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Why Alcoholics Can’t Stop Drinking

by Landmark Recovery

April 24, 2019
A person thinking

Alcoholism, like other forms of substance abuse, is a disease. The problem leads to many symptoms including cravings, loss of control, physical dependence, and tolerance. These symptoms are major contributing factors as to why alcoholics can’t stop drinking. Along with these problems, there is also the factor of brain chemistry. Brain chemistry plays an important role in alcoholism. Excessive drinking and positive reinforcement associated with alcohol use can eventually lead to changes with dopamine release in the brain.

Overall, there are an array of factors that contribute to alcohol dependence, not only with brain chemistry but underlying factors as well. Things like mental health, environmental influences, and genetics can all contribute to a drinking problem. However, one thing is clear: if you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, or another substance, seeking out treatment should be a top priority.

Alcohol Tolerance

The brain adapts to the presence of alcohol, and other drugs, over time. Due to this, a heavy drinker will respond differently than someone who drinks occasionally. One obvious example of this comes in the form of tolerance to alcohol, people who drink heavy have to drink more and more in order to become intoxicated because when the brain is exposed to alcohol, it begins to become desensitized to the effects of the drug. This is a continuous cycle. The more a person drinks, the more they will need to continue to drink to feel the desired effects. Similarly, the more a person drinks, the worse they may feel when not under the influence of alcohol, which can cause them to experience withdrawals.

Alcohol Withdrawals

Like tolerance, withdrawals are also a result of a change in the brain makeup. The brain communicates under normal circumstances with a balance of neurotransmitters that allow the body and brain to function unimpaired. However, alcohol can impair this ability and slow signal transmission in the brain, which contributes to the effects associated with alcohol intoxication.

With excessive drinking, the brain becomes used to alcohol and will compensate for the alcohol’s slowing effects by increasing the activity of some neurotransmitters to try and restore itself to equilibrium in the presence of alcohol. But, if the alcohol is suddenly removed, i.e. if a heavy drinker stops drinking, the brain may have to readjust which can lead to the unpleasant feelings associated with withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, especially during the 48 hours immediately following a stint of drinking. Common symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Racing heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety and more

Can Alcohol Change in Brain Chemistry?

Long-term alcohol usage can cause changes in brain chemistry. The development of alcohol dependence is a complex and nuanced process that can be difficult to understand. However, to learn more about alcoholism, it is necessary to learn how the brain chemistry changes. For example, motivation to drink through reinforcement is one reason that alcoholism can begin to develop. Reinforcement is the process where a behavior is either strengthened and rewarded (positive reinforcement) or weakened (negative reinforcement) based on previous experience.

In the case of alcohol, many will experience alcohol-induced happiness or a reduction of anxiety, which are positive reinforcements and will increase alcohol-seeking behavior. “The positive reinforcing effects of alcohol generally are accepted as important motivating factors in alcohol-drinking behavior in the early stages of alcohol use and abuse,” one report said. Another reason why alcoholics have problems stopping or slowing down their alcohol use is due to the effect that dopamine has on the brain and body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is commonly associated with happiness and pleasure levels, and there are studies that suggest dopamine plays a role in the incentive and motivation for alcohol use. “Alcohol ingestion and even the anticipation that alcohol will be available produce dopamine release,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Similarly, alcohol withdrawal produces decreases in dopamine functioning in people who are dependent on the substance. Because of this, decreased dopamine function may contribute to withdrawal symptoms and alcohol relapse.

Treatment For Alcohol Dependence

Some might believe that quitting drinking can be easy and is the safe thing to do; however, if the problem is serious enough, quitting cold turkey without medical supervision can lead to a number of health complications. The withdrawal period from alcohol can cause problems like seizures, delirium tremens, hallucinations, anxiety, depression, and can even cause death. Because of this, the early stages of sobriety pose a risk for many people.

With that said, sobriety is still achievable in a safe way. Treatment centers can offer patients a detoxification process that will allow them to deal with the initial stages of sobriety under medical supervision. Moreover, getting through the withdrawal symptoms early in treatment will free the body and mind of toxins and in preparation for treatment through education and therapy.

Treatment centers generally offer both individual and group therapy sessions that can help patients learn more about the nature of addiction and how they can promote and maintain their own sobriety after inpatient rehab.

Following inpatient treatment, it is recommended that people new to sobriety utilize an outpatient treatment program (IOP) that allows them to continue to expand their sober support network while also being encouraged to live an overall healthy lifestyle.

Get Help for Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a debilitating disease that affects both mental and physical functioning. There are a number of contributing factors when it comes to excessive alcohol use. Everything from withdrawal symptoms to brain chemistry to environmental factors can all play a role in someone not being able to put the bottle down. Regardless of the reason, treatment should be a top priority for someone who is dealing with a substance abuse problem.

At Landmark Recovery, we can offer patients access to a detoxification program that will help them safely withdrawal from alcohol, or other substances, under medical supervision. Following detox, patients will have access to a number of therapy programs both during inpatient and outpatient treatment that can not only educate them on addiction-related issues but will also help to put them in touch with people in similar predicaments. If you are interested in seeking treatment for yourself or a loved one, please reach out to our Admissions Team today at 888-448-0302.


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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.