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Why is Alcohol Addictive?

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A lot of people seem to get on just fine with drinking alcohol on occasion. Others however, don’t get on just fine, and end up with a serious addiction. Is alcohol addictive? If so, why exactly is alcohol addictive? If you’re new to drinking, you might be wondering about these kinds of things. We’re going to try and give you some answers that will hopefully help you make more informed decisions about alcohol. 

Alcoholism is a complicated disease. There’s no one single reason why an individual gets addicted or not. Instead, many different factors combine to determine how much risk any one of us has for developing an addiction.

Here at Intervention.com, we believe that, although alcoholism is a powerful addiction, recovery is possible. Our team of intervention professionals will help you identify if someone you know is in need of alcohol addiction treatment; together finding the way out of the dark and back to a life free from alcohol abuse and troublesome use.

So far, researchers have identified the main factors that contribute to alcohol addiction, though there will always be an element of chance. To answer the question “why is alcohol addictive?” we’ll have to discuss the impact of environment, genetics, socialization, and most importantly the psychology of how alcohol gets us hooked. Let’s get started!

Why is Alcohol Addictive? | Psychology & the Brain

Alcohol gets us hooked chemically and emotionally, and both of these processes happen in our brains. First we’ll discuss chemical addiction, or tolerance, then we’ll get into how we grow to emotionally depend on drinking.

Tolerance

One of the main reasons alcohol is addictive is that we build a tolerance to it over time. Have you ever noticed that some people can drink a much larger quantity of alcohol without getting as drunk as others? There are many degrees of self proclaimed heavy-weights and light-weights out there, but alcohol tolerance can be explained scientifically.

Tolerance happens because it changes the balance of two groups of neurotransmitters in our brains and desensitized us to dopamine. Let’s get into the specifics of both of these.

GABA and Glutamate

These two neurotransmitters, GABA and Glutamate, behave like opposites. GABA is inhibitory, and Glutamate is excitatory. What does this mean?  GABA makes us calm and tranquil, while Glutamate gets us ready for action, physical or mental.

Ok, so where does alcohol come in?

Alcohol increases the amount of GABA in our brains while we’re drinking, which inhibits our brains activity levels. This is why drunk people are slow to react, uncoordinated, and sleepy. Chronic drinking, causes our GABA levels to rise all the time, but that’s not a comfortable state for our brains. Therefore, our brains react by producing extra excitatory neurotransmitters, Glutamate, to counteract all the GABA.

The more our brains adapt to alcoholism, the greater our tolerance as well. Glutamate levels are always elevated to counteract the effects of all the alcohol consumed on a daily basis. In this way, alcohol becomes a necessary part of our brain’s functioning, and we’re chemically hooked. We need it just to feel normal.

When alcoholics are deprived of alcohol, their glutamate levels don’t drop automatically. For a brief time, they will experience withdrawal as the GABA and glutamate levels return to normal. Withdrawal symptoms like shaking, anxiety, and hallucinations are a result of all that extra, unnecessary Glutamate.

Dopamine

When we drink alcohol, our brains release dopamine. This is the neurotransmitter that deals with pleasure and feeling good. The dopamine rush makes us feel happier and maybe a little bit more relaxed, reinforcing the drinking. We want to drink for that feeling again.

Unfortunately however, longterm drinking wears down dopamine production as well as dopamine receptors (confirmed by post-mortum brain dissections). So, what does this mean for addiction? The more and longer we drink, the less of that dopamine reward we get over time. This means we have to drink larger and larger amounts to get the same high.

Why is Alcohol Addictive? | Social & Emotional Factors

Neurotransmitters and reward systems aren’t the only answer to the question: why is alcohol addictive? We also have to consider the social and emotional environments we live in. Here is a list of some of these factors, and how they relate to alcoholism:

  • Stress: We often drink to relieve stress, but then in turn we get stressed out by our drinking and its effects on our behavior. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Mental Illness: Having a mental illness makes us more likely to drink. Experts generally agree that this is because drinking is a way to self-medicate the symptoms of mental illness, thus creating one more incentive to drink.
  • Drinking at an early age: The earlier we start drinking, the worse our odds for developing an addiction. Growing up in an environment with lots of drinking or drug use can also increase risk.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol addiction, reach out to us at intervention.com. We’ll help connect you with the best treatment for your needs.