How Alcohol Depletes Dopamine & Causes Addiction

Addiction 101: Occasional use can become a habit, and once it becomes a habit, it becomes the only way to have a good time. It’s all about the dopamine. This is the chemical in your brain that makes you happy. The more you use alcohol, the more your brain relies on alcohol in place of your natural dopamine. It’s a bit like using a crutch. If you keep using a crutch long after your leg has healed, then your leg is going to keep losing muscle mass. The longer you insist on using an unnecessary crutch, the more muscle mass you’re going to lose until you’re no longer able to stand up on your own.

The Effects Of Dopamine Depletion

Even following successful recovery from alcohol addiction treatment, it’s possible to keep feeling the effects of dopamine depletion. This is one of the reasons why relapse is so common with alcoholism. You can detox, end your chemical dependency and get through withdrawal, but your brain has to get used to the idea of producing its own dopamine all over again. Signs of dopamine depletion can include:

– Insomnia and drowsiness
– Depression
– General boredom
– Lethargy
– Disinterest in things you used to enjoy
– Difficulty getting a “kick” out of things that you know should be enjoyable

Filling The Emptiness

Following recovery, you will find yourself in a place where it’s going to be very hard to find purpose and meaning in life. You may want to throw yourself into something with both feet, only to lose interest a week later. Or you may not feel like doing much of anything. In any event, sometimes all you can really do is ride it out. If nothing is giving you the thrill that it should be giving you, there are some options to encourage more dopamine production:

– Watch your sugar intake, stick to water and give the sodas a break
– Avoid caffeine
– Maintain a routine schedule, wake up at the same time, go to sleep at the same time, etc.
– Take magnesium and vitamins
– Avoid stress. Your body is producing fewer brain chemicals than it needs right now, and stress will burn through what little you are producing
– Add some more items to your diet: Red meat, garbanzo beans, celery, berries, brocolli, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, all of these help the brain cells to heal.

Waiting It Out

Eventually, your brain will correct the imbalance. That’s what our brains are designed to do. Sooner or later, you will notice that you’re starting to take joy in things again, but it could be awhile. It’s different from person to person. Some will recover in two weeks, but it can take as long as six months, or longer, for your brain to get back to normal. It will restore its natural chemical balance eventually, it is not hopeless. But it could take a very long time.

What To Do While Waiting For Dopamine Levels To Return To Normal

Do not drink. Don’t use your lowered dopamine levels as an excuse to get drunk “just this once.” That’s like getting to the last chapter in a book and then throwing it in a fire without finishing it. If you want to get back to normal following your recovery, having “just one more drink” is not the way to do it. This is the vicious cycle between alcohol and addiction. After abusing drink for so long, alcohol tells you “You don’t need your natural dopamine, you have me!” and your brain starts to believe it. It’s tempting to go right back to what kept you going before, but all you’re going to do with “one more drink” is throw away all the progress you’ve made.

Just Cheer Up?

A lot of people will tell you to “just cheer up” following recovery. But it’s not a matter of perspective, it’s a matter of chemistry. Alcohol addiction depletes dopamine and leaves you unable to feel natural joy. When you’re going through alcohol rehab, things won’t be easy. It’s not because there’s something wrong with you at your heart, it’s because your brain chemistry just isn’t designed to bounce back so easily. This is the relationship between dopamine and addiction, and the depression, the boredom, the lethargy that can follow recovery is just something that you have to fight through. It won’t be easy, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. If you can stay sober, you’ll get there.