The effects of alcohol on the brain are well documented and written upon. But, when I was drinking I absolutely avoided that information. I was hiding from it, really. I was terribly afraid of destroying the pretend world of “I’m a normal drinker” and “alcohol is good for me.” Too much science would wreak havoc on my fragile ego, and I was holding onto my cognitive dissonance stronger than I held onto my wine.
When I first stopped drinking I didn’t do it for any specific reason, I just knew things didn’t feel right in my body, heart, or mind. My mood was unstable, I couldn’t think straight, and I was way more interested in my nightly drink (ok…drinks) than connecting with the people I love. After reading The Alcohol Experiment and then delving into some more “Quit Lit” I found that my experience wasn’t unique. In fact, it was downright run of the mill. And once I began my alcohol-free journey, I was eager to expose myself to all the truths about alcohol that I had so willfully ignored.
Alcohol’s effects on the brain are fascinating to me. Understanding how alcohol impacts different regions of the brain helps explains so much about our love-hate relationship with it. And it can really help explain our confusing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors resulting from consistent, moderate drinking. So, here are 5 ways that alcohol changed my brain and is changing yours, too.
1. Emotional Inhibition and Instability
Many of us drink to feel better – to soften the edges of painful thoughts, lighten a heavy heart, detach from the stress of the day. Indeed, alcohol is an effective tool for numbing our emotions and helping us feel (temporarily) light, happy, and relaxed. This is the result of alcohol affecting the emotional center of our brain, the limbic system.
Our ability to feel, process, and express emotions is controlled by the limbic system of the brain. This region is a collection of interconnected parts that control emotional response, motivation, learning, decision making, memory, and pleasure-seeking and rewarding. This last one refers to the part of the brain that responds to the dopamine hit from things like drugs, alcohol, sex, and chocolate, to name a few (1). William Porter, the author of Alcohol Explained, explains that alcohol inhibits the limbic region’s ability to function properly, resulting in dysregulated emotional states, unexpected or uncharacteristic behavior, and the inability to create and access long-term memories (2). So, in the short term, it may be tempting to let this part of our brain “loosen up,” but in reality, our lives depend greatly on our ability to regulate our emotions and behaviors. And by consistently washing the brain in alcohol, we are diminishing its ability to do its job over the long term. Due to brain shrinkage and slower learning (more on that in Part 2), we are reversing all the work our brain has done throughout our life to master these skills, and we are left with an increasingly unstable and detached experience of life.
2. Boredom and Numbness
Alcohol numbs our emotional response to daily life and the things we used to find joy in. We find ourselves no longer stimulated and rather bored with life when alcohol isn’t involved. This is the result of alcohol’s effect on the pleasure-seeking, or the reward regions, of our brain. For simplicity’s sake – because I am not a brain scientist – I will narrow this topic to the interaction between dopamine and the nucleus accumbens.
Well into my drinking habit, I found that I would base my decision of which activities and social events to attend on my access to the amount and type of alcohol served at that location – dinner dates with my husband and friends, children’s birthday parties and baby showers, weddings, camping, going to a movie. All these things, in my mind, required access to a drink (and specific kinds of drinks) or they would be devoid of joy and pleasure. I was seriously upset when I would arrive at an event to find there was no alcohol being served. Going out with friends absolutely required cocktails, otherwise, what was the point? This seemed so normal to me, and I couldn’t see the sadness inherent to the fact that life held less joy for me if I didn’t have a drink in hand.
I understand now that as a habitual drinker I had conditioned my brain to seek out the dopamine hit that alcohol produced in the nucleus accumbens region of my brain. Over the 10 years that I had been drinking, the seeking and obtaining of alcohol had conditioned my brain to see alcohol as the primary reward of all my pleasurable activities. This constant interaction taught my brain that alcohol gave it pleasure, so it guided me to keep seeking it. As I repeatedly met this need, my brain built ever-stronger connections associating alcohol with pleasure, and soon alcohol became the only thing that could create that desired feeling to the detriment of all other activities. This interaction illustrates the “dopamine reward pathway,” (3) which forms the basis of substance addiction in the brain.
Importantly, addiction isn’t simply the obtaining of a reward, it is the motivation to seek out the reward in the first place. So, when alcohol becomes the primary source of pleasure for our brain, all of our motivation becomes focused on alcohol, and we are left with a clear lack of desire to do anything else. The things we used to enjoy before alcohol all fall away; they seem boring, empty, and pointless. Though we still may gain some pleasure from those activities, that pleasure is less vibrant and harder to hold onto. This results in a situation where if alcohol isn’t involved our motivation to do anything plunges into nonexistence.
3. Tolerance to Joy: The Law of Diminishing Returns
Near the end of my drinking, I was consuming 2-3 drinks in one sitting and still not able to feel much of that enjoyable buzz I sought. I also noticed I did not feel *too* terrible the next day (or I had gotten so used to being hungover that it was the new normal). I also wasn’t exactly enjoying drinking as much as I had in the past, but I kept doing it, thinking I could get back to that good feeling I used to have with the right combination of drinks, food, and time. It never did happen. When I removed alcohol from my life I gained the clarity to see that drinking had changed from an enjoyable activity I chose to do to a habit I no longer had a choice in, but that I kept doing in the blind hope I could feel good again.
That constant seeking of pleasure from alcohol caused a shift in my brain chemistry, making it harder to obtain that original “high” feeling alcohol gave me. I am guessing you can relate to this. Anyone with a brain and a drinking habit will experience some level of tolerance building over time, in which you receive less and less of the reward despite continuing to drink more amounts of alcohol. In the effort to feel that high you consume more of it over time, but never quite reach that elusive euphoria again. This process is what we call “building a tolerance,” which is often a point of pride for people. In reality, it is a sign that you are drinking more than your body can handle, and your body is reacting in multiple ways to protect you from further physical damage.
One of the primary mechanisms occurring here is the releasing of two hormones in your brain: dopamine and dynorphin (4). Dopamine is the good stuff – the thing we all crave. It is what makes our brain feel rewarded for seeking and obtaining whatever substance or behavior that produced it. When we are drinking, dopamine is released at an abnormally high level in our brain (compared to other naturally pleasing activities such as eating food or having sex) and we feel good, even euphoric – a step away from the harshness of reality. But within 20 minutes or so, in the body’s effort to regain balance, the dopamine is replaced by another hormone called dynorphin. Dynorphin has sedative effects on the brain and works to mop up the dopamine, essentially killing our buzz. As we progress through our drinking habit over time, this dopamine-dynorphin interplay happens more quickly and efficiently, causing us to increase the amount and rate at which we consume to achieve and maintain that buzz. What we also find is, as we build our tolerance, the buzz we sought is not only harder to obtain, it is also more fleeting and generally less pleasurable. And the saddest part is, our inability to feel pleasure isn’t limited to our drinking. Rather, it starts affecting all of the other activities we used to find joy in…spending time with our partner or children, playing a sport, watching the stars. Because our brain has been so artificially overstimulated by alcohol, its ability to feel natural pleasure is dampened and we are left with a lackluster experience of life (4).
4. Depression and Anxiety
Highly related to points 1-3, but important to discuss separately, is the relationship between alcohol use and mood disorders, namely depression and anxiety. If we look at depression and anxiety simply as an amplification of normal human emotions, we can see, based on the discussion above, why alcohol may be a contributing factor. In a study from 2001, nearly 14,500 people were surveyed to find a link between depression and alcohol use. The researchers found that there was a correlation between people who drank alcohol and those who developed major depression after 1 year of being studied. The people who had higher levels of alcohol consumption were more likely to develop depression (5). Interestingly, women who drank were more likely than men to develop depression.
Another study showed how alcohol literally rewires the brain, making the person more likely to experience anxiety and less capable of healing from traumatic events (6). Yet, we continue to believe the opposite: that alcohol relieves anxiety by relaxing us. Indeed, 20% of people with an anxiety disorder also have an alcohol use disorder (7). Unfortunately, science shows us that alcohol does the opposite of relaxing us in the long term. When we consume alcohol, the initial effect is that of sedation and relaxation. But because the brain is designed to maintain balance in our body, it responds to this sedation by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), thus re-stimulating our brain and inducing feelings of alertness and even more stress than before we had that first drink (4).
5. Silencing the Distress Signal
An important way to look at the effect of alcohol on our emotions is exploring the way we react to those emotions and understanding the reasons we drink in the first place. I know that when I was drinking, I was seeking an escape from the uncomfortable emotions of social awkwardness, loneliness, and stress. We are taught through constant messaging our whole life that we should be happy at all times and that we should avoid negative emotions at all costs. But what this teaches us is to be afraid of normal human emotions and to numb ourselves from them, rather than exploring them in the effort to understand ourselves better.
Emotions are feedback signals telling us about our experience of life. When we feel happy we know that things are in balance, as they should be. When we feel stress we know that we are overwhelmed and that our body needs a break. When we feel sad we understand that something is out of balance in our world, and perhaps needs our attention. These signals are what help us navigate our life, attend to the areas that need attention and meet our most basic needs for survival. When we teach ourselves that these feelings are bad and that alcohol can help us not feel them, we are tuning out from the signal and disabling our ability to effectively address the issue. Depression and anxiety are simply sadness and stress that have been left to fester as our lives go unattended to. They are the mayday signals, the distress call. When you are numbed by alcohol, you aren’t able to hear that message anymore.
But the good news is, once you remove alcohol, though those emotions don’t just go away, you will be clear-headed enough to step back from the emotions, get curious about them, and begin attending to the things that are causing the signal in the first place. That is where true healing can begin. More about that in Part 2.
In Part 1 we explored how alcohol impacts our emotional experience and relationship to the world. In Part 2 we will look at the 5 ways alcohol changes the way we learn and function.
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(1) Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 8). Limbic system. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:08, August 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?
(2) Porter, W. (2018). Alcohol explained. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
(3) Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). Sydor A, Brown RY (eds.). Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. pp. 365–366, 376. ISBN 978-0-07-148127-4.
(4) Grace, A. (2018). The alcohol experiment: a 30-day, alcohol-free challenge to interrupt your habits and help you take control. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
(5) Gilman, S. E., & Abraham, H. D. (2001). A longitudinal study of the order of onset of alcohol dependence and major depression. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 63(3), 277–286. DOI: 10.1016/s0376-8716(00)00216-7
(6) (2012, September 4). Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing anxiety problem. Retrieved from https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/heavy-drinking-rewires-brain-increasing-susceptibility-to-anxiety-problems/
(7) Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/social-anxiety-and-alcohol-abuse