Alcohol dependence, often referred to as alcoholism, is a chronic disease characterized by uncontrolled drinking and a preoccupation with alcohol. The way alcohol affects the body and brain, leading to dependence, is a complex process that involves various physiological, genetic, and environmental factors.
When a person drinks alcohol, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and affects the central nervous system. Alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing brain function and neural activity. It increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers, which creates the feeling of pleasure that people often seek from drinking.
In the short term, these pleasurable effects can lead to repeated use of alcohol. Over time, the brain begins to adapt to these increased levels of dopamine. This adaptation is a process known as ‘tolerance.’ As tolerance develops, a person must consume more alcohol to achieve the same pleasurable effects, leading to increased alcohol consumption.
When alcohol becomes a regular part of a person’s life, the brain undergoes further changes. It starts to adjust its natural state to compensate for the constant presence of alcohol. This compensation is primarily seen in neurotransmitter systems, such as GABA (which induces relaxation) and glutamate (which promotes activity). Alcohol enhances the inhibitory effects of GABA and suppresses the excitatory effects of glutamate, creating a combined effect of slowing down brain activity. With habitual alcohol use, the brain tries to restore balance by reducing its GABA activity and increasing its glutamate activity.
Now, if the person suddenly stops drinking, the brain is left in a hyperactive state due to this compensation. This overactivity can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, and even seizures. This uncomfortable state often drives individuals to drink again to relieve these symptoms, a phenomenon known as ‘negative reinforcement.’
Furthermore, long-term alcohol use can also impact the brain’s stress and reward systems. It can decrease the sensitivity of the brain’s reward system, making it harder to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities. This can prompt the individual to continue drinking in an attempt to feel better.
In summary, the body becomes dependent on alcohol through a series of adaptations in the brain. These changes, which include increased tolerance and alterations in neurotransmitter systems, reward circuits, and stress response, create a cycle of escalating alcohol use and withdrawal. The desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms, coupled with reduced ability to derive pleasure from other sources, often leads to a compulsion to drink, thereby reinforcing alcohol dependence. It’s important to note that this dependence is a serious medical condition, requiring professional intervention and treatment.
If you feel you might be dependent on alcohol then alcohol services can help such as hull alcohol services