21 Jan Alcohol and Your Brain – What’s going on?
What is going on inside our brain when we drink alcohol?
Written By: Meghan Betts
Many of us aren’t a stranger to a glass of wine or a cheeky pint after a stressful day or a long week at work. We crave that feeling of unwinding and being able to relax, letting go of our worries and inhibitions so on occasion this ‘one drink’ turns into two, then three… and so on. We can generally easily recognise the outward signs of drunkenness – the slurred speech, slower reaction times, swaying or loss of balance, along with poor judgement or even memory loss. But how about what is happening internally? In what ways does alcohol affect our brains to cause these changes in behaviour?
Below is a useful summary from the website How Stuff Works describing how alcohol affects your brain:
Alcohol affects our behaviour by changing the levels of neurotransmitter in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that either excite (stimulate) or inhibit (suppress) brain functions. The excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate increases brain activity and energy levels, whereas inhibitory GABA reduces energy levels and calms everything down. Drinking alcohol alters the levels of these neurotransmitters, suppressing glutamate and increasing GABA, which results in a complete slowing down of the brains processes including speech, thought and movement – hence the slurred words, slow reaction times and stumbling.
Have you ever wondered why drinking alcohol makes you feel happier or more relaxed (initially at least)? That’s because alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brains ‘reward centre’ – the area of the brain that is stimulated whenever you engage in a pleasurable activity. This is known as the ‘dopamine effect’ and indicates why you may crave that drink at the end of the week – it’s not necessarily the drink you want, but the feeling of happiness that comes with it. This trick alcohol plays on the brain is also responsible for addiction, with many people turning to alcohol to feel better. Over a prolonged period of time that dopamine effect diminishes , but by then it can be too late with the now-addict having a compulsive need to drink in order to try and feel better.
Below is a brief description of how alcohol affects certain regions of the brain:
Central Nervous System
The CNS consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The brain controls the function of thought and this is transmitted through our nervous system to carry out almost all functions of our body. Alcohol slows down the CNS causing you to think, speak, react and move more slowly.
The cerebral cortex is responsible for consciousness and processing information from a persons senses. Alcohol slows down the functions of the cerebral cortex and therefore prevents you from thinking clearly and reduces inhibitions.
The cerebellum is the centre for coordination, awareness and movement and it is alcohols affect on this brain region that causes loss of balance.
The hypothalamus is the housekeeper and controls all the day to day chores. As alcohol affects the hypothalamus we have an increase in the urge to urinate, thirst and hunger – no wonder that greasy kebab sounds so good at the end of the night!
Memories are made in the hippocampus and after just one or two drinks alcohol can affect this region of the brain and make it more difficult for you to remember names, phone numbers etc. Drinking a lot of alcohol quickly can lead to blackouts – short-term memory loss that cannot be recovered.
There’s nothing wrong with having an occasional alcoholic drink, but we should be aware of how and why that alcohol impacts our body. Misuse of alcohol and long term drinking can seriously damage your body, including your brain, so it is important to understand the risks involved and know when to stop.