When One is Never Enough
May 01, 2018 12:00AM ● Published by Brian Saucedo
Just a single drink is enough to shift your brain toward the first stages of addiction
For anyone who enjoys a tipple or two, you know the feeling—you relax with that first glass of wine or whiskey after a long day of work. It goes down quickly, and you instantly reach for the bottle for a second glass. It seems practically irresistible, but have you ever considered why that is?
When you take those first few sips of alcohol, a shift occurs in your brain. D1 neurons that are informally known as part of the “go” pathway in your brain switch on, and these are the neurons that encourage you to, as its moniker suggest, keep on going. There’s another type of neuron (D2 neurons, in case you were interested) that are “no-go pathways;” these tell you to stop doing what you’re doing. Large amounts of alcohol make those D1 more excitable, so they activate with less stimulation. It will also cause cravings for alcohol. This neuron activation is the first stage of addiction—some people’s brains can resist it, and some cannot.
This brain shift is in addition to the other processes that are going on in your brain while you drink a glass of alcohol. It increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and rewards center, which makes everything feel really good. But, of course, nothing good lasts forever. The effect of dopamine wanes over time—whether it’s a period of days or several months—as you continue drinking until your brain doesn’t react the same way, but your body still craves that oh-so-wonderful feeling. You continue to drink in an effort to reel it back in, and addiction takes hold.
Alcohol consumption affects another neurotransmitter in your brain, too; one known
as Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), which slows down your responses. That’s why your speech becomes slurred and you don’t move as fast—and it’s just one big reason why you should never get behind a wheel of a car after drinking. Combine that drive for dopamine’s pleasurable feelings with the slow reaction times of affected GABA transmitters, and you have a recipe for poor decision-making.
So, next time you’re relaxing with that beer bottle
or Champagne flute, take a minute to consider what’s going on in your brain and ask yourself—
can you truly stop at one drink?