The Chemistry of Alcohol Dependence

Most people have at least a basic understanding of neurochemistry, the relationships between the naturally-produced chemicals in the human brain. What they may not know is how alcohol affects them. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, regulate the brain’s functions and influence behavior. Healthy function depends on a careful balance of these neurotransmitters, and virtually every type of substance abuse interferes with this balance.

This is one of the many reasons why The Treatment Center focuses on holistic healing strategies. When treating alcoholism, we take each patient’s unique neurochemistry into consideration to provide effective treatment.

The Treatment Center for Holistic Care

The Treatment Center for Holistic CareResearch continues to suggest that some people have neurochemical imbalances that make them more inclined to develop substance abuse issues. Others have a harder time recovering from alcohol and substance abuse due to other neurochemical imbalances. Thanks to breakthroughs in neuroscience, we at The Treatment Center have a much more comprehensive understanding of how neurochemistry ties to addiction.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a study performed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism detailing the neuroscience behind alcohol dependency. This study offers valuable insights into how alcohol changes the brain, allowing those in recovery to get more targeted care.

How Alcohol Changes the Brain

Alcohol’s effects on the human brain vary depending on numerous factors, such as the quantity and potency consumed, how fast a person consumes it, the physiology of the person consuming the alcohol, and others. Most people are aware of the immediate effects of alcohol use, short-term effects can build up to long-term problems and endanger the health of people who abuse alcohol.

Immediate Effects of Alcohol Use

The most common effects of alcohol use after consumption are drowsiness, feelings of euphoria or decreased inhibitions, loss of coordination, poor judgment, decreased reaction time, and difficulty with fine motor functions. Additionally, consuming too much alcohol too quickly can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cramping, and dehydration.

As the body processes alcohol and the brain acknowledges its effects, the brain must adjust its chemistry to compensate for the alcohol’s effects. The immediate physical effects of alcohol consumption typically fade within a few days. The neurological effects, however, can last much longer. When a person consumes large quantities of alcohol on a regular basis, the brain has to work harder to maintain neurological balance.

Effects Over Time

When a person consistently consumes alcohol, two very important responses develop: tolerance and withdrawal. As the person continues to consume alcohol, he or she will require more and more alcohol to achieve the desired feeling. As the body works to compensate for the alcohol consumption, the person’s tolerance for alcohol increases.

When the person stops consuming alcohol for a time, the brain must suddenly adjust to the change after working to accommodate the alcohol consumption for so long. This can create strong cravings for more alcohol to curb the unpleasant side effects of abstaining from alcohol. Withdrawal from any type of substance abuse is dangerous and extremely difficult to manage, but alcohol withdrawal symptoms are particularly severe.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Once a person’s brain grows accustomed to consistent alcohol consumption, various neurochemical processes change in dramatic ways, altering behaviors and increasing dependency. When that person suddenly stops drinking, the effects within the first 48 hours can be severe. Most people in this situation experience profuse sweating, anxiety, restlessness, increased heart rate, and in some cases, the delirium tremens (also called the “DTs”), which is an involuntary shaking.

While medical intervention can help to mitigate the effects of the immediate physical withdrawal symptoms, the psychological hold alcohol dependency has on those suffering from it can last far longer. As the brain grows more accustomed to alcohol’s presence in the body, it changes various neurochemical processes to strive for balance. Once the person removes alcohol from the equation, the brain must suddenly alter its processes again. These changes typically exacerbate anxiety and make DTs and other symptoms much more unpleasant.

Finding Treatment

At The Treatment Center, we understand that there is no one-size-fits-all cure for every person struggling with alcohol dependency. Neurochemistry plays a significant role in each case, and the differences in neurotransmitter activity vary widely from person to person. Developing a personalized, comprehensive treatment program is one of the best ways to stop alcoholism. Our staff focuses on providing custom-tailored treatment to every patient, and understanding the relationship between alcohol abuse and brain chemistry is one of the most important steps in developing reliable treatment plans.

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