Alcohol may be the most abused drug in America today, in part because of its ready availability and its social acceptability. Social drinking is widely accepted for adults, and many people consider even binge drinking to be typical behavior for young adults. While many people can have a drink or two now and then without ever developing a drinking problem, for some, alcohol addiction is a devastating illness that can damage their health, relationships, and work life. Because alcohol is legal, and because so many people can use it without a problem, people fail to associate alcohol with the addiction that it can cause.
Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?
Alcohol’s addictive properties lie in how it affects the brain, particularly the release of four important molecules: endorphins, dopamine, GABA, and glutamate. Alcohol’s impact on each produces a distinct effect in the body.
Your brain produces dopamine whenever you engage in a pleasurable activity, whether that is eating dessert, spending time with friends, or accomplishing a difficult task. Dopamine rewards your brain for these activities, producing such a good feeling that you will repeat them. Increased dopamine production is what makes many illegal drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, so addictive, and alcohol works in the same way. Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers and make your body feel good. Low levels of alcohol consumption, such as one or two drinks, increase endorphin levels, activating your brain’s reward mechanisms. Together, the increased endorphin and dopamine levels triggered by alcohol consumption can cause you to crave alcohol when you are not drinking.
GABA and glutamate are neurotransmitters, molecules that send messages to the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it reduces energy levels and brain activity. Alcohol increases GABA’s effects, calming the brain and body down. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases energy levels and brain activity. Alcohol suppresses glutamate production, slowing your brain down. So by increasing the impact of GABA and suppressing glutamate, alcohol produces a relaxed state that feels good. This is not a problem by itself, but over time, some people can come to rely on alcohol in order to relax. And at high doses, alcohol slows the brain and body down so much that the person acts like a stereotypical drunk: stumbling, losing inhibitions, acting inappropriately, and even passing out.
People who use alcohol heavily develop a physical tolerance to it—drinking the same amount every day no longer causes any of alcohol’s expected effects, and the person will have to consume a larger amount in order to achieve the desired effect. Eventually, they will become so dependent that they will feel physically ill and experience symptoms of withdrawal if they abstain from drinking. They may become depressed, anxious, and experience “the shakes” until they have another drink.
Why Do People Get Addicted to Alcohol?
Alcohol’s impact on the brain explains why people become addicted to alcohol, but why is it that some people can resist addiction and others cannot? Personal differences—some behavioral, some genetic—determine how likely you are to develop an addiction to alcohol. These differences include:
- How much you drink
- How often you drink
- Your age
- Your family history
- Your health status
For example, people who only drink occasionally and are in good health have a strong likelihood of remaining social drinkers, whereas someone with a family history of substance abuse who drinks regularly is more likely to develop a problem.
While alcohol addiction is a serious problem, it is not one without a solution. Many people have overcome alcohol abuse through proper treatment. If you or someone you love struggles with alcohol addiction, call our toll-free number for help.