Most people assume that because alcohol is legal, it is completely safe; it is certainly not as harmful as many illegal drugs, right? The truth however is that alcohol can be as dangerous, if not more so, than a number of illegal substances if it is abused. To understand the harm that it can cause, it is important to consider the issue of alcoholism and what alcohol addiction does to your brain.
What is Alcoholism?
While most people can use alcohol in moderation, there are others who allow it to become a destructive force in their lives. Through no fault of their own, they develop a crippling addiction that can threaten to destroy everything they hold dear.
Alcoholism is the term given to an addiction to alcohol, whereby an individual’s use of it is having a negative impact on daily life. Those affected by alcohol addiction have no control over their desire to drink and when they do drink, they often find that they cannot stop.
Alcoholics will become obsessed with alcohol and will place it above everything else in their lives, including family and friends. It will come before work and any other responsibilities that the individual has.
It is difficult for the people who love an alcoholic to understand why he or she continues to drink when doing so is causing harm to not only his or her life but to the lives of everyone else around them as well. Nonetheless, there is a very good reason why alcoholics do this. It is down to the impact that continued regular alcohol abuse has on the brain.
How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect Your Brain?
The issue of what alcohol addiction does to the brain is a complex one and most people do not understand that alcoholism is actually an illness and not a lifestyle choice. Regular alcohol abuse can lead to structural alterations in the brain and it is these changes that can cause people to drink more than they should and to be unable to make good decisions.
When you first started drinking, it would have had a sedative effect on your body. You may have felt warm and content and, if you liked that feeling, you may have decided to drink again. It is unlikely that you developed an addiction immediately and it may even have been the case that for years you were drinking socially with family or friends.
It is difficult to tell when alcohol consumption crosses a line from social drinking to problem drinking. For most people it happens without them even realising. But under the surface, a lot is going on with the brain.
Research has helped scientists discover that continued regular use of alcohol can cause structural changes within the brain. The sustained abuse of alcohol causes the brain to adapt and to almost ‘rewire’ itself around the continuous presence of this chemical substance. This process of change is known as neuroplasticity.
The result of these changes is that alcoholics become less able to make good decisions and to practice self-control. The ability to stop drinking is severely hampered and has absolutely nothing to do with willpower or weakness.
How Alcohol Addiction Causes the Brain to Change
The brain is made up of nerve cells known as neurons. There are billions of neurons in the brain and they interact continuously with nerves in every other part of your body. They are responsible for everything that you do, including breathing, thinking, and eating.
To direct everything that you do, your brain sends messages that are known as electrical impulses. These impulses travel along neurons and across gaps between them, which are known as synapses. In order for the impulses to jump across the synapses, the brain releases chemicals, which are also known as neurotransmitters. The type of chemical that is released by the brain will depend on the message that is being sent.
The brain’s feel-good chemical is called dopamine and it is this that is released when mood-altering chemicals such as alcohol are consumed. The first time you drank alcohol, your brain reacted by releasing dopamine and this likely resulted in you experiencing a rush of pleasure.
Dopamine also affects the brain’s reward centre so when you feel a rush of pleasure, you learn to replicate the behaviour. For example, when you eat food that is good for you, you will experience pleasure and you are likely to want to eat that food again. It is the same with alcohol.
However, in some people, alcohol can deeply affect the reward system and it is overstimulated, resulting in the release of large amounts of dopamine. For these individuals, alcohol is even more pleasurable, and they soon begin seeking it more and more frequently.
In the early days, this is unlikely to cause any serious issues, but as time goes by, the structure of the brain can be altered. In some cases, the interaction between certain neurons and neurotransmitters is affected. Neurons can be physically altered and some pathways within the brain are strengthened or damaged completely.
The area of the brain that tends to be negatively affected by alcohol addiction is the frontal lobe, where high-level thinking takes place. This is also the part of the brain that is responsible for decision making and good judgement.
As changes occur within the brain, your behaviour will also change. You may become even more obsessed with alcohol and will be unable to stop drinking even when it is causing harm to your everyday life.
The need for alcohol begins to interfere with responsibilities and activities and everything else takes second place. After a while, you will need alcohol just to feel normal.
Can You Overcome Alcoholism?
Although many of the changes that occur in the brain because of alcohol addiction can be permanent, scientists have discovered that with recovery it is possible to rewire the brain once more. In the same way that sustained drinking can result in structural alterations to the brain, continuous abstinence can also lead to changes.
Nevertheless, you should be aware that in the same way that you did not develop an addition to alcohol overnight, your recovery will also be a lengthy process. But if you are prepared to make changes and work with your treatment provider, you can overcome your addiction.
A comprehensive recovery programme will include a detox and will be followed by a programme of rehabilitation and aftercare. Each element is an important part of the recovery and should not be neglected.
Detox will help to break the physical cycle of alcohol abuse while rehabilitation will deal with any underlying issues that led to your addictive behaviour in the first place. Once rehab is complete, you will need to consider the issue of sobriety maintenance, and aftercare is essential in helping with this.
If you are ready to overcome your addiction to alcohol, UKAT can help. We have a number of private clinics across the UK where we offer exceptional treatment programmes to help with a variety of addictions, behavioural disorders, and mental health issues.
If you need a medical detox and rehabilitation programme, we can help. By contacting our helpline today, you can access a bespoke programme of care that is created with solely you in mind. Our clinics provide inpatient programmes to give you the opportunity to achieve permanent sobriety in the shortest time possible.
Staffed by dedicated professionals who are fully trained in all aspects of addiction recovery, you can be sure of care and support from passionate individuals who want to help you get well. We are regulated by the Care Quality Commission and are proud of our record of success when it comes to helping patients achieve long-term success. Please call today for more information on how we can help you get better.
Alternatively, if you want to speak to someone to learn more about your illness and what alcohol addiction does to your brain, please do not hesitate to contact us. One of our advisors will be happy to assist and provide answers to any queries you may have.