ALCOHOL ADDICTION IN THE BRAIN
Years’ worth of research tells us that alcohol abuse is damaging to the brain. Even drinking responsibly can have detrimental effects on your cognitive abilities — intoxication causes eyesight and speech impairment, lowers motor functions and even leads to temporary memory loss. All of this happens because alcohol interrupts the way your brain cells communicate with each other. Your brain cells use chemicals called neurotransmitters to determine every function in your body from muscle movements to emotions. Alcohol interferes most with two neurotransmitters in the brain: glutamate and GABA.
Glutamate is excitatory, which means that it makes your brain more active. When you drink alcohol, glutamate production is slowed down. Chronically abusing alcohol leads to an imbalance of glutamate in your brain; researchers believe that when the effects of alcohol wear off, the influx of glutamate can contribute to alcohol cravings. Changes in your brain’s glutamate levels can cause your body to physically feel like it needs alcohol, even when you know it’s not good for you.
GABA is inhibitory, so instead of activating the brain, it dampens certain functions. Normally, glutamate is helpful for calming the brain down in moments of fear or anxiety, establishing sleep patterns and managing emotions. When you drink, GABA is overproduced, resulting in the fuzzy, somewhat sedated state we associate with being drunk. In the long run, your brain becomes dependent on GABA to keep it from becoming overactive; without alcohol, this overactivity can make you feel anxious or paranoid. Additionally, this overactivity can result in brain cells dying and causing permanent damage.
Alcohol also affects your brain’s rewards centers — those struggling with addiction will almost instantly feel “better” when they drink because their brain has become conditioned to feel pleasure when they consume alcohol. Addiction to alcohol is often linked to other health concerns as well, like depression and anxiety, liver and kidney disease and malnutrition.