You're probably thinking this isn't applicable to you but continued reading to check if there's a convincing reason to stop drinking alcohol. With alcohol consumption having a comfortable and socially accepted reputation in society, it almost sounds too dramatic to persuade people to stop drinking alcohol. Moreover, you personally know various people that have spent their lifetimes chugging beers and sipping whiskey and yet, died at a reasonable age, so it is really harmful to your mortality?
Well, drinking alcohol isn't going to lead to death but alcohol consumption can be like making a deal with the devil, promising momentary pleasure but coming back to bite you like a sneaky disorder that surfaces after years. Most occasional drinkers would deny any presence of an alcohol addiction or alcohol abuse because they only drink socially and that too in limits.
The limits, however, may be quite subjective; for some, it's two Long Island Ice Teas and for others, it's an entire wine bottle. Whatever it may be, drinking alcohol works on the belief that a bottle of Spirit is your friend, a companion that magically rids you of worldly stress and puts you in a bubble of euphoria.
This 'friend' often inches its way into your college or work routines and before you realize, you get stuck in a mindless routine of drinking on the weekends and link every social interaction to booze. You justify it with your excellent work-alcohol balance - so what if you got drunk on a Tuesday night, you showed up to work on time and even managed to be productive.
To prove that you don't have a drinking problem, you've even subjected yourself to an alcohol drought or involuntary experienced one. I think we all did during the first lockdown when liquor shops had so abruptly shut down. All these points form a compelling argument to keep your drinking habit but can a functional drinker still face an invisible risk to alcohol addiction?
Science says, in a way, it is plausible. Upon examining the science of how alcohol interacts with your body and mind over time, researchers have found that if you continue to drink on a consistent basis over years, your control to limit consumption could disappear suddenly.
Alcohol and its relation to pleasure and sadness
Alcohol has a profound effect on our brain which is why we feel so 'buzzed' and elated on the intoxicant. To decipher why we need to understand how our brain manages pleasure. Our brain has two naturally created opioid peptides (they influence the release of various neurotransmitters) that keep our body in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis - Endorphins and Dynorphins.
Endorphins refer to chemicals that are released every time we experience pleasure, for instance, laugh at a joke, talk to a friend, or have a drink to unwind. Positive social interactions such as hugs and laughing create a normal amount of endorphins in our body that moderately spikes up from our usual homeostasis. And as easily as we ascended the baseline, we return back to it too, with relatively no major issues.
Dynorphins, on the other hand, are inhibitors of excitatory neurotransmission. In other words, their job is to keep our bodies from getting overly excited and to be able to keep the body at a safe baseline.
What happens to our bodies when we drink alcohol?
When we take a swig of our favorite alcoholic beverage, essentially, we are introducing a foreign substance into our body. Unlike a simple hug or kiss, alcohol leads to an unnatural spike of endorphins in our body that drastically changes our intrinsic equilibrium. To counter the large, unprecedented release of endorphins, our body is forced to release dynorphins into our brain to inhibit the elation and return us to homeostasis.
According to the editor of Alcohol Is Not Your Friend (AINYF), Ken M. Middleton, the amount of dynorphins released is way more than the endorphins created by alcohol. This is one of the reasons why you feel good 20 minutes into your first drink but slowly feel the buzz fading away after an hour if you don't pick up another drink.
So, to keep your good mood going, you order another alcoholic beverage to release more endorphins in your body so that they outweigh the dynorphins. But your body will run its own course of action, it will try to return back to baseline levels by releasing a larger flow of dynorphins, which can be a big downer.
You may have noticed this dip and rise in your mood if you're drinking over a span of hours. The trick is to keep drinking enough to keep your buzz active and maintain that woozy feeling. Most drinkers have dealt with this situation so this is not a big revelation.
Over time, your brain will start to link alcohol to dopamine production
Endorphins result in a good feeling, so when alcohol causes a huge spike in your body, your brain likes it. And whenever your brain discovers a pleasurable activity, it releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that's released during pleasurable situations, causing arousal and influences behavior (motivations) to seek out the pleasurable activity. Commonly, it's known as the "feel good" chemical but it is also the "learning and memory" chemical.
So, when dopamine is released in our brain, we create an important memory linking alcohol and pleasure together. According to a psychology professor Arif Hamid from the University of Michigan, dopamine levels signal how good or valuable the current situation is regarding obtaining a reward. It's also why your brain links pleasure with the smell of cookies or seeing the McDonald's sign.
This biological function greatly helped our ancestors survive and made them remember experiences with their surroundings to help differentiate between a safe and unsafe area. For instance, the positive experience of finding food near a tree made it a safe place, while the negative experience of being attacked at night made the nighttime a dangerous idea.
In the case of drinking alcohol, over time, our brain will not just associate alcohol to a pleasurable feeling but also activities related to or leading up to getting a drink.
That's why when you walk past your favorite bar, you might feel tempted to stop by for a drink or when you listen to a song you usually hear at the club, you might ponder upon experiencing drunkenness again, like how you felt while listening to the song. These subtle cues trigger a response that changes your relationship from just liking alcohol to craving it.
You may start feeling low when you don’t get the dopamine hit from alcohol
The second problem is that after your body learns of the dopamine and drinking connection, it not only causes it to react to certain triggers around you but also to preemptive triggers that create a need to go after that dopamine hit that you get from alcohol intake.
For instance, if your body is used to consuming alcohol every Friday night as a routine activity over months when that day arrives, your body will start to get excited at the thought of the drinking plan because now it's expecting a dopamine hit. It's sort of like waiting for the weekend every Monday, that's why you feel relatively excited on Fridays.
This can cause your body to release dynorphins in anticipation of the alcohol. So, if you decide to skip on the drinking ritual and abstain from alcohol at the designated time, you may start to feel low or depressed and then need alcohol for the endorphin release to get back to homeostasis.
This marks the beginning of alcohol craving.
Booze may look more attractive than spending time with friends and other healthy fun activities
The third aspect of alcohol affecting our brain is that over time consistent alcohol consumption can warp our ability to enjoy activities without it. Due to this, we would need to ramp up alcohol consumption to spark the production of endorphins and get the subsequent dopamine hit.
And because the endorphin release with alcohol is so high compared to other more natural activities such as having sex with your partner, watching your favorite show, or spending time in nature, one will crave alcohol over other things.
Those other things no longer create enough dopamine for it to significantly affect you so you would naturally crave a stronger potion such as a bottle of wine.
This is why alcoholics in the advanced stages of alcohol abuse are so depressed because nothing really makes them as happy as booze. Over many years, their body has been reprogrammed by alcohol and its homeostasis has been tampered with that they can't derive enough pleasure from their relationships or passions and have to fill the void with a drink.
As an occasional drinker, I don't particularly see myself as dependent on alcohol for dopamine and still stand by my ability to quit whenever I want. However, Ken Middleton, the founder of AINYF says that this doesn't happen overnight. It is a subtle process brewing internally for years that you'll only notice if you truly observe.
And people who function well-enough with a drinking habit, you know, those who drink in the middle of the week but 'hustle' or work even harder the next day run into the possibility of falling into the functional subtype in the alcohol community. According to the website Addiction Centre, they form 20% of all alcoholics, and alcohol dependence only becomes a problem for these individuals after 16-23 years of drinking.
People in the functional subtype usually start drinking at 19 and their dependency surfaces at around 37 years of age. As people age, they tend to lessen their alcohol intake but for consistent drinkers, it may be more difficult than imagined. Their brain and physiological make-up have been changed over the years due to alcohol and it will take mountainous determination and strength to reverse this.
To figure out if you depend on alcohol for your usual dopamine release, you can observe and jot down the reasons why you drink as a small experiment. You might have tremendous self-control but it won't hurt to get insight on your drinking habits.
What are the benefits of quitting alcohol?
To actually cut down on your alcohol, you need to be motivated to do so. Why would you want to quit or abstain otherwise? Lucky for you, there are several benefits that may come your way on your journey to sobriety.
Your liver will get better: We all know it's our liver that bears the brunt of our drunken nights. Our liver is responsible for filtering out toxins such as alcohol. According to WebMD, heavy drinking - at least 15 drinks for men and eight or more for women a week can take a toll on the organ and lead to fatty liver, cirrhosis, and other problems. However, the good news is that our liver can repair itself and even regenerate. So, it's alright if you were too hard on your liver earlier, there's still hope for it.
It will help in weight loss: Alcohol intake can lead to unnecessary calories and that too empty calories with no nutritional value. A glass of regular beer has about 150 calories and a serving of wine has about 120. Also, you may have noticed alcohol makes you more impulsive with your diet. You're more likely to devour a plate of fries or kebabs when you're drunk so if you want to stay away from impulsive eating, consider cutting down on alcohol.
You'll have a better sleep quality: Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does help you sleep. Yes, it might get you drowsy but once you fall asleep, it can wake you up repeatedly, interrupting your sleep. More importantly, it disrupts the Rapid Eye Movement sleep - a stage of sleep when the brain regions used in learning are stimulated. It can also interfere with your breathing and unless you want to wake up dehydrated, it's best to avoid drinking before turning in.
It will improve your immune system: Dr. E. Jennifer Edelman, a Yale Medicine addiction medicine specialist tells Healthline about the adverse effects of alcohol on the immune system. She explains, “Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, that lead to increased risk of serious infections.”
For example, in the lungs alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing pathogens out of our airway. So, ease up on excessive drinking so that your body can fight off illnesses better.
It will lower your blood pressure: Mayo Clinic advises moderate alcohol consumption as too much of it can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels. For example, even having just three drinks can temporarily spike up your blood pressure and habitual binge drinking can even lead to long-term increases.
It will lead to clearer thinking: Alcohol dependence can interfere with your ability to think and remember things. Heavy drinking can cloud your spatial skills and even impair your motor skills. However, a detox from alcohol can help your brain to regain some of these abilities.
It will improve your mental health: People usually drink to cope with stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression but this isn't a great long-term solution. While a glass of wine or beer after a stressful day may relax you, studies show it can contribute to depression and anxiety in the long-term. Alcohol Think Again explains that this is because alcohol changes the brain which leads to depletion of the chemicals in our brains that help reduce anxiety naturally. So, we can be left feeling more anxious than before and experience a need to take more alcohol to cope with that.
Even quitting for a month has visible benefits for our bodies. A study by the New Scientist on 14 staff members showed that giving up alcohol has numerous benefits. The members gave blood samples and had ultrasounds done to measure the amount of fat in their livers before the experiment. Then, 10 of them were told to abstain from alcohol for five weeks, while four continued to drink normally. Here's a graphic representation of the results:
Factors such as wakefulness, concentration work performance and sleep all witnessed an increase. You may even discover with a clearer mind and healthier body, you don't need alcohol to enhance social interactions.