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Why Do Alcoholics Drink – The Science Behind Addiction

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

There is a conundrum associated with alcoholism that can be summed up in a simple question: why do alcoholics drink? In other words, those who have never dealt with drinking problems do not understand why the alcoholic just does not stop. They don't understand how casual drinking becomes alcoholism over weeks, months, and years. This is to be expected. There is plenty of science involved in addiction that the average person is simply unaware of.

Decades of addiction research have opened the eyes of the medical community to better understand alcoholism and other forms of substance addiction. The science clearly demonstrates how alcohol progressively affects the brain in order to encourage and further solidify addictive behaviour. By applying this science, the medical community is coming up with new and better ways to treat alcoholism.

The Pathway to Alcoholism

A large percentage of the adult population in the UK consumes alcohol to one degree or another. Understanding why most people can control themselves while a smaller percentage cannot begin with understanding what alcohol does in the brain. It goes without saying that brain response is a crucial factor in whether a person will start heading down the pathway to alcoholism.

When alcohol in the bloodstream reaches the brain, it triggers a reaction that results in the production brain chemicals known as endorphins. These endorphins are also opioids. They produce the feelings of pleasure that lead to that tipsy feeling or complete intoxication.

Scientists have used brain scans to compare the brain responses of both problem drinkers and those who are able to control their drinking habits. In the latter group, the amount of endorphins produced in response to alcohol fell within generally accepted norms. In the former group, however, that was not the case. The brains of problem drinkers produced far more endorphins than those of their peers. This may explain how the early stages of problem drinking develop.

Because the brains of problem drinkers produce more endorphins, those drinkers experience heightened levels of pleasure that ultimately drive cravings. The greater the volume of endorphins produced, the greater the feelings of pleasure a drinker experiences. And any experience that is exceptionally pleasurable is one a person will attempt to repeat in the future.

Tolerance Makes the Problem Worse

Excessive endorphin production alone does not lead to alcohol abuse or alcoholism. For a drinking problem to get to that point, the condition known as tolerance must also develop. This is what separates problem drinkers from alcohol abusers and alcoholics.

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Tolerance is a physical condition characterised by the brain becoming accustomed to a certain level of alcohol in the system. For example, assume you were to drink two pints of beer every day for a full year. On day one your drinking may cause you to feel slightly tipsy due to the endorphins your brain is producing. But by day 300, your brain is so used to the alcohol that it no longer reacts as strongly. It produces fewer endorphins in response to your drinking. You must increase your consumption to three pints in order to once again feel good. This is tolerance.

The danger of tolerance is that it encourages the drinker to consume more alcohol. Making matters worse is the reality that there is no limit to the amount of tolerance one can develop. In fact, tolerance progressively increases over time. It Eventually it results in physical dependence which, clinically speaking, is no different than dependence on any other drug. A person who is dependent on alcohol is considered an alcoholic.

Drinking Because They Have To

Now that you understand the science behind alcoholism let us get back to the question “Why do alcoholics drink?” The science tells us that they do so because they have to. Changing behaviour for an alcoholic is not as simple as just quitting drinking.

It is true that every alcoholic makes the daily choice to drink. But what many people do not understand is that tolerance and dependence create compulsions within the body and mind of the alcoholic. Such compulsive behaviour is a hallmark of addiction, whether that addiction is related to substances or certain kinds of activities such as gambling or sex. It all works the same way.

Psychological compulsions exist because the brain continually tells the alcoholic that he or she needs to keep drinking to be happy. Not only does the alcoholic believe that to be true, but his/her judgement and perception are continually clouded by the haze of alcohol. The combination of both makes it almost impossible for the alcoholic to think clearly about the adverse effects of drinking.

As for physical compulsions, these are caused by the body being unable to function normally without a certain amount of alcohol in the system. This is easy to understand if you think of it in terms of the boiler that keeps your house warm. The colder the temperature outside, the harder the boiler must work to maintain a constant temperature inside. You also get used to that constant temperature. But what would happen if the temperature outside suddenly spiked yet your boiler did not stop working as hard? It would get too warm in your house to function. You would have to open the windows and shut off the boiler.

A similar thing happens in the bodies of alcoholics. The body must continuously work harder to overcome the sedating effects of alcohol so as to keep the heart beating, the blood circulating, and so on. If the supply of alcohol were to be suddenly cut off, the body would be working overtime to compensate for something that is not there, potentially creating a dangerous situation that could cause the heart or other vital organs to simply shut down. This is a scenario in which the body has become dependent on having a certain level of alcohol in the system in order to function.

Why do alcoholics drink? They start drinking because doing so brings them pleasure. They keep drinking because they develop tolerance and dependence that leads to compulsive behaviour. That's the science behind alcoholism.

If you would like to know more, or you are concerned that you or a loved one has a drinking problem, we encourage you to contact us. We are an independent organisation offering free advice, alcohol assessments, and treatment referrals.

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