We’ve looked at the legal drugs, caffeine and nicotine; today we’ll look at alcohol. There are many aspects to this, so today we’ll consider why alcohol makes us ‘drunk’ and why some seem to need greater amounts of alcohol just to feel normal.
For any addict, certain environmental cues become very strongly associated with the use of the drug; these turn into triggers that lead to craving and continued use. Alcohol causes the release of dopamine, which causes the initial cravings before the triggers take over.
We have chemicals in our bodies called neurotransmitters which help send messages between neurons (nerves); two major ones are glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is the excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain that many neurons use to make other neurons ‘fire up’. To work, glutamate must first fall into the right ‘receptor’, like putting the correct key into the locked door.
Alcohol can bind to one of glutamine’s main receptors and causes the receptor to change shape so the glutamate can’t work properly; it’s a bit like trying to use the same key in that door when the lock has been changed. This happens to you all, not just heavy drinkers, and the result is the sedative and hypnotic effect we associate with alcohol.
GABA on the other hand is inhibitory, which means it helps suppress neural activity. Whereas alcohol stops glutamate working, it makes GABA work even better; put the two effects together and we start seeing the changed movements and behaviours we associate with someone being drunk.
Why, then, is it that heavy drinkers appear to be able to drink much more before being affected? Simply put, the brain compensates: it increases glutamate receptors and decreases the number of GABA receptors. (You may think this is a good thing, but don’t forget the toxic effect of alcohol on the liver, brain, pancreas and other organs.)
This explains why withdrawal is so hard for alcoholics: if they simply go cold turkey, they will suddenly have too much glutamate input and too little of GABA: this can lead to jitters and anxiety at best and seizures at worst.
Before we end, remember that people don’t choose to become alcoholics. Neither are they weak, feeble or selfish, even if it may outwardly appear so at times. We do need to look, however, at what got them there in the first place and how we can help them.
Jacqui wrote this 400-word article for the Jersey Evening Post, 16 September 2020.
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Jacqui Carrel helps people with addictions. You can book a free, no-obligation call to see if we can work together on your issue.