Alcohol is regularly drunk by those socialising with family members or friends. It is present at parties, gatherings, and get-togethers and is a normal, acceptable part of life. For most people, alcohol never causes a problem. It is something to be enjoyed in moderation, and nothing more. But for others though, alcohol becomes the most important thing in their life and everything else fades into insignificance.
For these individuals, alcohol has become an addiction; an addiction that affects every part of their life. It has a negative impact on their mental and physical health and begins to interfere with their relationships with others.
It is often easy for those who have a normal relationship with alcohol to wonder why others cannot simply cut down on the amount that they drink, or indeed, cut it out completely. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. When alcohol becomes an addiction, it has a profound impact on the brain and there is no way the person can just stop drinking, or even cut back. What alcohol addiction does to the brain is an important reason why this happens.
How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect the Brain?
It is common for affected individuals to wonder what alcohol addiction does to the brain and why they cannot quit, even when they desperately want to. You may be one of these people. After all, you weren’t always this way. There was a time when you were able to drink socially and could quit when you had had enough. You didn’t always have to keep drinking when everyone else had stopped. Moreover, you didn’t spend your entire day either drinking or thinking about drinking. So, what happened?
For most, drinking alcohol is a choice in the beginning. It is something that you either choose to do or choose not to do. Nevertheless, for some, the choice over whether to drink or not drink is taken out of their hands after a while. This is because of the way in which alcohol alters certain structures, and consequently, certain functions, of the brain.
When scientists discovered that repeated use of alcohol can actually change the structure of the brain, they also found out that the brain moulds itself around the use of alcohol. The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. It is constantly working and is directing everything that you do. The way in which it does this is by passing messages from one neuron to the next then the next and so on until it reaches its intended destination.
However, there are gaps between each neuron, known and synapses. To help the messages ‘jump’ across these gaps, certain chemicals are released by the brain which are known as neurotransmitters. When the neurotransmitters are released, they flow across the gaps, allowing messages to cross.
When a mood-altering substance such as alcohol is consumed, the brain releases a chemical known as dopamine; this is the chemical that gives you that rush of pleasure. Dopamine travels to the brain’s reward centre to make you feel good about certain things, but when it comes to alcohol, it also teaches the reward centre that ‘alcohol is good’ and that you should drink it again.
In some individuals, the brain is overstimulated by alcohol, which causes a surge of dopamine to be released; this means these people experience more pleasure from it than others might. It also overstimulates their reward centre, making them want alcohol more often than others do.
In the early days, the affected person might still have some measure of control over his or her use but as time goes by and he or she continues drinking, this level of control diminishes to the point where the individual is no longer drinking for pleasure; he or she is drinking out of necessity.
How Alcohol Affects Your Life?
If you have developed an alcohol addiction, then, as discussed above, it is likely that your use of this substance has altered your brain structure. Scientists have discovered that chronic use of alcohol can lead to an inability for some neurons to interact with brain chemicals. In some cases, some of the neurons will be altered completely. Occasionally, pathways within the brain will be damaged while some will be strengthened.
One part of the brain that tends to be affected the most by chronic alcohol use is the frontal lobe. This is this part of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking and decision making. When this part of the brain is affected, you will be unable to stop drinking because you cannot think clearly. You will find it hard to see what is obvious to others.
What alcohol addiction does to the brain is significant in the fact that it can change your entire attitude to alcohol. As your illness progresses, you will find it harder and harder to resist the pull of alcohol. Once you start drinking, you will find it almost impossible to stop, and even when knowing that it is going to cause negative consequences in your life, you will be unable to quit.
This usually results in negative consequences for not only you but also those around you. Your relationship with others will change as your alcohol-seeking behaviour increases. To you, the most important thing will be alcohol. You will put it before everyone else, and these individuals will, for the most part, find it hard to accept.
You might also notice that your health begins to suffer; alcohol has a negative effect on both mental and physical health. You might start suffering from high blood pressure, obesity, weight gain, anxiety and depression as your addiction grows stronger. You might find it harder to sleep and your performance at work could also suffer. The longer your addiction continues, the higher the likelihood that you will develop more serious health problems. Alcohol is linked to a variety of conditions including liver disease, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer. It is also a contributory cause of mental health problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
As you can probably tell by now, what alcohol addiction does to the brain is complicated, but the good news is that much of the damage caused by addiction can be reversed during recovery. In the same way that the brain is moulded around alcohol use, it can also be moulded around abstinence and recovery.
Nonetheless, you should be aware that these changes will not occur overnight; after all, they did not occur overnight when you developed your addiction. But if you are prepared to commit to a programme of recovery and are willing to work hard, the same process that led to your addiction can occur again; this time complementing your recovery.
For most, overcoming alcohol addiction begins with a detox programme as the first step on the road to recovery is getting clean. After that, you will need to learn how to stay that way. During detox, you will quit alcohol, but when you do, you are likely to experience a number of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms could be mild, moderate, or severe; there is no way to tell which symptoms you will experience or how severe these will be before they actually occur.
In a dedicated detox facility though, your symptoms can be effectively managed by fully trained, experienced staff who will know how to make you more comfortable and who will ensure your safety at all times.
After detox, you can begin a programme of rehabilitation where the process of working on changing your brain again will begin. You will learn how to live an alcohol-free life. With time, your brain will rewire itself so that staying sober is as normal as drinking used to be.
If you would like more information on what alcohol addiction does to the brain or how you can recover from alcoholism, please call us at Recovery Lighthouse today. We have a team of experts who can answer any questions you may have and who can provide information on the treatment programmes we provide and how these could help you to get your life back under control. Call right now to find out how we can help you.