Influence of Alcohol on our Brain
Alcohol is the most commonly used mind-altering substance in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that over half of all-American adults were current drinkers of alcohol at the time of the 2015 national survey. Having a beer or a glass of wine with dinner is common, and millions of adults regularly enjoy alcohol responsibly.
Even though alcohol is a depressant substance, it is often used to get the party going. Many of us have tales of doing stupid things when we drink, and they don’t often involve mellowing out and going to sleep. So, alcohol is not just a depressant then; it also acts on moods, emotions, actions, and reactions.
It changes the way you think and feel, and therefore influences how you act. Of course, the more you drink, the more impact alcohol will have. With a few drinks, you are probably more social and outgoing, happy, full of energy, talkative, and fun to be around. A few more and you may start slurring your speech, falling down, and becoming more aggressive. Even more drinks and you may blackout and not remember what you did or said the next day.
Drinking alcohol can make it hard for you to think clearly and make good decisions. It can make it more likely that you will get into potentially harmful or dangerous situations that you will regret the next day. Alcohol changes brain chemistry, which in turn impacts moods, behaviors, thinking, memory, and physical movement and bodily functions, which may have costly side effects.
How Alcohol Affects Behavior
When you drink alcohol, it is thought to raise levels of GABA in the brain. GABA is one of the brain’s chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that helps you to feel relaxed, and it aids in lowering anxiety and stress. GABA is considered to be an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter. High levels of GABA cause your body temperature to drop, and your heart rate and blood pressure to come down.
Alcohol also increases levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is one of the chemical messengers responsible for sending signals of pleasure. When levels of dopamine are elevated, it can create the “high” or “buzz” that makes alcohol pleasurable to drink.
Alcohol also jacks up the amount of norepinephrine present in the brain; this neurotransmitter acts as a stimulant. Elevated levels of norepinephrine increase arousal and excitement, and it can lower your inhibitions and increase impulsivity, making it hard for you to consider potential consequences of your actions.
Alcohol also decreases some of the activity of the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is what helps you to think clearly and rationally, and it is involved in your decision-making abilities. When you drink, alcohol makes it harder for the prefrontal cortex to work as it should, disrupting decision-making and rational thought. In this way, alcohol prompts you to act without thinking about your actions.
Alcohol reduces the functions of the behavioral inhibitory centers in the brain, Forbes reports. It also slows down how information is processed in the brain. When you see, hear, taste, or smell something, your brain processes this information and then tells you how to think or feel. Alcohol interferes with this process, making it harder for you to work out what you are feeling and also making you less likely to be able to really think through potential consequences.
The prefrontal cortex part of the brain is partly responsible for your sense of control over your emotions and behaviors, impacting willpower and even aggressive thoughts and actions. It can enhance emotions you are already feeling and make it harder for you to gauge when enough is enough. When you drink, you may be less able to control your emotions; you may speak and act without thinking; and situations may get out of hand faster than they would if you weren’t drinking.
Risks of Lowered Inhibitions and Alcohol
When your ability to think, make rational decisions, and control your impulses is impaired by alcohol, there are numerous potential consequences. You may be willing to do or try anything that you think will make you happy in the moment, without any thought to what may come next. Lowered inhibitions and bad decision-making abilities are side effects of alcohol use that may have the following possible ramifications:
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) warns that alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes that are committed in the United States. Lowered inhibitions can make you more prone to fall victim to crimes, such as sexual assault and date rape. You may be more approachable when you are drinking, and you may be more open to trying things and talking to people than when you are sober. Alcohol dispels anxiety, making it easier to feel more social, less afraid, and less aware of your surroundings. You may then find yourself in a situation that goes downhill fast and can become dangerous.
Physically, alcohol impairs coordination, balance, reflexes, and your ability to fight back. It can make you more open to engage in sexual behaviors that may be questionable or even downright unwanted. Alcohol can leave a person completely incapacitated and unable to consent to sex, and it is the number one drug involved in date rapes, USA Today reports. Even if you do consent to sex while under the influence of alcohol, you may not be safe about it. Therefore, you put yourself at risk for an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy or for contracting a sexually transmitted (STD) or infectious disease.
Alcohol can also make you more open to trying other drugs. While you may typically not take illicit drugs, when you are drinking, you may be more willing to take bigger risks and not be as worried about what might happen when you do. Mixing drugs and alcohol can be very dangerous, however, as they can interact together and potentially lead to an overdose or other hazardous side effects. Opioid drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers can further suppress your central nervous system, for instance, and when mixed with alcohol, they can cause a toxic overdose that can cause you to stop breathing and even die.
Drugs can also further impair your thinking, memory, and physical abilities. You may get drunk faster and get more intoxicated than normal when combining substances. Drug and alcohol combinations can be unpredictable, and you can never know exactly how the mixture of the two is going to affect you.
We are often embarrassed about our actions the night before, and we may have to repair relationships with people who we upset while drinking. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but do make an effort to make things right. Remember that you are not alone; most people who drink alcohol have probably done something they regretted while under its influence at some point. In the future, make some boundaries for yourself; set limits to decrease the odds of being in a similar situation again.
It can also be a good idea to make pacts with friends to watch out for each other and hold each other accountable. It’s even better if one friend stays sober. Usually, if you stick to drinking only a few drinks on a full stomach and spread them out over a period of time, you can drink responsibly and not suffer many negative consequences. The less you drink, the better your brain will function, and the more able you will be to make sound decisions that you will not regret the next day.
If you are unable to moderate your drinking, it’s a sign that professional help is needed. I can help by providing harm reduction therapy as well as the abstinence model. I am a licensed clinician and a Registered Addiction Therapist in private practice in Marin County.
Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Registered Addiction Specialist
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist