14. The Alcohol Equation
Your brain is wired to experience pleasure, but it’s a delicate system controlled by two main chemicals—dopamine & serotonin. Dopamine creates desires and cravings. Serotonin is responsible for our feelings of satisfaction and inhibition. Alcohol artificially stimulates your nucleus accumbens (the pleasure centre in your brain), which then dumps a load of dopamine into your system. This means you will be strongly urged to keep consuming alcohol. Dopamine tells your body, “hey, that thing you drank, it tells me you should want more.” And, accordingly, your body wants more. It’s the same thing that happens when you have a pleasant experience. Your body tells you to want that again. Only this time, the thing you’ve experienced manipulates your brain directly and tells you to want more without any real reason.
This brain dump of dopamine causes another reaction. Your brain always fights to balance dopamine and serotonin equally. This is our natural state of homeostasis. So, when alcohol stimulates the creation of dopamine, the brain reacts by releasing dynorphin to counterbalance the dopamine. Dynorphin suppresses feelings of euphoria. It’s literally a downer hormone. This means that the euphoria of the sugar rush and dopamine dump wear off rapidly. And, we feel worse than we did before we took that first drink. But, the dopamine is still in effect, telling us, “Hey, drink more of that thing.” And so we do, And the cycle spirals.
Eventually, you find yourself hugging the porcelain bowl of your toilet, wondering how in the world you got here. You just wanted some well-deserved relaxation. How did you get so out of control? And then you blame yourself. You promise to control yourself better next time. You give your friends a code word to let you know when you’re getting a bit too tipsy. You try to rescue the friendship that you jeopardized by the stupid comments you made when you were too wiped to think clearly about what you were saying.
And the next morning, you wake up with a boiling headache that throbs through your first couple of cups of coffee.
Because of what society tells us about alcohol and drinking, you blame yourself— condemning yourself for being weak or foolish. But, you need to realize that the alcohol cycle has nothing to do with you being strong or weak. It has nothing to do with you being a good or bad person. It’s a chemical chain reaction that happens to everyone. Although we all feel the effects slightly differently based on our age, weight, sex, and environment, the biological reactions are the same.