Brain cells rearrange and change themselves every day to accommodate for directions to work in a new city, injury, disease, an abusive environment, a new and prosperous job. So, too, does the brain make accommodations for alcohol dependency. Neuroadaption to alcohol occurs in the same way that adaption of the human brain to any other experience that is repeated. As with all phenomena of the brain, there is no direct alteration that “causes people to crave alcohol.” Instead, the adaptation is very complex, often worsened by preexisting mental conditions.
Is Alcohol a Depressant?
We often wonder how a person could become addicted to a depressant. The depressant label is only part of the story. Alcohol is also an indirect stimulant, affecting both ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitters and ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters. An excitatory neurotransmitter, for example, is glutamate. Glutamate accelerates brain activity and energy. The ‘ready to party!’ scenario comes to mind. Alcohol’s effect, with a few more drinks, becomes that of sedation. Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric acid) begin to put the brakes on party time. Everything calms down. At some point, the calming results in slowed speech and poor motor control. Eventually, alcoholic coma or ‘passing out’ will occur.
Dopamine makes life fun! Release of dopamine occurs every time a person has a pleasurable activity, such as relaxing with friends, enjoying a hobby, eating something delicious, or having sex.
Alcohol pushes the dopamine button, thereby making you think you’re having a great time, even though you may be in the throes of a difficult life event, like losing your spouse to divorce. Research posits that dopamine release through alcohol is more intense for men than for women. Three to five percent of women may be found slumped over an empty shot glass in their lifetime, but the number jumps to 10 percent for men.
Effects of Dopamine Loss
Dopamine slows to a trickle and becomes nonexistent with consistent drinking, just at the time when the individual has become hooked on a feeling, i.e., dopamine release. The desire for pleasure is one of the strongest human cravings. It is imperative by this time that the person return again and again to renew the pleasure of dopamine release. Compulsive consumption of alcohol then becomes the alcoholic’s quest. Dopamine receptors, like all parts of young bodies, are well-able to give a strong dopamine rush. Young people have not been drinking as long as the older crowd, and it takes less alcohol to get high and happy. The bad news begins when response to alcohol has increased the number of dopamine receptors. The number of transporters also increases to keep up with the logistics of removing all that dopamine. When the dopamine release slows, as in alcohol reduction, the transporters drain all dopamine away.
Loss of dopamine response is a precursor to anxiety. Many people drink to ‘take the edge off’ of their day. Lack of dopamine from alcohol abuse leads to daily anxiety without alcohol. Anxiety can be profound and affect every facet of one’s life. Anxiety relief then becomes the alcoholic quest for peace.
At first, alcohol may help a person ‘sleep like a baby’. A good night’s sleep makes all the difference for most of us, and the alcoholic is no exception. However, a change in alcohol consumption promotes disruptions in sleep cycles that persist. This change is related to the circadian sleep schedule. The sleep schedule is a 24-hour pattern that is disrupted by even small amounts of alcohol. After alcoholic consumption, many of us find we fall asleep instantly and then awaken at 3 A.M., unable to resume rest. Dwayne W. Godwin, PhD, professor of neurobiology, speculates that sleep disruption may be the reason many people change their drinking habits, consuming more alcohol at bedtime in a mistaken effort to promote sleep. Temporary sleeplessness is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Disturbed sleep patterns, along with anxiety, may persist for years after alcohol consumption stops.
Mental illness, a Pathway to Dependency
Alcohol addiction is multifaceted and approaches to cessation often face a moving target. As we have seen, alcohol dependency itself can create mood disorders such as chronic anxiety. However, a mood disorder such as major depression can predate as well as coexist with current alcohol addiction. A clinician will need to evaluate psychiatric complaints to determine whether the mind-altering effects of alcohol caused the mental illness, thereby mimicking a disturbance, or whether the mental illness is coexisting with the complaint of alcohol dependency. Usually, sobriety for a series of months will be necessary to determine a duel diagnosis of alcohol addiction and mental illness.
Alcoholic dependency rehabilitation restores, not only an individual, but a family circle disrupted by alcohol abuse. Going to an alcohol rehabilitation facility can address the complex system of dependency that keeps a person bound to addictive behaviors. It is important to seek help today and we are here to help you. Please contact us and speak to one of our trained specialists at 1 (888) 762-3730.