Alcohol is a drug just like any other legal or illegal substance. It is also one of the most dangerous, addictive, and deadly drugs that a person can get involved with. So how do alcohol work in the body and the brain, and what makes alcohol so addictive and difficult to quit? We will look at the science of alcohol addictions and find the links between the brain and alcohol addiction.
What is the GABA System?
The GABA system is a system of receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain that relay signals throughout the central nervous system. Made up of GABA-A and GABA-B receptors, the system utilizes receptors to respond to neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid. So what does that mean in English? It simply means that the brain uses chemicals to give responses to stimuli. Adding chemicals like alcohol to the body can throw off the normal responses of these receptors and cause a host of physical and mental side effects.
What is Dopamine?
A neurotransmitter, dopamine acts as a chemical messenger in the brain, transmitting information and communication throughout the brain and body. Dopamine works on a reward system, which was evolved to motivate the body to perform actions that help the overall function and health of a person. In essence, the brain rewards you with feelings of happiness, euphoria, and pleasure for performing certain tasks.
With addiction and substance abuse, a person “cheats” the reward system of the brain by ingesting chemicals in order to stimulate dopamine and create reward sensations of pleasure. When abused, the dopamine system changes, and throws the system off balance, chemically.
Alcohol and Dopamine
How does alcohol affect dopamine? Alcohol boosts dopamine levels in the brain; at least temporarily and only during the initial use, before tolerance destabilizes the balance. As you build a tolerance to alcohol – and continue to drink more alcohol than is needed or safe – the brain starts to produce less dopamine and fewer dopamine receptors. The body even increases the number of dopamine transporters in an effort to clear away excess dopamine from the synapses of the brain.
All this means that your body produces less “feel-good chemicals,” reduces the number of ways to feel good from these chemicals, and also drops how good you feel and for how long. These effects are semi-permanent, and also cause a drop in your mood and how “good” you feel with or without alcohol.
Dopamine: Why Alcohol Makes You Sad or Depressed
Depression and alcoholism are closely linked, and while there are a number of reasons why alcohol causes or worsens depression, the effects of alcohol on the dopamine and reward system of the brain have a lot to do with it.
Is Alcohol A Depressant?
Yes, not only is alcohol a depressant, but it can cause you to be depressed, or worsen existing depression.
The brain is supposed to keep a normal balance of chemicals, and this balance is what causes the normal ups and downs of your mood. When you throw these levels off, the tendency is that your mood will become wildly unpredictable. Your highs feel higher, and your lows feel lower. Eventually, this turns into a person needing the “high” from alcohol just to reach normal feelings, and without the alcohol, that person feels very low lows. This is like a synthetic form of chemical depression you are bringing on yourself.
Self-Medicating a Dopamine Imbalance with Alcohol
A lack of dopamine (either naturally occurring or caused by substance abuse and addiction) will make you feel bad nearly all of the time. Which makes sense; feeling good is just having the right amount of chemicals in your brain that makes you feel that way.
When dopamine levels are lower or drop rapidly following a flooding of dopamine caused by alcohol, your mood also drops, and the natural reaction is to try and increase the chemical flow once again. In the short term, alcohol may help to re-inflate the levels of dopamine, but this using of alcohol to “cheat” the brain’s reward system is not sustainable and only leads to a lack of feel-good chemicals and more bouts of sadness, depleted mood, and depression.
How Dual Diagnosis Therapy Treats Alcohol Abuse, Dopamine/Chemical Imbalance, and Depression
A dopamine and/or chemical imbalance can occur naturally, can be caused by poor diet, and can be caused or worsened by other ailments – including alcoholism and existing mental illness issues. In cases of dual diagnosis, there are one or more co-occurring disorders that are coming into play. With more than one factor contributing to the chemical imbalance, it is nearly impossible to find what the natural level of dopamine is in the brain. This means that simply medicating the problem with antidepressants or any other substance is not an option.
In order to effectively treat depression and mood disorders in someone that is abusing alcohol, you need to first remove the alcohol from the body through medically assisted alcohol detox. It will take some time during recovery to allow the chemical balance in the brain to return to normal or natural levels, at which point the need for addressing a natural chemical imbalance can be assessed.
Over 70% of alcoholics have been diagnosed as dual diagnosis patientsTweet this out
Harmony Place’s Top Dual Diagnosis Treatment Program
Harmony Place’s team of treatment professionals know very well the importance of treating dual diagnoses throughout recovery. Dopamine and chemical imbalance plays a big part in how an addiction develops, and also in how to unravel that dependence. For guests joining us in early addiction recovery, we will assess all needs and provide therapy that addresses all needs.