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Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Over 15 million people have an alcohol use disorder in the US, and over 65 million people drink at least once a month. Alcohol is a widely used and addictive legal drug. Why is alcohol addictive, and why are some people more at risk of addiction than others?

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

Like all drugs, alcohol alters the brain’s chemistry. These effects are due to ethanol, alcohol’s active ingredient. Ethanol triggers the release of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and endorphins. It also modifies how the brain responds to another neurotransmitter called GABA and the neurochemical CRF.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical used in the brain to transfer impulses throughout the nervous system. Dopamine plays a role in the limbic reward system. This system encourages behavior that has positive or pleasurable outcomes. Drugs that produce those feelings trigger the release of large amounts of dopamine in the brain. The stronger the dopamine response, the more addictive a given drug can be.

Endorphins

In 2012, research that looked at the brain’s response to alcohol showed high levels of endorphins released. Like dopamine, endorphins are neurotransmitters. The more alcohol that was consumed, the more endorphins were released. This primarily occurred in the area of the brain linked to addictive behavior and decision making.

According to the leader of the research project, Jennifer Mitchell, Ph.D., “This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant and may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place.”

In other words, people whose brains release more endorphins when they drink may be more at risk of negative consequences.

GABA

GABA-A (gamma-aminobutyric acid type A) is another neurotransmitter responsible for the sedating effects of alcohol. When GABA-A connects to its receptor in the brain, these feelings of sedation are released throughout the body. In long-term alcohol abusers, the GABA-A receptor loses some of its sensitivity. It is thought that this contributes to alcohol tolerance and dependence as users have to drink more to get that sensation.

Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF)

CRF is a major component of the brain’s stress system. This chemical is active in the amygdala and certain other areas of the brain and is involved in activating the stress response. The presence of alcohol inhibits CRF. This contributes to the feelings of well-being and relaxation that are induced by alcohol consumption.

As with other neurochemicals, the activity of CRF adjusts to compensate in long-term alcoholics. This means that in the absence of alcohol, alcoholics are more prone to feel stress. This in turn intensifies their alcohol cravings and reinforces their dependency.

How Alcohol Abuse Becomes Alcohol Addiction

Normal brain function involves a delicate balance of neurotransmitters. Alcohol and other drugs interfere with that balance by making the brain release large amounts of certain specific neurotransmitters.

Having a few drinks from time to time doesn’t have any long-term effects on brain chemistry. Levels of dopamine and endorphins are elevated for a short time after drinking alcohol.

The brain adapts to the chemical changes caused by alcohol exposure. After a period of repeated substance abuse, these adaptations become permanent, leading to alcohol dependence and addiction. At this point, the drinker must ingest increasing amounts of alcohol in order to feel its effects. They also experience unpleasant withdrawal effects if they stop drinking.

What Determines Who Gets Addicted?

People drink for a range of reasons. Most people can have a drink or two occasionally and stop when they’ve had enough. But some people can’t control how much or how often they drink. These people are at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.

Several factors influence the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic. For instance, genetic factors may affect the brain’s ability to release dopamine and endorphins in response to alcohol exposure.

It has long been known that children of alcoholics have a high risk of developing an alcohol addiction. Children of alcoholics or drug abusers grow up around alcohol abuse and other mental health concerns. They may become alcoholics themselves because one or both parents modeled this behavior while they were growing up. However, there are clear indications that some people also have a genetic susceptibility to alcoholism.

How do You Know if You’re an Alcoholic?

The effects of alcohol addiction and substance abuse are more than just physical or psychological. Your thoughts and behaviors about alcohol depend a lot on how much you drink and how long you’ve been abusing alcohol.

Are you concerned that your drinking may be a problem? Look over this list of signs of alcohol addiction and mental health concerns. If any of these apply to you, it may be time to consider addiction treatment.

  • You need to drink more alcohol to feel drunk
  • You need alcohol to feel normal
  • You have blackouts after heavy drinking sessions
  • You’re unable to stop drinking once you start
  • You drink even at times when you intended to stay sober
  • You drink alone or you lie about or hide how much alcohol you drink
  • Your drinking has put yourself or someone else in danger
  • You have financial or legal problems due to alcohol abuse
  • Your drinking has affected your personal relationships
  • Your drinking has affected your work performance
  • You spend most of your time either drinking or thinking about drinking
  • You have withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol
  • You’ve tried and failed to quit drinking or reduce how much you drink

Need Help? Contact Promises Treatment Center Today

Are your concerned you’re addicted to alcohol? If you think you might need help for alcohol addiction, Promises Austin and Scottsdale treatment centers may be just what you need to move forward. We offer comprehensive alcohol and addiction treatment programs that can help you quit drinking once and for all.

Posted on August 5, 2016 and modified on May 28, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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