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Triggers and Cravings

Why Does Alcohol Make You Feel Good?

June 16, 2023
10 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 16, 2023
10 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 16, 2023
10 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 16, 2023
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 16, 2023
10 min read

Most people don’t typically enjoy their first alcoholic drink unless it's loaded with sugar. After all, alcohol tastes quite bitter on its own. Why then do so many of us keep drinking it? 

While the initial sips of alcohol do seem to make us feel wonderful, that fleeting sensation of bliss is illusory. Let's investigate the complex brain chemistry that underlies what’s ultimately only a false sense of pleasure — albeit a potent and perhaps harmful one — and explore the question many of us have asked: why does alcohol make you feel good? And how does alcohol affect mood?

How Does Alcohol Affect Mood?

Typically, when we use the word "alcohol," we are referring to the tiny molecule ethanol, which travels through the stomach and small intestine walls and enters the bloodstream. 

A crafty molecule, ethanol can pass the blood-brain barrier with amazing ease. Once inside, it establishes cozy connections with several of the brain's most important neurotransmitter networks, including those that control mood, attention, behavior, and a variety of other cognitive processes. It's like a guest sneaking into a party and tweaking the music, lighting, and conversation to suit their liking.

Alcohol’s Mood Magic: The GABA and Dopamine Effect

Let's start with the GABA system, which is the brain's primary relaxant neurotransmitter. GABA molecules inhibit neuronal activity by binding to the appropriate receptors, resulting in sensations of relaxation and calm. Alcohol (ethanol) increases the magnitude of this system's stimulation, magnifying the effects of GABA and bringing about the calm, carefree state we frequently experience after a few drinks.

If Alcohol Is a Depressant Why Do I Feel Happy?

What about the exhilaration and "joie de vivre" that drinking alcohol can cause? Meet dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward system. Your brain releases dopamine in specific regions when you do something enjoyable, like eating a good meal, listening to your favorite music, or yes, even drinking. Dopamine encourages you to repeat the behavior by rewarding you with emotions of pleasure. Dopamine levels rise when alcohol is consumed, which adds to the enjoyable buzz.

Wait, There's More: The Endorphin Angle

Additionally, ethanol stimulates the opioid system, which causes the release of endorphins, our body's natural painkillers. Endorphins are the same chemical substances that give runners their "high" and help us manage stress. So you can partially thank them for making you laugh a little louder, dance a little looser, and feel less self-conscious at that party. 

The Downside: Building Tolerance and Dependence

Sounds great so far, right? Well, there’s a catch. Numerous issues arise when these neurotransmitter systems are repeatedly overstimulated with alcohol. The brain adjusts for the increases in GABA and dopamine by reducing its own production in an effort to maintain equilibrium. As a result, tolerance will set in and ever more alcohol will be needed to get the same high.

In order to counteract the production of dopamine, the brain releases dynorphin, an opioid receptor-binding peptide that acts as a pharmacological depressant. Dynoorphin can produce feelings of dysphoria and anxiety when generated in excess, which is exactly what happens when the brain is attempting to restore equilibrium. 

Eventually, the brain may have trouble maintaining such happy feelings if it isn't being stimulated by alcohol. At this stage, drinking is no longer just about seeking pleasure; it's also about avoiding the discomfort of withdrawal and the influx of dynorphin that comes with it. And that's not a happy place to be.

A Vicious Cycle

When asking, “How does alcohol affect mood” and “Why does alcohol make you feel good,” we have to look at what happens in the long term. Regular heavy drinking can further disrupt the chemical balance in your brain, altering your mood, behavior, and emotions. Even serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, can be affected by it. And a drop in serotonin corresponds to an increase in depressive and anxious thoughts. Talk about ruining the fun, huh?

In addition, excessive alcohol use results in elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. This additional effect could be the reason why we frequently feel less happy and more anxious after a drinking session than we did before it. 

In the Fly Trap

Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Control Alcohol likens this cycle to the Venus Flytrap, a plant that feeds on other living things. The Venus Flytrap's sweet nectar draws a fly, which then falls on its open jaws. The fly sips the nectar, blissfully unaware of the impending threat. The trap snaps shut as soon as the fly tries to fly away, and the plant begins to consume the fly.

In this analogy, the individual using alcohol is the fly, while the substance itself is the Venus Flytrap. The immediate pleasure or relief people frequently experience when they start drinking, whether it be the loosening up at social events, the first relaxation, or the brief escape from tension or anxiety, is the delicious nectar that attracts the drinker.

However, just as the fly becomes stuck, so does the drinker. It feels like the plant’s jaws are slowly closing the more alcohol one consumes. As alcohol consumption continues, its negative effects start to become more pronounced. This could be interpreted to symbolize everything from hangovers and medical problems to marital problems and mental health issues, all like the fly being slowly digested. But the fly doesn't realize it's in a trap until it's too late, much like how many drinkers don't realize how harmful alcohol is until they've already fallen into a cycle of addiction. 

Carr's analogy serves as a clear reminder of how alcohol's initial seduction can result in negative habits. His approach focuses on altering perceptions and dispelling alcohol-related delusions. People can find their way to stop drinking by comprehending the trap, recognizing the delusion of the benefits, and seeing the harm it produces. Fly away from the trap before it closes, in other words.

The Silver Lining

Don't worry if this all seems a little dismal. Scaling back or quitting drinking can gradually undo many of these effects, even if you've been drinking heavily. Our brains have amazing adaptability and can reset neurotransmitter production. Exercise, social engagement, and other healthy behaviors can naturally activate the dopamine system, restoring the brain's capacity to feel good without the need for alcohol.

How Does Alcohol Affect Mood? It’s All About Balance

Take it one step at a time. Speak with encouraging loved ones, colleagues, or friends. Investigate wholesome practices like routine exercise, mindfulness, or a brand-new hobby.  Reward your brain with new, healthier experiences, and it will respond in kind. Who knows, maybe the next thing that makes you feel great will be your newfound sobriety.

Kickstart Healthier Habits 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 today!

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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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