The Legal High: Why Alcohol is so Addictive
Alcohol is all around us. It’s at restaurants, holiday parties and outdoor barbeques with friends. When we turn on the TV, we see advertisements full of beautiful people with alcoholic drinks in their hands. We’ve even nicknamed the Friday after-work cocktail gathering “happy hour.” Like it or not, alcohol is part of our culture. It’s also legal, which takes away any hesitation to steer clear due to fears of getting in trouble with the law.
Alcohol also has a powerful effect on the brain. It releases hormones that make us feel good, as well as those that dull physical and emotional pain.
Alcohol’s pervasiveness in society, legality and feel-good qualities make it a triple threat when it comes to getting hooked. So it should come as no surprise that 30 percent of Americans have struggled with alcohol abuse.
To add insult to injury, alcohol is quite damaging to the body. Heroin, cocaine and other “hard” drugs indeed have a stigma, but when it comes to ravaging the body, the worst offender isn’t necessarily in a needle in a back alley but in a pint glass in restaurants and bars.
What does alcohol do to the body?
Anyone who’s ever had a hangover knows alcohol isn’t good for the body. The high produced by alcohol comes at a price. When you drink, alcohol immediately travels throughout your body via your bloodstream. In excess, alcohol can produce the following negative effects, just to name a few:
- Inflammation in the pancreas, called pancreatitis
- Chronic liver inflammation, called cirrhosis
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) resulting from damage to the pancreas and liver
- Increased risk of certain cancers, including those of the liver, breast and head and neck
- Impaired thinking, which leads to impulsivity and poor decision making
- Problems with balance and coordination, which can lead to falls and injuries
- Permanent brain damage, leading to dementia
- Damage to the nervous system, leading to pain, numbness or abnormal sensations in the feet and hands
- A deficiency in vitamin B1, leading to rapid eye movements, weakness, or eye muscle paralysis
- Physical and emotional dependence
Women and alcohol
Even in small amounts, alcohol affects women differently than men. Women have more water in their bodies, and because alcohol gets dispersed via the water, women’s organs become exposed to more alcohol and its toxic byproducts. This is why medical experts recommend women drink less than men. The Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men. Any more than this increases risk for motor vehicle accidents and other injuries, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide and certain types of cancer. Alcohol is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, because it can cause birth defects in an unborn baby.
Why is alcohol such a hard habit to break?
Alcohol is addictive for a number of reasons. For one, it triggers release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good. It also increases production of pain-killing endorphins. A 2012 study done at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco found evidence that humans experience pleasure while drinking alcohol when the brain releases endorphins from the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex regions of the brain. Alcohol also affects communication in the brain by acting on glutamate and GABA, which promotes the development of tolerance to and dependence on alcohol.
Personality also plays a role. Nervous or anxious people tend to turn to alcohol to calm down. When they start to use alcohol for this reason, they become psychologically dependent.
An individual’s genetic makeup is also important. A person whose parents had a problem with alcohol has 10 times the risk of developing alcoholism compared with a person whose parents did not abuse alcohol. Scientists are looking into exactly which genes affect addiction.
There’s also the role of alcohol in the media and in our society as a whole. Getting sober often requires a complete overhaul of a person’s lifestyle, friends, habits and interests that involve alcohol. A person may be midway through detox and then see a commercial for alcohol that instantly turns their cravings back on.
Conquering alcohol addiction is challenging, no doubt. But it’s not impossible. Alcoholism is a treatable disease. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, contact your physician or a recovery center for guidance on how to get help.