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Alcohol and Health

Understanding Alcohol Dependence: Health Issues, Causes, and How To Overcome

December 27, 2023
16 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.
December 27, 2023
16 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.
December 27, 2023
16 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.
December 27, 2023
16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
December 27, 2023
16 min read

Heavy drinking for an extended period of time causes the brain to adjust to alcohol, and these changes mainly happen in the parts of the brain that control pleasure and stress.

Under normal conditions, the body maintains stability; however, regular excessive drinking disturbs this balance. The body will try to cope with the ongoing effects of alcohol, which leads to an unstable and unpredictable state.

These changes throw off the balance between the brain’s systems that make us feel good (reward) and those that handle stress. Over time, alcohol doesn’t bring the same pleasure it used to. Instead, the person drinks more to chase a feeling that is harder to get, leading to a pattern of drinking too much too often. This is known as alcohol dependence.

The changes in the brain that drive uncontrolled drinking also cause withdrawal symptoms when the person stops drinking. These symptoms are often hard to deal with and can make someone relapse just to feel better, even if they want to quit.

How Does Alcohol Tolerance Work?

Alcohol tolerance is about how our bodies get used to alcohol when we drink it often. The body adjusts in two main ways: functional and metabolic tolerance.

Functional Tolerance

Functional tolerance is your brain adjusting to regular alcohol use. It might seem like you’re handling your alcohol better, but it is actually a sign of your brain changing in ways that could lead to more drinking and health risks. Let's break down what happens.

  • Neuronal adaptation. Alcohol affects neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. Regular drinking leads to neurons adjusting how they respond. For example, the neurotransmitter GABA that slows down brain activity and induces a calming effect becomes desensitized to alcohol with excessive use. Over time, the brain’s neurons release less GABA, which results in them staying in a stimulated state even after drinking. This results in a person thinking they need more alcohol to trigger the same response they usually receive from alcohol.
  • Feeling less drunk. Because of the brain changes that come with regular drinking, you might not feel as drunk as you used to with the same amount of alcohol. This isn't because there's less alcohol in your body; your brain has just adapted. This means that you’ll consume more alcohol to get to the same outcome. 
  • Drinking more. The tricky part of this tolerance is it can lead you to drink more. You're chasing that buzz you used to get, but it's harder to reach now. This can spiral into drinking too much, which comes with its own set of problems like addiction and health issues.
  • Brain flexibility. The brain's ability to develop this tolerance comes from its neuroplasticity, which is its power to adapt to new situations, like regular alcohol use. But these changes aren't always good, especially if drinking becomes a problem.

Metabolic Tolerance

Metabolic tolerance is about how your liver gets better at handling alcohol when you drink regularly, but this efficiency comes with risks. Here's what happens in simpler terms:

  • Alcohol breakdown. Your liver uses special enzymes to process alcohol, making it easier for your body to get rid of it.
  • More enzymes, faster processing. If you drink often, your liver ramps up these enzymes. This means your organs get quicker at breaking down alcohol, so it doesn't stay in your blood as long.
  • Not feeling as drunk as before. Because the liver processes alcohol faster, you might not feel as drunk as you used to with the same amount of alcohol. This isn't because there's less alcohol in your system at first, but because your body is getting rid of it quicker.
  • Liver damage. Metabolic tolerance of alcohol is harsh on your liver. Over time, this extra work can harm your liver, leading to serious problems like fatty liver, hepatitis, and even cirrhosis.

Can I Increase My Alcohol Tolerance?

Increasing your alcohol tolerance is not a good thing because it means you have to drink more to get the same buzz you used to get with less alcohol.

Drinking more often can make your tolerance go up, but this is not something you should aim for. If you notice that you’re drinking more to feel drunk, it's a good idea to think about how much you have been drinking. Stick to moderate drinking or get advice from a health professional. Just because you can handle more alcohol doesn’t mean it’s safer; the health risks of overdrinking are still present.

The Health Impacts of Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence can take a toll on both the body and mind because it’s not just about the short-term effects, like feeling off-balance or making poor decisions. In the long term, alcohol dependence can seriously harm your health, too.

We usually think of the immediate effects of drinking, but the bigger worry is what happens if someone keeps drinking too much for a long time. Alcohol dependence can cause major damage to important body parts like the liver, heart, and brain. And it's not just physical health that suffers — mental health takes a hit, too, leading to issues like depression and anxiety.

Short-Term Risks

Drinking alcohol can quickly affect how well you think and move because it slows down your reactions, makes it harder to make good decisions, and throws off your coordination. This means you're more likely to have accidents or get hurt.

Also, if you drink a lot in a short time, you could get alcohol poisoning. This very serious condition happens when there's too much alcohol in your blood, potentially resulting in vomiting, seizures, passing out, and, in the worst case, death.

Long-Term Risks

Drinking too much has long-term health consequences. One big problem is liver damage. Your liver handles alcohol, but if you drink too much too quickly, it’ll get overwhelmed. This can lead to different liver issues like fatty liver, inflammation (hepatitis), scarring (fibrosis), and, in worst cases, cirrhosis

Regular heavy drinking can increase your chances of cancer, including liver, breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, and colon. Your heart can suffer, too; chronic heavy drinking can cause problems like high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, strokes, and heart disease. 

And it's not just your liver and heart — your brain can also be affected. Over time, drinking can affect your thinking and memory, and in severe cases, can cause permanent brain damage, changing how well your brain works and your overall quality of life.

How Long Does It Take To Reset Alcohol Tolerance?

How long it takes to reset your alcohol tolerance really depends on how often and how much you usually drink, your overall health, and the way your unique body handles alcohol. For some, just a few days without alcohol can lower their tolerance. But for others, especially those who drink regularly or heavily, it might take a few weeks or even a month or more to notice a change.

If you're someone who drinks every now and then, you might see a difference in how alcohol affects you after a short break. But if you're a regular drinker, expect it to take a bit longer. Taking a break from alcohol is a good idea, especially if you need more alcohol to feel the same effects. This break gives your body and brain a chance to recover.

If you want to stop drinking, which can be crucial for your health if you drink heavily or depend on alcohol, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor first. Stopping suddenly can be harmful to your body and might cause withdrawal symptoms that need careful handling.

Overcoming Alcohol Dependence

Overcoming alcohol dependence might feel like an overwhelming and challenging journey that requires commitment, support, and professional help. Here are some steps to help overcome dependence.

  • Acknowledge the problem. The first step is being able to recognize and accept that alcohol causes issues in your life; this realization is important for making change.
  • Seek professional help. Consult a healthcare provider, addiction specialist, or a therapist who focuses on alcohol dependence — they can provide you with appropriate guidance, support, and medication to help you manage your withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
  • Try detoxification. Depending on the severity of your dependence, you might need a medically supervised detoxification because this process can help you safely withdraw from alcohol, which is often done under the care of medical professionals.
  • Join support groups. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other related community support groups can provide you with encouragement and a sense of community and belonging.
  • Build a supportive environment. Surround yourself with people who understand what you are going through and are willing to support your journey to overcoming alcohol dependence. This could also mean that you might have to set boundaries in your social life or avoid triggers that can lead to drinking again.
  • Prepare yourself for setbacks. Remember that recovery is a nonlinear process. If you relapse and start drinking again, it does not mean you are a failure. It is a learning experience and another opportunity to strengthen your recovery efforts.

Reducing Alcohol Tolerance Safely

Overcoming alcohol dependence is your own unique journey. What helps one person might not be the best for someone else. It's all about finding the mix of treatments and support that suits you best. Talking to healthcare professionals can be a big help; they can give you advice and support that's just right for your situation.

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits. 

Summary FAQs

1. What are the effects of prolonged heavy drinking on the brain, and how does it lead to alcohol dependence?

Prolonged heavy drinking causes the brain to adapt, especially in areas that manage pleasure and stress, leading to alcohol dependence. This change disrupts the balance in the brain, making alcohol less pleasurable over time and causing the person to drink more to chase the diminishing effects, which can also result in difficult withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit.

2. How does alcohol tolerance work?

Alcohol tolerance develops as the body gets used to regular alcohol consumption, resulting in two types: functional and metabolic tolerance. Functional tolerance involves the brain adapting to alcohol, leading to reduced effects of intoxication, while metabolic tolerance happens when the liver becomes more efficient at processing alcohol, reducing its presence in the blood.

3. What is functional tolerance to alcohol?

Functional tolerance is the brain's adaptation to regular alcohol use, leading to changes in how neurons respond to neurotransmitters like GABA. This adaptation can make a person feel less intoxicated by the same amount of alcohol, potentially leading to increased consumption and health risks.

4. Is it safe or advisable to try to increase alcohol tolerance?

Increasing alcohol tolerance is not recommended as it requires consuming more alcohol to achieve the same effects, leading to greater health risks. If you find yourself needing to drink more to feel the same effects, it's better to reassess your drinking habits and consider moderate drinking or seeking professional advice, as higher tolerance doesn't equate to reduced health risks.

5. What are the short-term and long-term health risks of alcohol dependence?

In the short term, alcohol dependence can impair judgment and coordination, increasing the likelihood of accidents and injuries, and can lead to alcohol poisoning, which is potentially fatal. Long-term risks include serious damage to the liver, increased risk of various cancers, cardiovascular problems, and brain damage, affecting cognitive functions and overall quality of life.

6. How does alcohol dependence affect mental health?

Alcohol dependence can have a profound impact on mental health, leading to disorders such as depression and anxiety. This impact is not only due to the physiological effects of alcohol on the brain but also due to the social and personal problems that often accompany chronic alcohol misuse.

7. What are the first steps to take when deciding to overcome alcohol dependence?

The initial steps in overcoming alcohol dependence include acknowledging the problem and seeking professional help. Recognizing that alcohol is negatively impacting your life is crucial for change, and consulting healthcare providers or addiction specialists can offer you the necessary guidance, support, and treatment options.

8. How can support groups and a supportive environment help in overcoming alcohol dependence?

Joining support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can provide a sense of community and encouragement, making the journey less isolating. Additionally, creating a supportive environment by surrounding yourself with understanding people and avoiding triggers can significantly help in maintaining sobriety and managing the challenges of recovery.

A Path Forward with Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world 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 in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly 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 in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help 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, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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