The UK is utterly obsessed with alcohol. Here, we have a drink to accompany a whole scale of emotion. Wedding? Happy drink. Funeral? Sad drink. Catching up with a friend? Relaxed drink. Lost your job? Let’s‑get-fucked drink. Dumped? Heartbreak drink. You get the picture.
And when the sun rears its head, consuming alcohol almost becomes – or at least feels – obligatory. Perhaps it’s because us Brits are so shellshocked, having spent most of the year in pissing down rain, battling gale force winds and huddling under icy bus shelters. A British summer, when you really strip it back, is two and a half weeks of proper sun. When that rolls round, you simply must be in a pub garden, condensation running down the outside of your pint glass and the smell of Watermelon Ice Lost Mary perfuming the air. It’s like a chemical reaction.
But why is this? Besides being, well, fun, what is it about the sun that makes us crave a bev? I asked Rayyan Raja Zafar, a researcher at Drug Science. Apparently, it is a chemical reaction after all. It’s down to two things: neurotransmitters and something called “cue reactivity” – which sounds like a synth pop band from the ’80s.
“The first thing is the direct effect of sunlight on your body,” he tells THE FACE. “When you’re out in sunlight, your body releases serotonin and also endorphins, your natural hormones that regulate mood and pain relief.” It turns out when it’s sunny, your whole body changes. For some people, it gets into a sesh mode and a little gremlin perches on their shoulder, leans in and gently whispers into their ear, “Get the pints in.” For some, this creature will reappear later on, usually between the third and fourth pint, to suggest you go in threes on a bag of coke.
“You have a boost in mood as soon as you’re in the sun, not just because it’s a nice day but because your body actually warms up and the cells start releasing serotonin,” Zafar explains. “It puts your body into quite a relaxed state and then it activates these pain-relieving hormones. And the combination of those two makes you a bit more sociable.”
That relaxed state can attract you towards a pub like it’s a magnet made of extortionately-priced pale ale and salt and vinegar crisps opened out on the table for communal consumption. “It might motivate someone to want to drink in the sun to enhance the sociable feelings they already have.
The other thing happening, Zafar tells me, is to do with ways in which your brain associates external cues to internal feelings and how that creates unconscious motivation for us to behave in a certain way (i.e. six pints on a school night). “When you look at cues in the environment, you exhibit a behaviour because it makes you feel good,” he says. “When you see an advert about ice cream or chocolate you might think, ‘Oh, I want ice cream or chocolate.’ You make this a learned association over time. When you sit in the sun and you associate the sun with drinking, that behaviour over time becomes ingrained.”
“It’s a subconscious reaction in your brain that motivates you to want to grab a drink. Your brain learns over time to associate the sun with drinking, and then feeling good. And that’s related to your dopamine system. The process is called ‘cue reactivity’.”
According to Danielle Houliston, the Director of Fundraising and Engagement at Alcohol Change UK, a charity who aim to reduce the harms of alcohol, ‘Big Booze’ exploits these psychological mechanisms, tipping petrol on the sun-equals-pub fire in order to sell more pints. “Alcohol advertisers have done a good job of associating their drinks with relaxing in the sun,” she told THE FACE. “Italian lagers like Peroni are a good example of this.”
So, if the sun makes you drink, is there more alcoholism in sunnier countries? “We don’t really see that,” Zafar says. “That’s a bit of a counter-argument to this. In Mediterranean Europe, for example, they don’t drink anywhere near as much as the Brits do.” He added: “I think there’s also an element of when it’s too cold, people might drink a lot because it gives you a beer jacket and makes you feel warmer.”
“There are a lot of cultural factors that tie into this neurobiology in warmer countries. Because people are already naturally warm, perhaps they’ve already got high levels of serotonin and endorphins; they just don’t need to drink as much, because they’re already at that kind of comfortable prosocial level. This has not been proven, it’s a theory.”
Zafar is working on groundbreaking research using psychedelics which can interrupt this cue reactivity process when it comes to drinking or using other drugs. “You learn behaviours, that’s called neuroplasticity,” he explains. “But you can use neuroplasticity to unlearn behaviours, too. But you have to put the work in. There are drugs, like psychedelics for example, which can help you change this behaviour.”