Does Alcohol Affect Dopamine
Alcohol is one of the most addictive and harmful drugs in the world. Alcohol’s effects on the body are so powerful that people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can experience seizures, vomiting, and even death when trying to quit cold turkey.
In addition to the health consequences, alcoholism contributes to fractured families and drunk driving that kills more than 10,000 people every year. The CDC estimates that excessive drinking costs the United States more than $249 billion (yes with “b”) each year when measured for loss in work and job productivity, health care expenses, law enforcement, and vehicle crashes.
Part of the reason why people with an AUD continue to drink, regardless of the personal and social consequences, is the way it affects the brain. Alcohol addiction — the obsession and physical craving to consume alcohol — can partly be explained by the way that alcohol affects dopamine in the brain.
Alcohol and the Brain
The brain is filled with different types of nerve cells that release different types of neurotransmitters. The release of neurotransmitters allows the brain to control the rest of the body, including everything from telling you when to move a leg to walk, to managing the digestion of your food, to releasing chemicals to help you fall asleep.
Nerves release neurotransmitters across gaps between cells. These nerve cells have different receptors. Some of these receptors are dopamine receptors. In a healthy functioning brain, only a certain amount of dopamine is released, and they rarely fill all of the dopamine receptors that are available. If too much dopamine is released, the brain effectively shuts off dopamine receptors as a way to control the flow of the chemical.
But why would the brain want to limit the amount of dopamine? Dopamine is a critical part of the brain that helps control movement, pleasure, attention, mood, and motivation. It is one of the most ancient neurotransmitters as it is found in lizard brains, too. Too much dopamine can lead to euphoria, aggression, and intense sexual feelings. Basically, dopamine is one of the brain’s ways to communicate some of our most primal urges and needs, and it “rewards” someone for eating, drinking water, exercising, and having sex as a way to reinforce those behaviors—to continue doing the things that help sustain life.
But too much dopamine and those primal urges can become destructive. It is also why drugs that flood the brain’s dopamine levels can be so addictive that someone will continue to drink alcohol regardless of the consequences. Alcohol increases dopamine levels while removing the brain’s built-in brake system that limits dopamine receptivity.
The “brake” system in the brain is responsible for ensuring that every day, normally pleasurable experiences do not turn into addictive behaviors. Without this specific neurotransmitter, dopamine levels remain elevated as long as alcohol continues to enter the person’s body. The pleasure that the brain receives from drinking can simply be too euphoric for the person to withhold alcohol from his or her body.
As the artificial introduction of dopamine caused by alcohol continues, the brain begins to “switch off” dopamine receptors as a way to combat the influx of the pleasure chemicals. While alcohol overwhelms the brain’s pleasure or dopamine receptors, it also causes extreme dopamine withdrawal when someone with a chronic drinking problem abruptly quits. Without the alcohol to produce enough dopamine, the person begins to experience dopamine deficiency, which is implicated in ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, and even schizophrenia.
Recovery and the Brain
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, alcohol’s effects on dopamine levels and receptors are partially responsible for why relapse is so common for people recovering from alcoholism. It can take a long time for the brain to return to a pre-drinking state, and sometimes it never does.
The brain’s depleted state of dopamine means that an ex-drinker may continue to experience obsessive thoughts about alcohol for years after their last drink. For this reason, effective treatment for alcoholism includes experiential therapies that introduce dopamine-boosting activities such as surfing, meditating, and other pleasurable experiences to help ex-drinkers find new, rewarding activities to replace alcohol.