Alcohol and our brains: What's really happening when we drink?
Dec 21, 2021, 4 min read
Alcohol is part of the fabric of our society. Here in the UK, 80% of us enjoy an alcoholic drink from time to time (although thanks to younger generations these numbers are now falling).
We drink at big life events and social occasions. We drink to unwind after a busy day at work or to celebrate the arrival of the weekend.
What are the effects of alcohol on the brain? And what does consuming alcohol mean for our mental health?
Effects of alcohol on the brain: what happens when we have a drink?
Alcohol gets absorbed into your bloodstream and travels to the brain.
After a drink or two you may feel a little tipsy –relaxed, disinhibited and more socially confident. That’s because when we drink, the brain releases endorphins and dopamine and this makes us feel good.
At this point, alcohol will also be affecting your reaction times and coordination. If you continue to drink beyond this point, alcohol will begin to affect other areas of the brain too.
The depressive effects of alcohol soon kick in. Alcohol increases the effects of a neurotransmitter called Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). GABA dampens the brain’s responses.
As a result, you may find it hard to think clearly, make good judgments or speak without slurring your words. And you may lose control of your emotions.
When the level of alcohol in your blood gets extremely high, you might experience nausea or vomiting. In cases of alcohol poisoning, you may pass out and even stop breathing.
What are the longer-term effects of moderate drinking?
Experts are keen to point out that there is no safe drinking level. Minimising your alcohol intake reduces both physical and mental health risks.
The NHS recommends that we drink less than 14 units of alcohol per week. And that we should all avoid binge drinking –– which means consuming a large number of these units in a single session.
But it’s not just someone who has an alcohol misuse problem who experiences the effect alcohol has on your brain, both whilst drinking and during the following days. Even moderate drinkers can experience:
The vast majority of us have experienced the pain of a hangover the day after a heavy bout of drinking.
Alcohol causes dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, inflammation of the digestive system, and sleep disturbances. This can present as headaches, nausea and fatigue.
But we don’t get away with just physical after-effects. A hangover is often accompanied by psychological symptoms including feelings of irritability, anxiety and depression.
This is because alcohol upsets our brain chemistry and it can take a number of hours for the brain to settle back into a state of equilibrium.
Changes in alcohol tolerance
Regular, moderate drinking can also cause changes to alcohol tolerance. This is because the brain and body adapt to the presence of alcohol.
Over time, a person has to drink more to achieve the same feelings of intoxication. In some cases, this can lead to developing an alcohol disorder.
What does it mean to have an alcohol disorder?
People suffering from an alcohol disorder find it very difficult to stop drinking. This is because alcohol has already caused long-term changes to the brain.
What effect does long term, heavy drinking have on the brain?
The brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine. This means a person needs to drink more alcohol to experience the same high.
Neurons in the brain, which have adapted to alcohol in the system, overreact when a heavy drinker stops drinking alcohol. This can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, headaches, insomnia and sweating.
People with a long-term alcohol addiction may also experience permanent brain damage. This might present as mood changes, forgetfulness and problems with coordination, even when a person hasn’t had an alcoholic drink.
What to do if you think you have an alcohol disorder
Symptoms of an alcohol disorder include:
- Feeling like you can’t resist a drink
- Drinking even though its damaging your health, work life and relationships
- Choosing to drink alcohol rather than do activities you would have once enjoyed
- Needing to drink more and more alcohol to feel drunk
Accepting that you have a problem with alcohol is the first important step towards getting help and beating your addiction.
Remember that overcoming an alcohol disorder is a long term challenge –– one that will feel easier if you have the right support.
So where should you turn for help? You might choose to:
- Seek the help of a therapist
- Talk to your GP
- Find a local alcohol addiction service
- Attend an AA meeting
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