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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Dopamine Levels?

June 8, 2023
8 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 8, 2023
8 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 8, 2023
8 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 8, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 8, 2023
8 min read

We've all been to lively social events with music, laughter, and chatter all around. Soon a friend hands us a drink, perhaps a glass of wine or beer, and nudges us to "lighten up" and "join the fun."

Many consider alcohol to be integral to many cultural and social events, but it too often becomes our trusted companion during these occasions, helping us celebrate life's high points and numb its bad ones. But what precisely occurs when we take our first sip of alcohol? Does drinking actually make us happier, or does it just give us the appearance of happiness?

As it turns out, the complex world of human brain chemistry — particularly the world of a potent neurotransmitter known as dopamine — holds the key to these questions. We may have heard dopamine praised as a “feel-good” chemical, but does alcohol increase dopamine or lower it? Let’s explore the link between alcohol and dopamine in more detail.

What Is Dopamine?

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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for sensations of joy and
pleasure. It's a crucial part of our brain's reward system, the fascinating neurological network that drives us to pursue experiences and activities that make us feel good.

Dopamine is released in our brains during happy, contented moments, whether we’re enjoying a favorite meal, laughing with our friends, or feeling satisfied after accomplishing a goal. This dynamic neurotransmitter is essential to our overall well-being and mental health, and it’s integral to learning, regulating mood, and making memories. 

How Does Alcohol Impact Dopamine Levels?

Alcohol interferes with the brain's communication pathways, disrupting the delicate equilibrium of our neurological functions. Does alcohol “release” dopamine? In a way, yes. When it first enters our system, alcohol promotes the release of dopamine. We experience feelings of happiness as a result of this dopamine spike, and we revel in the feeling of exhilaration, the laughter, and the apparent ease of stress and anxiety.

This initial dopamine rush, though, is extremely deceptive. As we continue a pattern of habitual drinking, the brain gets used to the new normal of getting its dopamine externally — and having too much of it. Eventually, as the brain tries to balance itself, the same amount of alcohol no longer results in the same level of dopamine release in the brain. That is to say, we develop tolerance.

This phenomenon is known as the hedonic treadmill, keeping us metaphorically “running” to keep up with our new baseline level of pleasure — known as the hedonic setpoint. Without alcohol, our dopamine levels (and hedonic setpoint) remain at a healthy baseline. However, the more we drink, the higher our happiness threshold becomes. This means we need to drink more alcohol to get the same effect, sending us down the road to dangerous drinking habits or perhaps misuse. 

The dopamine high that comes from drinking is far more exciting than the effects of alcohol consumption. Dopamine levels plummet as alcohol's effects wear off, frequently falling below normal levels. In contrast to the exhilaration we felt while drinking, this abrupt dopamine dip might leave us feeling gloomy, nervous, or depressed. The sharp rise and fall in dopamine levels might make recovering from drinking extremely difficult and reinforce a cycle of drinking in pursuit of that elusive dopamine high.

Alcohol’s Impact on Dopamine Levels

Making Healthy Choices

Understanding the connection between dopamine and alcohol could inspire us to make more informed decisions about our drinking habits. 

Alcohol may seem like an easy solution to our blues, but we must remember that this mood-boosting effect is short-lived. The resulting drop in dopamine levels after we sober up can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, creating a problematic cycle that only intensifies with time.

By recognizing these effects, we can explore alternative activities that stimulate dopamine production and don’t require alcohol. Here are a few to try:

  • Savor healthy foods: Foods that are high in the amino acid tyrosine naturally increase dopamine. For a natural happiness boost, add avocados, bananas, almonds, and lean proteins to your diet.
  • Move and groove: Physical activity is a surefire way to stimulate dopamine production. Whether it's yoga, a brisk stroll, or dancing to a favorite song, exercising our bodies helps keep our dopamine levels healthy and fit.
  • Sleep well: The brain needs rest to function at its best. Adequate sleep replenishes our neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which allows us to awaken refreshed and ready for the day.
  • Find your zen: Dopamine levels can rise via mindfulness exercises like yoga and meditation. It’s not about trying to twist ourselves into pretzels; the goal is to be in the present moment, lessen stress, and find inner calm.
  • Laugh it out: Laughter truly can be the best medicine. When we laugh, our brains release happiness-inducing chemicals, including dopamine. So go ahead: watch that hilarious cat video or share that funny joke with your friends.
  • Tune into music: Music has a powerful impact on our brains. Listening to our favorite songs can trigger the release of dopamine, making us feel happier. So create that joy-inducing playlist, and let the good vibes roll.
  • Connect with people: Genuine connections with friends and family can significantly enhance our dopamine levels. Sharing stories, laughter, or a simple hug can promote a feel-good atmosphere, reinforcing the fact that we are indeed "people who need people."

Achieve Emotional Balance With Reframe!

Restoring our dopamine levels is one of the best things we can do for our overall well-being. In our app, we’ll help you find joy in activities that don’t involve alcohol. Download Reframe now and kickstart your journey to emotional balance!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking incrementally, with the neuroscience-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too! 

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge. 

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers from around the globe in our 24/7 forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people who know just what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, who is powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to lend you as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Sober Spring, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your vibe!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to empower yourself and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download Reframe today! We can’t wait to meet you!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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