Eli5: Why do we get addicted to alcohol? What *is* alcohol, scientifically?


Watching my mother go through rehab has really made me realize how little I understand about it!

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2 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

People get addicted to alcohol for the same reason people get addicted to similar drugs like benzos and sleeping pills. These drugs all activate GABA receptors in the brain which brings a strong sense of calm and comfort. Like other drugs, the effect that these GABA drugs have diminishes over time as the body starts to depend on them to deliver that specific chemical. This makes the intoxication less intense, meaning people need to take more for the same effect, and it even makes sobriety *worse* (anxious, jittery, angry, irritable) because you have less GABA action going on in the brain. It’s primarily the worse sobriety that leads people back to the substance again and again.

Alcohol, benzo, and sleeping pill withdrawal can also be quite dangerous, much moreso than even opiate withdrawal which is said to be hell. Medications that prevent seizures all act on GABA to keep it up in the brain. Since alcohol and related substances reduce GABA overall, withdrawal from them can lead to seizures which can kill via. car crashes, head injuries, or suffocation (withdrawal seizures tend to be longer than regular seizures). This is why it’s important to go through detox in a medical setting.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The active ingredient in the alcoholic beverages that we consume is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol (C2H6O). It’s a naturally occurring byproduct of plant fermentation, and it’s an effective antimicrobial agent because it can dissolve the phospholipid bilayer that make up microorganism cell walls. It’s also a psychoactive drug.

Why humans get addicted to things is a whole other area of research, but anything that causes noticeable changes in neurochemistry can be addictive, like gambling, shopping, sugar, cocaine, and alcohol. But, due to its antimicrobial properties, fermentation was historically used as an effective way to preserve food as well as drink disinfected liquid. I’m sure along the way, people discovered that alcohol can feel pleasant in the right amounts. Fermenting fruits and other plants to make alcohol has been traced back to many different historical cultures in almost every part of the world.

This next part is speculation/observation: because of its anthropological importance and prevalence, the culture around drinking alcohol has evolved in a way that normalizes what would be considered a serious addiction if considering the use of any other substance. Another aspect is that ancient alcoholic beverages did not typically contain nearly as much alcohol as they do today.

So, I think that the prevalence of alcoholism in humans is not necessarily due to some inherent biochemical characteristic of ethanol, and more so that it’s a drug that’s been with us since very early on in our history.

Best of luck to your mother’s recovery!