Sometime in life – usually during adolescence – most people come face to face with what is a ubiquitous part of existence in society today: alcohol. In most urban settings, it is inescapable; you only have to walk down a town street to see alcohol-related puns on the sidewalk or happy hour signs in bar windows. From partying in college to mommy wine culture, we seem to have woven alcohol so tightly into the fabric of our lives that it is now a part of every major (and minor) life event.
Alcohol is readily available at every meal, wedding, funeral, game, concert and movie, and once allowed into a part of life it hadn’t been before, is very likely to end up a permanent fixture there. As a personal example, I’d never had a drink at an airport before 2022, but once this was presented as a possibility, it got harder and harder to deprive myself of an airport drink if I was on an evening flight and had the time. Similarly, although alcohol had never been a part of vacations or holidays growing up, it became more and more necessary to really facilitate “a good time” once that line had been crossed.
Why is this? What does alcohol do in our brains to rapidly convince us we need it to truly enjoy an experience? The science behind it is pretty intuitive and beautifully explained in a book I recently read: Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind. In it, Annie references a series of lectures conducted by Dr. Thad A. Polk, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and explains the main ways alcohol drives us to keep us drinking.
First, it makes our brains release very high amounts of dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that teaches us what to seek and what to avoid by modulating feelings of motivation. Activities such as finding food and shelter, sex, dancing, music – pursuits that are good for survival and/or provide pleasure – are accompanied by dopamine release, which motivates us to seek these rewards again by repeating these behaviors. Dr. Polk emphasizes that alcohol and other drugs cause the release of artificially high amounts of dopamine, gradually leading our brains to learn “craving”, and to seek these substances even at the expense of other, more natural dopamine-releasing activities.
Second, Dr. Polk talks about alcohol artificially stimulating the parts of our brain associated with feeling pleasure. Overstimulation of these regions leads our body to begin counteracting the excess pleasure so as to maintain chemical balance. This involves the release of another brain chemical, dynorphin, with rat studies showing that excess release of dynorphin led to an increase in alcohol seeking and consumption. According to Dr. Polk, the release of chemicals such as dynorphin – in response to alcohol artificially increasing our pleasure and motivation to seek it – causes us to build tolerance over time. This in turn renders us unable to derive the same levels of pleasure we once did with a certain amount of alcohol. This is very well explained in both This Naked Mind and Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like A Woman, where the authors state that, eventually, we will find ourselves needing to consume larger quantities of alcohol to feel the same happy feelings. What’s worse, this can also make us lose our ability to find joy in everyday activities that would normally have brought us pleasure, slowly turning us into people that depend on ever-increasing amounts of alcohol for any happiness.
All of which to say: over time, the alcohol we drink to enhance an experience actively teaches our brains to feel less joy. Furthermore, it perpetuates an addictive cycle by making us seek more of it for the mere possibility of the joy we were once able to feel without it.
Those of us who drink to relieve stress are also in for a bit of a disappointment. Both This Naked Mind and Quit Like A Woman lay out in extensive detail how alcohol’s depressant properties – which are what make us feel relaxed and stress-free – cause our body to scramble for balance yet again. Our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to compensate for alcohol’s numbing effects. Eventually, this leads to an increase in baseline cortisol levels (even when there is no alcohol in our system) which leaves us less capable of handling stressors. Mouse studies have shown that continued alcohol exposure increases anxiety, thereby creating the stress we drink to find relief from. Over time, we find ourselves needing to drink more to find the same levels of relief, and once again are ensnared in alcohol’s addictive cycle.
Aside from the physiological effects of alcohol, something else that really struck me is how our rose-tinted view of alcohol and alcohol culture is based on—absolutely nothing. Alcohol is marketed as a fun time, a stress reliever, a necessary part of adult life. Something that may not be good for us, but isn’t bad enough to classify as a “real drug”, the way cocaine or ecstasy are. This message is fed to us from every advertisement we see of “real” men drinking “real” IPAs, every celebratory instance of champagne popped, every post-breakup binge-drinking session presented as a rite of passage. When the facts are really examined, however, alcohol’s effects on our bodies, personhood, and society is worse than many of the drugs we consider “hard”.
In his book Drugs Without The Hot Air, David Nutt – a psychiatrist who used to serve as the chairman of the English government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – brings up 16 categories to classify drugs into “criteria of harm”. These criteria take into account harm caused to the self, to others, and to society, and includes factors such as drug-specific mortality and harm, drug-related mortality and harm, dependence, impact on family, injury, crime, economic costs, environmental costs, etc. Assessing the harm of various drugs through the lens of these criteria, Dr. Nutt and other expert colleagues conclude that alcohol ranks the worst; higher in harm than heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis, ketamine, and various psychedelics. While a part of the reason behind this shocking classification is alcohol’s legality and wide availability, we also cannot ignore the fact that it is objectively a much more harmful drug than its legal status would suggest.
This brings us to an important point: legal classifications of drugs motivated by politics at the expense of health and science. A prime example of this is Dr. Nutt’s dismissal from his role at the ACMD for the evidence-based suggestions made in his study. It is extremely concerning that instead of taking his recommendations on reassessing drug classifications based on actual harm, the UK government would rather fire the ACMD chairman; someone they’d hired for his expertise and counsel.
Similarly, In Quit Like A Woman, Holly Whitaker talks extensively about the alcohol industry co-opting Big Tobacco’s playbook to ensure that we as a society continue to drink. Holly expands on how supply was significantly greater than demand when cigarettes were first introduced and how tobacco companies had to work hard to convince the general public that their (murderous) product really was a necessity. They did this largely by glamorizing it, even inventing a feminist movement out of the act of smoking – convincing American women that to be truly liberated, you had to have a cigarette in hand. Any health-based pushback was brushed off with claims that the research showing tobacco’s harms was never conclusive enough. Similarly, Big Alcohol – the consolidated form of the alcohol industry – has been working tirelessly to romanticize its image to boost sales, particularly amongst women. It is also focused on pushing consumption in many developing Asian, African, and South American countries, all of which highlights the fact that the pervasiveness and positive messaging behind a drug is almost always driven by political and financial motivations, never its real effects on human health and safety.
Although the facts laid out in this article may seem bleak, the point of it isn’t to demonize alcohol use (and definitely not users), but to act as a launching pad for questioning some of our assumptions around this highly addictive substance. Rather than asking only if our alcohol consumption is within safe limits, I think a better question is whether we are truly aware of the effects and cultural contexts of the drugs we consume, irrespective of legal status. Do we know the history behind where they come from? Do we know why their legal status is what it is? Most importantly, do we know what they’re doing to us, not only as individuals but on a larger socio-political scale?
Featured image source: Kimery Davis
Peer Editors: Reanne Geffert and Nicole Gadda