How Your Brain Chemistry Craves Alcohol

During my years as a drinker, I was around many people who were slaves to liquor.  I don’t really know how many of them thought of themselves as having a problem.  But I do know that a lot of people emphasize the fun they’re having when drinking and their desire to drink.

brain chemistry

Heavy drinkers find millions of ways to joke about their drink, to half-heartedly mock themselves, etc.  But the truth it, they are powerfully driven to drink, and that’s a hard thing to admit.

Well, if you’ve ever wondered whether or not alcoholism is fueled by the effects of drink on the brain, wonder no more.  Scientists at Texas A&M University have found that D1 and D2 receptors in the brain, which soak up Dopamine, are responsible for getting people chemically addicted to alcohol.

As you may know, Dopamine is our main pleasure chemical in our brain.  When we are in the presence of a loved one, when we get a big compliment or good news, or when we eat junk food, this rascally chemical is activated. And, it’s very activated by drink.

To flesh this out a little more, the major problems happen in a part of the brain called the DMS, or dorsomedial striatum.  What happens is that alcohol essential makes neurons in this part of the brain more sensitive and excitable, and that only makes the urge for drink stronger.  Not good, right?

What this basically means is that more alcohol is an inevitable consequence of drinking, unless you counter your brain chemistry with immense self-control.  That’s why college kids and other partiers can’t wait until the next Friday night and the next keg party.  During the down time, they can remember the flood of pleasure chemicals from the last time they drank.  The desire for more makes drinking a pretty popular hobby, and in some cases it leads to full-blown alcoholism.

I had a friend and drinking buddy I’ll call Ramon.  Ramon had an interesting way of going about things, at least for a while when I knew him in the 80’s.  Ramon was a strange drinker—sporadic, you might say.  He had something he liked to do, which was to go down to the local batting cages, you know, where they shoot weird yellow baseballs and softballs at you and you hit them.  Then there are the go-karts and all that.

So, I would be at the bar, and if I didn’t see Ramon there, I knew it was his night for the batting cages, something he did completely sober.  Once, I went with him (I was actually very loaded, myself) and got to witness his batting first hand.  He wasn’t half-bad, but what was amazing was just how long the guy batted away at balls.  He actually had a coffee mug of quarters sitting back behind him and he kept plunking them into the coin slot and hitting away.  And after that, exhausted, he was pretty mellow.

When he’d come into bar, he was a different fellow altogether.  He always walked in scowling, always seeming very disturbed.  He’d have to get to his third drink, and then he’d start talking and seeming OK.

It was clear, then, that Ramon wanted to not drink.  He wanted to go to the batting cages, where there’d be no alcohol and, presumably, no alcoholics.  But on some nights he’d come to the bar, and those were the nights when he was very depressed.  His brain chemistry was crying out for help—medication, really.

But it’s, of course, a poison disguised as medication, one that causes problems of all kinds.

Photo by Neil Conway on Flickr


We Have to Remember the Children of Alcoholics

I don’t have any children. Instead, I have a story.  I had a friend once, who I no longer keep in touch with, who probably will never see this.

children of alcoholic

We’ll call her Erica.  She had two children, one who lived with her (the child’s) father, and one who lived with Erica.

Erica’s daughter, I’ll call Bailey, and while I knew the two of them, she went from about five years old to seven or eight.  She was kind of tall, with a long torso and faint freckles under her eyes.  I’d hang out sometimes, often bringing some food over, since Erica was a single mother and all, a bit busy for cooking.  And an alcoholic.

When I’d go over I’d have a drink or two, pacing myself for the bar a little later.  I went to a place called Rawling Street Tavern.  Anyway, Erica was one of these drinkers who’d go all day, stewing in a slow, super-drenched drunk.  She was usually pretty bitter and sad.  It’s funny, because I kind of liked that somehow, and I found it comforting.

But it wasn’t good for her daughter.  A lot of times, Bailey would be out in the small living room of their small house, doing homework on the coffee table.  Erica and I would often be in the kitchen, or sometimes in the living room.  Erica had a very strange quirk.  She’d say critical things about her daughter right in front of her—even if we were in the kitchen, Bailey could hear her.

She’d say things like she goes too fast so she can finish her homework and watch TV or she get upset when she spells words wrong and just gives up or she has plenty of brains, she just can’t concentrate. Once she said, I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t a disappointment.

She’d have this serious look on her face when she did these things, and she talked in this plodding voice like a judge pronouncing a jail sentence.  Bailey would stare at the floor if we were in the room, or whenever I tried to talk to her.  When she’d answer me, her voice would quiver.

Well, on another note, Erica did get in a car accident once with Bailey with her.  Neither was injured.  But Bailey had to watch her mom take and fail a breathalyzer, get handcuffed and go to jail.  The police called a relative, who came and picked up Bailey.

I was thinking of this when I saw an article about the effects of alcoholism on the children of the addict.  I’d love to know where Bailey is now—she has to be about thirty—and if she’s OK.  I hope her life is thriving and full of hope.

The Experience of Children of Alcoholics

I wanted to write a post about the children of alcoholics because I think it’s such an important, worthwhile issue, one that may not get enough attention.  It’s not about you, reading this, struggling with alcohol and deciding to stop because of children you may have.  It’s more an issue for all of us to be aware of.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry tells us that 1 in 5 children grow up exposed to a parent in the grips of alcoholism.  The AACAP tells us that common problems that beset these children are:

  • anger and depression
  • withdrawal and difficulty making and keeping friends
  • aggression
  • risk-taking behavior

So, what we see is not just getting some negative comments from parents or just feeling unsafe, that you don’t have a good caregiver.  Rather, the child of an alcoholic develops traits that can cause him or her to act out.  Naturally, this can lead to his or her own alcoholism.

British politician Liam Byrne grew up the son of an alcoholic and he now holds the rights of children in this bad circumstance as one of his key areas of activism.  He feels that, among other things, society (no matter which country) needs to do a better job of seeing the signs of a child of an alcoholic to further investigate the situation.  He also says that medical practitioners should do a better job of inquiring about possible alcoholism of a patient’s parents.

There are many support groups for adult children of alcoholics.  But what about children-children?  I’d like to see a much better emphasis on them and their needs in their very fragile circumstance.

Photo by Miroslav Vajdic on Flickr


Vice Says Rehab Doesn’t Work, Alcoholism Isn’t a Disease

I had to be away from the blog for a period of time, and while I was, I saw something I really wanted to respond to.

alcoholism is a disease

The libertarian news site Vice ran an interview with the neuroscientist Marc Lewis, who went through rehab for alcoholism himself and applied his experiences to his science know-how (or vice versa).

Lewis’s argument is twofold: that rehab is one big scam and that it’s also dangerous to treat alcoholism as a disease. So, I’d like to address each of these in turn.

Twelve-step scams?

As you know, I’ve been through AA as part of working through my long recovery, which I’ve upheld for two decades now.  But that doesn’t mean you’re about to read some rant against Lewis and his criticisms of AA and 12-step programs in general.  I agree with some of what he says, just not some of his conclusions.

In the interview, by Neil Sharma, Lewis says that the problem with 12-step programs like AA is that they don’t work after the person leaves, since “they go back to their environments, and all the triggers are there.”  Lewis says that people who undergo these programs “don’t get the psychological skills addicts need to move on.”

However, I think that people who go through 12-step programs absolutely do get “psychological skills.”  Here’s how I described my experience in an earlier post:

What I liked the most were the things about asking forgiveness for our wrongs and for taking inventory or our flaws and taking responsibility for them.  I dived into that whole-heartedly, making lists, checking them twice, contacting a lot of people and righting wrongs, repairing relationships.  I spent time inventorying flaws and coming up with methods for addressing them.

So, I think AA did give me “psychological skills.”  Once I was no longer in the program, of course, I was the one who had to do the work and I had to exercise the will power.  But I of course expected that going in.  I’m not sure what else Lewis expects.  What sort of magic does Lewis expect from a program, helping a person with no effort on that person’s part?

Where I disagree with him is how he interprets what AA does and how it does it.  He seems to be faulting the program for the possibilities of relapse and for the other resources that the addict has to bring into things.  But what I don’t understand is: how would not going into rehab be any better?  I’ve seen firsthand from many friends that toughing it out, sucking it up, going cold turkey, and just trying to bull one’s way into sobriety is just not successful on any regular basis.

What I’ve found—and I know it’s different for different people—is that sobriety and recovery that leads up to it can be made up of many components.  Rather than putting all of one’s chickens in one basket, an addict cobbles together many different positive influences.  This can involve sober friends, a significant other, family, religion, a few sage books by philosophers, etc.  Take what you can from each and build it into your sobriety.  There’s no reason to blow off one particular component for not being a one-stop shop for everything.

Is Alcholism A Disease?

In the last thirty years or so, it’s been pretty commonly accepted that alcoholism is a disease.  Lewis strongly disagrees, but he doesn’t offer any medical evidence.  He just says that defining it that way just makes addicts “passive” and that their addiction was “learned.”

Now, as with Lewis’s dismissal of AA, I don’t have thin skin about this.  I’ll tell you the truth.  In terms of my individual, personal experience, I didn’t necessarily think of what I had as a disease.  I just didn’t.  I thought of it as an addiction.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a disease.

But let’s look at what the facts say.

In 1991, the American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a disease.  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism classifies it as a disease.  The Kyoto University Bioinformatics Center’s Genome project tells us that essentially, there’s a downgrading of CREB-mediated gene expression, which essentially causes a person to need more pleasure chemicals, and thus turn to drink.

One might say it’s a disease, one caused by behaviors, just as heart disease or cancer could be seen the same way.

If we think of it as a disease, we may then turn to medical treatments.  Now, Lewis isn’t a big fan of these either, though he doesn’t say why in a detailed way.

I think that as long as a person takes control of his or her rehabilitation, and as long as consultations with doctors lead to sensible treatments that are monitored closely, one can think of it as a disease or not.

But there’s no reason not to treat addicts with respect.  Like in cocaine withdrawal cases. Lewis seems very preoccupied with getting addicts to call themselves lazy or “nasty,” a word he uses.  He seems to put a much higher premium on guilt and self-flagellation than I do, based on my experience and the experience of my friends and acquaintances.

It can be the case that while in a long-term dependency on alcohol, a person does some bad things, yes.  But I don’t agree with an alcoholic or those around him or her thinking of him or her as a bad person.  You didn’t commit a sin by drinking too much—you just made some bad decisions and got into a dangerous excess with real consequences.

Feeling too much guilt and getting into self-loathing will only get in the way of recovery.  Ultimately, the kind of toxic negativity Lewis spews is complete clutter to an addict, someone who needs to accentuate positive elements that work and move forward.

Photo by Emily Garden on Flickr