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How Does Alcohol Abuse Affect Brain Chemistry?

Table of Contents

What Happens When We Drink?

What happens when that mixed drink, beer or wine works its way to your brain? Alcohol is both a depressant and an indirect stimulant, which means this powerful substance has a major impact on brain chemistry. If you regularly drink alcohol, you may already be familiar with the immediate effect it has on the body. That glass of wine, cold beer or mixed drink impacts your thought processes, behavior and emotion.

Feeling nervous before a big date? A drink can help you relax and feel more natural in your interactions. Too many drinks, however, and you could end up deciding you’re okay to drive your date home (even though you’re over the legal limit) or even end up having unsafe sex.

What Do We Feel When We Drink?

When you drink, alcohol levels build up in your blood. At first, you may feel relaxed and happy; later, alcohol can leave you feeling sleepy, confused and more likely to engage in reckless and unsafe behaviors. Alcohol suppresses our inhibitions and triggers emotional reactions; it affects the parts of the brain controlling movement, speech, judgment and memory.

Long-term alcohol abuse has a major impact on brain chemistry. This includes the development of scar tissue on the brain and the wasting away of brain tissue, which leads to cognitive impairment. With long-term abuse, alcohol affects your ability to think clearly, solve problems, make decisions, and remember events, people, places and facts.

Alcohol and Dopamine: Why Drinking Feels Good

When you drink alcohol, you increase the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. By increasing dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks your brain into thinking that you feel great. This is one reason why you may crave a drink after a hard day at work or a fight with your spouse. Alcohol releases endorphins that suppress these negative emotions and trigger positive ones.

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Research suggests that a single drink of alcohol has a bigger impact on dopamine levels for women than it does for men. This may be one reasons why men drink more than women, reports the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).

The more you drink over time, however, the less of an impact alcohol will have on your brain’s dopamine reward center. Unfortunately, by this point you may be hooked on that dopamine rush, which drives you to drink more and more to experience the same euphoric release.

Drinking Causes Memory Lapses, Behavioral Impairment

In addition to triggering a strong emotional response, alcohol also causes memory lapses, reduces inhibitions and impairs your ability to walk and talk.

  • Memory lapses – Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only one or two drinks. As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does impairment. Blackouts from binge drinking are especially common.
  • Reduced inhibitions – Alcohol makes you feel less inhibited because it affects the cerebral cortex, the region responsible for thought processes and consciousness. Alcohol slows down processing information from the eyes, ears, mouth and other senses while inhibiting thought processes so you think less clearly.
  • Clumsiness – The cerebellum is the brain’s center for movement and balance. Alcohol impacts the cerebellum’s ability to function, so you may stagger from side to side or struggle to walk a straight line.

While the occasional alcoholic drink may seem harmless, long-term alcohol abuse has a major impact on your brain’s chemistry, increasing the likelihood for continued abuse and addiction. If you would like to stop drinking, an alcohol abuse treatment center like Destination Hope can help you take the first steps to sobriety and reverse some of the damage that alcohol has done to your brain.

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  1. DiSalvo, David. “What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain.” Forbes, 16 Oct 2012.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” NIH Alcohol Alert, Oct 2004.
  3. State Government of Victoria. “Alcohol Long-Term Effect: the Brain.” Better Health Channel, 2012.

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