Alcohol Awareness: How Does it Work?
April was chosen as Alcohol Awareness Month several decades ago to reduce the stigma around alcoholism and to encourage those with a substance use disorder to consider treatment. Despite its negative effects, people regularly consume alcohol in our society, but why does it work the way that it does, and how does it affect our health?
Many people believe that alcohol is a stimulant, but scientifically speaking it is a depressant. This is because alcohol slows down our cognitive abilities and functions, resulting in what we associate with someone who is drunk: impaired balance, slurred speech, and slow reaction times. People really feel the depressant effects of alcohol when they have been drinking over a long period of time (weeks) or a large amount of alcohol at once (within a day). Alcohol can severely affect our brain development when we are younger; this is why those who begin drinking at a younger age are more likely to develop a problem with alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is a drug, but what does that mean about its effects on our nervous system and brain? Alcohol disrupts the functioning of several neurotransmitters in our brain. Most depressants slow our heart rate and respiratory system by using the neurotransmitter GABA (inhibitory neurotransmitter). Alcohol, at the same time, inhibits glutamate, the excitatory neurotransmitter, that would do the opposite of GABA by increasing our energy levels and activity. However, the reason that many people believe that alcohol is a stimulant is because it releases a third neurotransmitter: dopamine. Dopamine is our reward systems’ neurotransmitter that makes us feel good when it is at high concentrations. It is the reason many of us might keep drinking, because we think that the good feelings will continue, but then the depressant side of it kicks in. When we consume alcohol in the short term it is more heavily likely to produce inhibitory responses, but after long term exposure the brain tries to compensate and bring the brain back to equilibrium, which is why the effects of alcohol on your system after sustained drinking might change over time.
It is also important to look out for the effects of alcohol, so that you can identify when you have a problem and can understand how it affects you. Although, many people might drink to reduce their anxiety or forget their problems, it can often exacerbate these feelings afterwards. You can become psychologically or physically dependent to it, because of the dopamine highs. Symptoms of being psychologically dependent on a drug is when you exhibit drug seeking behaviors for repeated use and might even put yourself in unpleasant situations you would not
have otherwise done; these types of symptoms are more often exhibited through behavior. Being physically dependent is more physiological and is characterized through withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, shaking, headaches, insomnia, or vomiting.
If you or someone else is struggling with mental health or a substance use disorder, it is important to find treatment, so that you can start your path to recovery. Please contact the professional team at Lifeline Connections! You can visit Lifelineconnection.org or call 360.397.8246 for more information.