Even if you aren’t a doctor, you probably have a little knowledge about the basics of neurochemistry, better known as the way in which the chemicals in the brain interact with each other. However, something that is less well-known by the average person is the way in which alcohol can affect those naturally occurring chemicals. The chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, can regulate the way in which the brain functions and also influence the way in which an individual behaves. Healthy function relies on those neurotransmitters being balanced properly, and almost all substance abuse disorders end up interfering with that balance, including alcohol addiction.
Research into Alcohol Addiction and Neurochemistry
There have been several studies that have looked into how human neurochemistry is affected by alcohol addiction, and the evidence produced by these studies suggests that there are some people who already have imbalances in their brain chemistries, which makes them more at risk of developing substance abuse disorders. Some find it harder to recover from substance abuse because of different neurochemical imbalances. Luckily, scientific advances in the field of neuroscience mean that doctors and experts have a better understanding of the ways in which neurochemistry and addiction interact with each other.
A study was released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that detailed how neuroscience worked in cases of alcohol dependency. There were valuable insights outlined in the study that showed the ways in which alcohol caused changes to the brain, and it is this information that has helped people entering recovery to obtain care that is better targeted to their needs.
How Does Alcohol Change the Brain?
The effect of alcohol on a human brain will vary and depends on several factors, including the potency of the alcohol and the amount consumed, as well as how quickly it was drunk. An individual’s physiology is also important. Although many people know that alcohol abuse has immediate effects, those short-term problems can grow into more serious problems in the long term if the disorder goes untreated and can endanger a person’s health.
Immediate Impact of Alcohol Abuse
The most commonly experienced effects of consuming alcohol include drowsiness, happiness, lowered inhibitions, poor judgment, poor coordination, slow reaction time, and problems with fine motor skills. In addition, drinking excessive alcohol rapidly causes nausea, dizziness, vomiting, dehydration, and cramping. As the human body processes the alcohol and the brain acknowledges the effects, adjustments must be made in the brain’s chemistry that will compensate for the effects of the alcohol. Typically, the short-term physical effect of alcohol consumption fades in just a few days. However, there are also neurological effects and they last a lot longer. If someone regularly drinks an excessive amount of alcohol, his or her brain must work much harder to keep a neurological balance.
If someone drinks alcohol consistently, there are two responses that develop – withdrawal and tolerance. When someone carries on drinking alcohol over time, he or she needs increasing amounts to get the same feeling of euphoria. And, as the body struggles to compensate for the amount of alcohol being consumed, the tolerance level of the individual will naturally rise.
If someone stops drinking alcohol, the brain also has to adjust to the change. The result is strong cravings so that the unwanted withdrawal symptoms can be curbed. Withdrawal from all types of substances can be difficult and dangerous to manage. However, the withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol are especially severe and dangerous.
As the brain gets accustomed to drinking alcohol on a regular basis, there are many dramatic changes in the person’s brain chemistry. These neurochemical processes will alter behavior patterns and increase dependency further. If the individual then stops drinking, within 48 hours, he or she will experience some severe effects. The symptoms include anxiety, profuse sweating, fast heartbeat, restlessness, and even DTs (delirium tremens), which involve shaking involuntarily.
With such severe symptoms being the consequences of withdrawal, it is hardly surprising that so many people with an alcohol abuse disorder are reluctant to seek out help. Those who have tried to go it alone in the past and who have tried to give up drinking without any success because of the symptoms that they experienced are less likely to want to try to give it up again. However, medical intervention has a key role to play in mitigating the unpleasant effects of withdrawal symptoms.
Unfortunately, even after the physical symptoms of withdrawal have subsided, the psychological symptoms of alcohol dependency can continue for much longer. When the brain has grown accustomed to having alcohol in the body, the neurochemical processes change in an attempt to regain balance. When alcohol is then removed, the brain, once again, has to adjust the processes to get the balance back. The changes exacerbate anxiety while making withdrawal symptoms, such as DTs, more unpleasant.
There can be no single blanket treatment for everyone with an alcohol addiction. Everyone has his or her own reasons for turning to alcohol. Getting to the root cause of the problem is the only way in which the issues can be addressed and new coping mechanisms can be found so problems can be dealt with in a healthy way. Neurochemistry has a key role to play in every case of alcohol dependency and developing a treatment program that is comprehensive and personalized to an individual’s needs is the best way to put addiction in the past and to move on to a sober lifestyle.