I knew for a long time what happened if I didn’t drink in the evening… I wouldn’t sleep. But what I didn’t realise was that this only showed me one of several changes that had occurred in my brain and body as they adapted to a daily assault of alcohol.
Alcohol in the brain changes how we feel and it acts as a sedative. Alcohol changes our mood in two ways; we get happy and we become more socially confident. The happiness is caused by an increase in dopamine, and the social confidence comes from an increase in serotonin. The slowing down in the brain comes from changes in two other chemicals; GABA and glutamate. When we drink we get happy, and if we drink enough we will become so socially confident that we will dance on tables to show everyone what great dancers we are. Unfortunately, just when the alcohol is making us feel great it is also slowing down mental function… and we stop being able to do complicated things quickly enough to complete them successfully, things like maintaining balance and speaking clearly.
Anyone who drinks enough will experience these effects. But when we drink heavily AND regularly then some changes start to occur in our brain and our body, and it is these changes that cause us so much trouble.
The simplest change happens in our stomach and intestine. Alcohol is broken down there by an enzyme, and when we drink often then our body produces more of this enzyme. This means that our bodies process away alcohol more quickly, and we have to drink more to get the same effect. We drink more, and we drink more quickly. But it is the changes in our brain that cause the real trouble. Our brain recognises that it is getting more dopamine and serotonin than it ordered and it regulates down the amount of these. This makes us less happy and less socially engaged when we are sober. Our brain also reacts to the daily slowing caused by our drinking by increasing brain speed and by increasing our alertness level. This makes us feel restless and on-edge when we are sober. Drinking returns all of these things to their normal levels, so we now drink to escape feeling ill-at-ease and down. Drinking more causes these adaptations to become more pronounced until we feel miserable, lonely, anxious and jumpy with a racing mind when sober… alcohol returns these to normal levels, but we need to drink more to achieve this. Eventually though we end up depressed, isolated, and anxiety-ridden, consumed by thoughts about our problems and we can no longer drink enough to get happy… we pass out first.
These are the adaptations that occur when we drink heavily over an extended period, and these adaptations are present when we stop drinking. When we stop then the reason for these changes is no longer present. When we don’t dose ourselves daily with alcohol we suddenly feel these changes fully;
- our mind churns and churns,
- we are so restless we can’t sleep
- our heart is pounding ready to respond to some emergency and this makes us hot
- we feel miserable
- we feel alone
This is what happens when we stop drinking. But these changes are not permanent. Just as they built up slowly over time they reverse themselves out. The first of these to return to normal is sleep. Our “flight-or-fight” mechanism stands down from high-alert; our pulse slows, the overheating stops and we become able to sleep again. These happen somewhere between one and three weeks. Our minds slow down after that and our mind stops racing, and the last changes; lowered mood and sociability drift back upwards but much more slowly; this happens over months not days or weeks. These are the physiological changes that are caused by alcohol. These will correct themselves once we stop drinking, but the psychological damage we have done persists; we have to work at those to set them straight again.
If you have just stopped drinking then you should know that sleeplessness, a racing mind, restlessness, and overheating are perfectly normal and to be expected; they are your body reacting to the sudden lack of alcohol and they will right themselves in due course… keep going.