Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
Addictive substances hook people physically by messing with their brain’s chemistry. These substances usually trigger the release of dopamine, the body’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Once a person does something that trips the brain’s reward center, they feel good and are more likely to repeat the activity.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits information and signals between brain cells and throughout your body. Dopamine regulates (in part) our moods, emotions, sensations, and some body functions. It is released naturally during pleasurable activities (exercising, eating, getting a good night’s sleep, listening to music, meditating, or having sex).
How Does Alcohol Affect Dopamine Levels?
When you drink, the brain’s reward system is flooded with dopamine, producing the euphoric “buzz.” In fact, dopamine production can increase with the first sip of alcohol, or even just by thinking about drinking because your brain has probably associated pleasure with alcohol. Alcohol increases dopamine production, so you feel good and, generally, relaxed. In order to keep the good feelings going, your brain prompts you to continue drinking.
However, when it comes to dopamine levels and addictive substances, alcohol behaves somewhat differently than other substances or pharmaceuticals. Alcohol does not prevent the reuptake of dopamine while other substances do. So, in effect, your brain reabsorbs the dopamine the alcohol made it create.
Your brain adapts to the sudden increase in the neurotransmitter by producing less dopamine, but because of the link to pleasure, it doesn’t want you to stop after a few drinks — even when your dopamine levels start to deplete. Dopamine levels fall, and the euphoric buzz goes with it, but your brain is looking to regain the feeling caused by the increased level of dopamine. You compensate for this by drinking more. Eventually, you rely fully on alcohol to generate dopamine release, and without it, you experience withdrawal symptoms. In other words, you are addicted. Often, the only way to break this cycle is through rehab and therapy.
Some addictive substances affect dopamine directly, whereas alcohol and other drugs have an indirect effect. Alcohol is a small molecule, so it interacts with many neurotransmitters in the brain. Large molecules, like opiates or amphetamines, only stimulate a specific neurotransmitter. Thus, the actions of alcohol in the brain are quite complex in comparison.
Alcohol also interacts with other neurotransmitters, producing a variety of effects: adrenaline (acts as a stimulant); endorphins (similar to opiates and can act as a pain-killer and produce an endorphin “high”); GABA (similar to Valium in causing relaxation and drowsiness); glutamate (leads to staggering, slurred speech and memory blackouts); and norepinephrine/noradrenaline (also acts as a stimulant), among others.
Alcohol has such a wide variety of effects, affecting the parts of your brain that control speech, movement, memory, and judgment. This is why the signs of overindulgence include slurred speech, bad or antisocial behavior, trouble walking, and difficulty performing manual tasks.
Research has shown that the brains of alcoholics have dopamine levels that are significantly below average. This explains why alcoholics would continue to seek more and more alcohol in order to achieve the same pleasure. Dopamine deficiencies are also associated with depression and other psychological disorders.
Even with alcohol’s effect on dopamine production, you don’t have to continue drinking. Rehab programs will help break the cycle through detox and therapy — either one-on-one or group sessions.
Detox will clear the alcohol from your system, helping your brain to re-achieve balance. Dopamine production will return to normal, and other parts of the recovery program will offer things that will help your brain boost dopamine levels without chemicals. Therapy sessions will teach you coping techniques to deal with the triggers that fuel drinking. You may also receive treatment for depression at the same time, as it is one of the primary withdrawal symptoms.
While drinking initially boosts a person’s dopamine levels, the brain adapts to the dopamine overload with continued alcohol use. It produces less of the neurotransmitter, reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the body and increasing dopamine transporters, which carry away the excess dopamine. Researchers are investigating whether drugs that normalize dopamine levels in the brain might be effective in reducing alcohol cravings and treating alcoholism.
Why Choose Into Action Recovery Centers?
Into Action Recovery Centers takes pride in providing a high level of treatment and a holistic approach to recovery for those who suffer from addiction. Our comfortable facility is designed with the client’s needs foremost in mind. Our staff includes master’s level counselors, licensed chemical dependency counselors, 24-hour nursing professionals, a staff psychiatrist, a staff chef, and direct care personnel. Our counseling staff provides individualized treatment and care for our clients with an emphasis on tailoring treatment to the specific needs of each individual. Additionally, our staff provides family counseling, relapse prevention, life skills, and grief and trauma counseling.
Into Action Recovery Centers provides an abstinence-based program and all of our staff members have a strong understanding of the recovery process through personal experience. We are passionate about sharing the process involved in living a drug and alcohol-free life. We offer free aftercare for the men who complete our program and have a strong alumni network that remains active in the community. We also offer other amenities such as dietician-prepared meals, mindfulness-based meditation training, outings, and fitness training.