THE SCIENCE OF ALCOHOL
If You Don’t Have a Problem With Drinking NOW, Science Says You Probably Will in the Future (From LIKE…to WANT…to MUST).
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
This quote by Kevin Spacey’s character in Usual Suspects (one of the best movies ever BTW) is a perfect example of the insidious nature and complex hold that alcohol has over many.
There are some of you who will read this title and think this is BS because you KNOW you don’t have a problem, but you are still interested to know how I can say the chances are so good that you will LIKELY have one in the future.
You LIKE alcohol and what’s wrong with that? You are able to drink as much as you desire and still show up to work and be (relatively) productive the next day. You aren’t drinking all day or selling any household items (or yourself) to get more alcohol.
You even stopped a few times in the past with no problem. Remember that dry January you just did this year? There’s NO WAY you have a problem.
And while being able to abstain from drinking for considerable amounts of time does bode well when it compares to some of the symptoms of alcohol use disorder, the science of how alcohol affects the body and mind over time warns that if you continue to drink on a consistent basis, this control could disappear as suddenly as Kayser Soze.
Let me explain the science behind why this is so dangerous to make this clear. DISCLAIMER: This is WAY more complicated than how I will explain it, but I will do my best to break it down in terms that most people can understand.
Your brain has two naturally created opioid peptides that are used to keep your body in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis: Endorphins and Dynorphins.
Endorphins are released every time we experience something pleasurable, i.e. laugh at a joke, hug a loved one, take a swig of our favorite alcoholic beverage. The laughing and hugging create a normal amount of endorphins in our body that spikes up from our usual balanced state of homeostasis, but we are able to naturally come back to baseline relatively quickly with no major effort or issues.
Dynorphins do somewhat the opposite and are used to regulate a number of different things in the body from pain to pleasure. In relation to pleasure, they are released to keep your body from getting overly excited and to return to a baseline of what we could consider normal (or the SAFE zone).
When we drink alcohol, we introduce a foreign chemical into our body that was not considered in its creation. This causes an unnaturally large spike of endorphins in our body that throws our natural equilibrium WAY off. When this happens, our body is forced to release dynorphins into our brain to get us back to our SAFE zone.
Because the brain is trying to get you back to homeostasis as quickly as possible, the amount of dynorphins the brain releases DRAMATICALLY outweighs the level of endorphins created by the alcohol. This is the reason that you feel great about twenty minutes after you had your first beer, but will slowly start to feel your “buzz” wearing off after about an hour.
Therefore, to maintain that same “high” of endorphins, you have to get another alcoholic beverage in your system to combat the large release of dynorphins. But once you put another endorphin spike in your system, your brain will release ANOTHER large dose on dynorphins to react to this.
This is why you have to continually drink to keep your buzz going all night and why, as time progresses, you have to continue to drink more and more to get the same feeling. Your body is just doing what it is supposed to do to keep you at a state of equilibrium and feeling safe. Most people are used to this so no big revelation there.
However, what you probably don’t realize is exactly how smart your body is and how it adapts to the lessons you teach it over time. This is where the true danger of drinking lies and why, if you drink consistently for a long enough period of time, the chances of you having a “problem” are almost guaranteed.
There are three things that your body does that cause this. One: when alcohol causes the unnatural spike of endorphins in your body, your brain likes it. It likes it A LOT, and any time your brain finds something pleasurable that makes it feel good (think that infamous Halle Berry scene in Monster’s Ball), it releases dopamine in the brain.
We have all heard of dopamine. Many of us would call it the “feel good” drug. But what most of us don’t also realize is dopamine is also the “learning and memory” drug. When it is released into our brain, our subconscious actually takes hold of everything related to the release of that drug and sears it into our brain as something associated with that feeling.
This is actually one of the functions that helped our ancestors survive by subconsciously making them remember subtle things about their surroundings to help differentiate between “this area looks safe” (previous positive experience of finding food) and “this area looks dangerous” (previous negative experience of being attacked), i.e. a real-life “spidey” sense.
How this relates to alcohol is that, over time, our brain will not only begin to associate just alcohol with this pleasurable feeling but also everything we do related or leading up to the drinking of alcohol.
That’s why when you pass your favorite drinking spot, you might feel a little twinge asking, “Can we just swing in for a minute and get a drink?” When you look at a wine glass, your body might say, “Don’t we want a glass of that?” This changes your relationship from just liking alcohol to WANTING it.
Now, this leads to our second problem. At this point, our body begins to get used to our drinking and has learned from all the dopamine that has been released over time. This causes your body to not only react to certain triggers around you but also to actually “preempt” triggers to CREATE the actual need for alcohol to go after that dopamine hit.
To explain this, let’s go back to our dynorphin friends for a minute. If your body is used to getting alcohol every day at 5pm or every Friday and Saturday for long enough, when that time comes, your body will begin to get excited because it now knows a dopamine hit should be coming soon.
This can actually cause your body to then release dynorphins IN ANTICIPATION OF the alcohol to come. This will slowly begin to reverse the cycle because if you don’t then get that usual drink at that designated time, you start to feel low or depressed and then actually NEED the alcohol to get back to baseline/homeostasis.
And this, my friend, is how cravings start.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The third and perhaps most dangerous aspect of what happens to our brain over time due to consistent alcohol consumption is how it warps our ability to actually enjoy things WITHOUT it.
Because the artificial endorphin spike and subsequent dopamine hit from alcohol are outside of anything that our body could experience naturally, over time, it will begin to rewire our brain to actually stop being able to produce dopamine on its own.
What this means is that things that used to provide pleasure, i.e. having sex with your partner, eating your favorite meal, hanging with loves ones, no longer creates enough dopamine for it to have a significant effect, and your body only becomes used to the heightened unnatural pleasure of what the bottle can provide.
This is why people that are in the advanced stages of alcohol abuse are often so depressed and can find very little to make them happy again. Their body has been so reprogrammed by alcohol and its homeostasis so thrown off, that it almost becomes impossible to feel pleasure from natural things anymore. Therefore, the desire to drink is no longer a want but a MUST.
Of course, no one thinks this can happen to them or IS happening to them, but this doesn’t happen overnight. This is VERY gradual and sneaks up on you. This happens over many years and is so imperceptible that unless you are really looking for it, you won’t notice it at all.
Since many individuals who are going down this path are STILL able to go to work every day and have even some sense of success in their career, there appears to be no cause for alarm.
These types of people could eventually turn into what is known as the Functional Subtype in the alcohol community. They make up about 20% of all alcoholics and drinking doesn’t become a problem for these individuals until somewhere in the 16th-23rd year of drinking.
The average age this group starts drinking is 19, and their average dependence starts around 37 years of age. This is why when some people decide to “slow down” in their mid to later years of life, they find it a bit more difficult than what they would’ve thought. Your brain and physiological make-up have been so changed over the years that to break free from it, it’s going to take an equal effort of long-term sustained focus and determination.
And while I’m sure you’re telling yourself there’s no way you fall in that 20% and definitely don’t have a problem, isn’t it a bit scary to know that’s exactly what Kayser Soze (a.k.a. alcohol) would want you to think?