Addiction Recovery Blog

Why Alcohol is Addictive (and 10 signs of addiction)

[fa icon="calendar"] Jul 10, 2019 / by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina

The first time *Sarah had a drink, she remembers being just eleven years old. "I stole liquor out of my parents cabinet, because I wanted to know what was so great about it. Every night, my parents would sit down and pour more and more out of the bottle. They seemed more and more happy each time they had a drink. I wanted to try it - it seemed fun."

For those suffering from alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to understand why and how it began. Today, it is predicted that 1 in 8 Americans suffer from alcohol abuse and dependency- that's 12.74% of the entire nation. Researchers have always understood that alcoholism develops within the brain, but are discovering more and more about how deeply rooted alcoholism is affected by genetics, brain chemistry and sociological factors than ever before. 

It took *Sarah until she was 26 to understand and admit the power alcohol had her over and her life. "Over my teenage years, I blended in with my friends and their experiments - to a degree. I always seemed to be the one that was the most drunk and always the one to initiate drinking. My anxious personality kind of....dissipated the more I drank. I felt relaxed, like my brain wasn't scrambling all the time."

Anxiety and depression disorders are a driving factor of alcohol abuse, with 20% of those suffering from mental illness also abusing alcohol. Other sociological driving forces behind alcoholism include high levels of stress, peer pressure and self medication. But typically, these are the outcomes of a much bigger, more complex issue pertaining to why alcohol is addictive. 

pain killer pills"All I knew is that drinking felt good - it made me feel good. I didn't understand why, though. I didn't understand why I could not stop thinking about alcohol or why I craved it. I laughed at how I could drink men under the table, but I didn't understand how." 

Your Brain and Why Alcohol is Addictive  

Long term alcohol abuse causes the brain to become dependent on ethanol (the main ingredient of alcohol) due to:

  • Increased dopamine 
  • Burned out receptor sites & dopamine transporters
  • Increased endorphins 
  • Increased GABA

Alcohol Addiction & Inhibitory and Excitatory Neurotransmitters

There are two kinds of neurotransmitters that control what your body does, and went to do it. Inhibitory neurotransmitters calm the brain, and are associated with balance and ease. Excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain and hep you focus, pay attention etc. 

A major inhibitory neurotransmitter - gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA) - reduces "excitability" to the brain. Alcohol increases the amount of GABA produced and transmitted, therefore, sedating the brain. This is what many drinkers refer to as "taking the edge off".

Long term abuse of alcohol forces the brain to adapt to increased levels of GABA, by producing a counteracting neurotransmitter glutamate - of the excitatory family. However, the increase glutamate will in turn, prompt the brain to keep producing high levels of GABA - this chemical reaction is what causes a tolerance to alcohol. 

Dopamine Contributes to Alcohol Addiction 

Ethanol (the main ingredient in alcohol) causes the brain to produce high levels of dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure within our brains. When we first consume alcohol, dopamine is produced, signaling to our brains that alcohol use is a reward. This is reinforced by continual production of dopamine.

illustration of a head filled with wine glasses and beer bottles

Eventually however, alcohol addiction causes dopamine transporters and your brains receptors sites to wear down. This inevitable decrease in dopamine production means that those suffering from alcohol addiction will fail to feel adequate levels of pleasure - but, the brain will still "remember" the reward that was attached to drinking, and signify the need to further drink. 

How Endorphins & Genetics Contribute to Alcohol Addiction

Alongside dopamine, the brain releases endorphins - another feel good function of the brain- that creates feelings of euphoria. Alcohol actually releases endorphins in two parts of the brain, signaling to your mind that drinking is a very rewarding experience. 

While there is no single genetic gene that causes alcohol abuse, researchers are continuously keen to map out which genes may be responsible.

You Don't Have to Suffer With Alcohol

eBook: 10 Warning Signs of Addiction Click Here for a FREE Copy

If you believe you, or your loved one, may be suffering from alcohol addiction - you are not alone. Unsure if you have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol? Our free e-book "10 Signs You May Have a Problem" helps guide you through telling signs that alcohol may be influencing your life beyond your control. 

If you are ready to take the next steps in your recovery, contact us.

Topics: Addiction

Russ Kallina

Written by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina is Aquila Recovery of Virginia's Program Director of Operations.