“Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, incurable disease characterized by loss of control over alcohol and other sedatives.” as defined by The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Alcohol is America’s drug of choice. No other substance is abused more often in this country than alcohol. One in every 12 adults suffers from alcohol dependence. This is a startling figure. Over 17.5 million Americans are alcoholics, and according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, there are millions more who are at high-risk for becoming dependent on alcohol. Why do so many people drink? This is an important and valid question, since 10 people die every hour from alcohol-related causes. So, Why is Alcohol Addictive?
The answer is inside of your brain.
It turns out ethanol, the type of alcohol inside of adult beverages, is not addictive in and of itself. The chemical reactions ethanol causes in our brains are addictive. The science that explains why alcohol is addictive is complex, and will be discussed at length. Essentially though, alcohol is addictive because it becomes needed to feel normal. We will explore the world of neurotransmitters, endorphins, genetics, and sociological reasoning to figure out why alcohol is addictive.
Neurotransmitters and Alcohol
The chemicals responsible for delivering messages from nerve cell to nerve cell, messages that tell our bodies to function, are called neurotransmitters. They move from transport sites to receptor sites on the nerves. Your heartbeat, your breathing, your blinking, your digesting, and a multitude of other functions rely on neurotransmitters. They deliver messages that tell the body what to do. Two kinds exist: inhibitory and excitatory. The inhibitory neurotransmitters help to calm the brain down, and are associated with balance and ease. The excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain, allowing for focus, attention, and other functions that require higher-than-resting brain activity.
The main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human body is gamma-aminobutyric acid, known as GABA. It is responsible for reducing excitability in the brain. Alcohol increases the amount of GABA transmitted, which inhibits the brain to abnormal degrees. This is why drunken people have trouble walking, talking, and remembering things later on. The increased signalling of GABA sedates the brain. This process happens every time someone consumes alcohol, and happens more intensely as more alcohol is consumed.
Long-term alcohol abuse forces the brain to adapt to this increased inhibition. What the brain does in turn is increase the amount of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate increases brain activity, essentially counteracting the increased levels of GABA. The more alcohol consumed, the more GABA transmitted, and the more glutamate transmitted in order to keep balance. This chemical chain reaction is what causes a tolerance to alcohol. Having a tolerance to alcohol means it takes more and more drinks to produce the same effect. The strength of the tolerance grows over time.
Another neurotransmitter alcohol affects is dopamine. The brain’s reward system consists of dopamine, which is released when we feel pleasure. Dopamine plays roles in eating, sleeping, having sex, and any other functions we consider pleasurable. Dopamine is also released by the consumption of alcohol. Because some of the initial effects of alcohol are pleasurable, the brain considers alcohol use to be rewarding, and reinforces this by releasing dopamine.
Over time, alcohol abuse wears down the brain’s dopamine transporter and receptor sites. A German psychiatric center recently conducted a test on deceased alcoholic brains and proved this to be true. According to the research, prolonged alcohol abuse will “ultimately interfere with the brain’s ability to use dopamine, and subsequently inhibit the individual’s ability to feel pleasure.”
Constant stimulation of dopamine, as with consistent alcohol abuse, actually causes an overall decrease in dopamine. Tolerance builds with increased drinking, but this inability to feel pleasure without dopamine is what actually causes increased drinking.
When alcoholics stop drinking, the increased GABA, glutamate, and dopamine levels cause withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations, tremors, convulsions, and even delirium tremens, a condition lasting 2-3 days which includes shaking, shivering, irregular heartbeat, sweating, high body temperature and/or seizures.
Endorphins and Alcohol
The word ‘endorphin’ is actually a blend of two words: ‘endogenous’ and ‘morphine’. Something endogenous originates from within an organism. Morphine is a strong opioid painkiller. Endorphins are morphine-like molecules produced by the central nervous system, released by the body to counteract physical pain. Endorphin release can also create a feeling of euphoria.
Endorphins are produced naturally in response to pain, but are also produced by human activities such as working out and laughing. Alcohol abuse also releases endorphins. Different parts of the brain release endorphins according to different responses, and alcohol releases endorphins in two different parts: the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal cortex, which control addictive behavior and decision-making, respectively.
A study conducted by a California research team dealt with alcohol’s effect on endorphins, and how that effect makes alcohol one of the most addictive substances. Dr. Jennifer Mitchell participated in the study, saying it provided “the first direct evidence of how alcohol makes people feel good.” In the study, researchers examined the brains of 25 people, 13 of which heavily drank and 12 of which moderately drank.
In all participants, alcohol increased endorphin release. “The more endorphins released in the brain region of the nucleus accumbens, the more pleasure the participants reported experiencing,” reported the Huffington Post on the study. “This finding suggests that heavy drinkers have brain changes that lead to increased feelings of pleasure from alcohol consumption.”
With so many neurotransmitters being released, along with endorphins, it’s almost no wonder why alcohol is so addictive. Not only does alcohol trick the brain into thinking that drunk is the normal way to be, alcohol releases several pleasure-inducing chemicals as well. The brain becomes used to this rush of pleasure, and problem drinking begins its course.
Genetics and Alcohol
The American Society of Addictions Medicine states that “genetic factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction.” This makes sense when you realize that our genetics determine all of our traits. Our eye color, our hair color, what foods we like, and how we react to missing a putt playing mini-golf is all dependent on genetics. A genetic predisposition to alcoholism can also be passed along. Only the tendency toward alcoholism can be inherited; having inherited genes from alcoholic parents does not guarantee an alcoholic lifestyle.
There is not a single gene that causes alcoholism. Mapping the human genes out has been an ongoing project for many years in science. It has not yet been determined which genes contribute to alcoholism, but it is believed that many do. These genes would all represent small bits of a big picture. Studies have shown certain combinations of genes have a strong relationship to alcoholism. Some behavioral genes could also be responsible for a tendency toward alcoholism. Although the specific genes have not been pinpointed, genetic makeup nevertheless plays a major role in the addictiveness of alcohol.
Sociology and Alcohol
We have seen so far that alcohol is addictive due to chemical changes in the brain. However, the other side of the coin is the social aspects of alcohol addiction. Other than the brain telling someone he or she needs alcohol, why does someone drink? Surely each individual drinker has individual reasoning, but the following are some typical social reasons people become addicted to alcohol.
- Stress is the number one reason cited for why people drink. Alcohol is perceived to be a stress-reliever, but in reality can cause its own stress.
- Starting alcohol use at an early age can lead to an alcohol addiction. Almost half of those who begin drinking at age 14 or younger become alcoholics.
- Peer pressure can sway someone into drinking, which may lead to an addiction.
- Mental health issues can contribute to alcohol addiction. In fact, 20% of those with clinical mental health issues are alcoholics.
- Alcohol is accessible. Due to being legal, and in many homes, most people find no trouble acquiring alcohol, whether of age or not. The pervasiveness of alcohol in our culture contributes to the addiction to it.
- Other social reasons people may become addicted to alcohol include craving attention, trying to blend in or look cool, gaining acceptance, self-medicating, or as a coping method for issues in the person’s life.
Alcohol is addictive because the brain becomes used to it in order to function properly. The neurotransmitters and endorphins released act as a reward system for the brain. In addition, research indicates genetic factors also influence alcohol addiction. Lastly, there are many sociological factors that can contribute to alcoholism.
Alcoholism is defined as an incurable disease, this does not mean that is it not treatable. There are millions of people throughout the world that have been able to recover 100% from alcoholism with the right treatment and proper life long maintenance skills. You too can leave alcoholism in the past and start sober living today.