How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Why It's Difficult to Quit Drinking


Compared to illicit drugs and other substances, the consumption of alcohol is generally not considered a taboo. It is generally accepted in most social settings, be it parties, informal get-together, or any festival. Due to the legitimization of drinking, alcohol is available rather easily and at a cheaper cost than most drugs.

However, no one can deny the fact that alcohol is addictive and has the potential to alter a person's brain dramatically. The prolonged and excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to a multitude of physical and mental health complications and may increase the risk of developing an addiction.

Although alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, most people consume it for its stimulant effect to alleviate any kind of stress and tension. If alcohol is consumed in excess, an individual may succumb to its depressant effects. In addition, alcohol directly affects the neural and chemical activities in the brain, particularly those regions that control thought processes, behaviors and emotions.

Depressant and indirect stimulant effects of alcohol

Alcohol interactions with the brain where it affects both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters that play a chemical role in transmitting signals throughout the body and controlling emotions, thoughts and behaviors. When a person consumes alcohol, the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is significantly amplified.

As a result, the person's heart rate and respiratory function slow down, causing him or her to feel relaxed and sedated. This is also the reason why alcohol should never be mixed with benzodiazepine drugs, such as Xanax and Valium, which intensify the effects of GABA to the levels that can be detrimental to the person.

Alcohol also affects the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate that increases the energy level and speeds up neural activities. On consumption, alcohol represses the release of glutamate that reduces the function of neurotransmitters. Another neurotransmitter that alcohol directly affects is dopamine. Dopamine is considered both an excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter; however, it is popular because it stimulates the brain's reward center. When a large amount of dopamine is produced in the brain, it makes a person believe that he or she is experiencing euphoria and other ecstatic feelings.

Key brain regions affected by alcohol

Frequent consumption of alcohol for a long time can make a person's body dependent on alcohol for the daily dose of dopamine rush. This is because the brain reduces or stops the production of dopamine on being contained and stimulated from an external source.

When a person has developed an addiction to alcohol, he or she is likely to experience a compulsive set of behaviors, such as indulgence in criminal activities, manipulative tendencies, aggressive and violent behavior, etc., that promote drinking. The sunset of dependence and addiction is a gradual process that steadily affects the key regions of the brain. Here are some brain regions that are affected by alcohol:

  • Hypothalamus and pituitary: Alcohol has been regarded as a potent aphrodisiac because it interacts with the pituitary and hypothalamus. These regions control automatic brain functions and hormones that affect sexual arousal. Although alcohol has the ability to increase one's libido, its consumption for a prolonged period affects sexual performance.
  • Medulla: This brain region is responsible for regulating functions, such as breathing, body temperature and conscious activities. Alcohol reacts with the medulla and causes sleepiness, decreased rate of breathing and body temperature, etc. When a person drinks excess alcohol, the functions of medulla are significantly diminished that can lead to life-threatening situations.
  • Cerebellum: The cerebellum is responsible for regulating one's movement, coordination and balance. When alcohol interacts with this region of the brain, the individual is at risk of witnessing stumbling, falling and other clumsy mishaps.
  • Cerebral cortex: It is the region of the brain where consciousness and thought processing take place. However, when alcohol reaches this part of the brain, it allows a person to loosen up and become inhibited. It also lowers the efficiency of the brain in processing external information through the senses, such as sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, which significantly affects the ability of a person to think clearly and make rational decisions.

Path to recovery

Because there are no safe limits to drinking, alcohol poses a serious risk to people indulging in it regularly. Alcohol has the ability to hijack and rewire the brain that effects a person to prioritize alcohol-seeking behavior. Therefore, it is essential to spread awareness about the risks associated with drinking. When added to a substance like alcohol, it becomes important to undergo an effective addiction treatment program to overcome all the hurdles and challenges.