and nine subjects received placebo on both sessions. Primary dependent measures were self-report questionnaires of mood states. Salivary levels of cortisol were obtained to confirm the effectiveness of the stress procedure.
Stress alone produced stimulant-like subjective effects. In the group who received ethanol, stress increased sedative-like effects and decreased stimulant-like effects.
At this relatively high dose of ethanol, stress increased sedative effects of alcohol and did not increase desire for more alcohol. It is possible that in some individuals, the increased sedative effects after stress may increase the likelihood of consuming more alcohol. The effects of stress on consumption at this, or lower, doses of alcohol remain to be determined.