Dopamine, Serotonin and Endorphins are all chemicals that occur naturally in the human brain. They are all linked to addiction and I thought it was worth clarifying exactly the role that these chemicals play because, as is usual with alcohol and addiction, there is a huge amount of misinformation and misunderstanding about them.
Dopamine is essentially a chemical that makes you want to do something. It makes you feel like you want or need something. Your body releases it when you drink because it counters the depressive effects of the alcohol. When you have a drink you tend not to care about things; you don’t bother about clearing the kitchen before bed, doing the washing, cleaning up, or the myriad of other things that, if you weren’t drinking, you wouldn’t be able to leave.
The problem is that this ‘not caring’ is not your natural state. Your brain recognises that your motivation levels are low, so it increases dopamine to get you moving again. You then go to sleep, the alcohol wears off, but the excess dopamine remains.
This is why a lot of people find that the day after drinking (provided they haven’t drunk too much) they wake up and want to eat or have sex. This is caused by the dopamine. Your sex drive goes up, appetite goes up, in fact, you will have a much greater motivational need to obtain virtually anything you can think about. This is why trying to control what you eat after a night’s drinking is virtually impossible, and is one of the many reasons drinkers tend to be overweight. The increased dopamine makes them constantly want to eat, even if they aren’t hungry or are even actively full.
Serotonin and Endorphins on the other hand are chemicals that make us feel good. Alcohol consumption has been linked to an increase in these and so there is an assumption that one of the chemical effects of alcohol is to increase the levels of these feel-good chemicals which creates a feeling of euphoria. But in fact, there’s absolutely no direct evidence that it is the direct chemical effect of the alcohol that is responsible for the increased levels.
There is much that we as humans do not know about these two chemicals and how they affect us, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that they are survival chemicals, and by this, I mean that they contribute to the survival of the individual, the family unit, and the species. When you do something that is good for you personally or good for the species, you’re rewarded with a boost of these and this in turn makes you feel good. So eat something, do some exercise, have sex, interact socially with others, and you get this feel-good boost.
Of course, the human brain is far more complicated than this. Did you know that decreasing stress can raise the levels of Serotonin and Endorphins? Stress will actually decrease the levels, and removing stress can increase it. Remember that alcohol withdrawal and tiredness (both byproducts of drinking) are a form of physical stress. Alcohol will remove both of these forms of stress by relieving the withdrawal and anaesthetising the tiredness. Your body will interpret this as ‘beneficial’. In essence, it can be tricked by the effect of the drug.
It is also worth bearing in mind that often we drink while also eating and / or socialising, so this feel-good boost is often due to these two aspects, rather than the drug itself.
If alcohol simply had the chemical effect of releasing Serotonin and Endorphins then every time you took a drink you’d be euphoric. Clearly, this isn’t the case. Some people suggest that over time your brain reacts to the constant release of these feel-good chemicals by no longer releasing them in response to alcohol. But if this were the case then you would never experience any pleasure while drinking and this clearly isn’t the case either. In fact, what we find is exactly the same as we found during our whole drinking lives; that sometimes a drink really makes us feel good, other times it seems to no nothing at all. This is because it is the circumstances and not the alcohol itself that leads to this ‘feel good’ boost. Of course, you will experience less and less pleasure from drinking over time because over time the negative effects of drinking become more and more apparent and we tend to worry about our drinking more and more. After all, you’re not going to get your ‘feel good boost’ if you are worrying about something. This in and of itself will ensure that you get less Serotonin and Endorphins when you are drinking, and is another reason why, over time, our drinking becomes less and less enjoyable.
Thank you William for this email and for your book Alcohol Explained. I drank for 35 years. Now I don’t. Not ever. It was your book that finally turned on the lights in my head and the emails are always eye opening and keep me “in tune”.
I love reading your posts because they give me a motivational boost and a reminder of why I choose not to drink anymore. Thank you! ?
Finally a rational explanation!
I have made this comment before: You need to proof read your articles before submitting! Get someone else to do it, once again a number of typos in the text which makes your writing less credible. Regarding the point about eating after alcohol, I disagree with this. I am a Drug and Alcohol Counsellor in NZ and for the most part, those who come in who are alcohol dependent actually have very little appetite and usually eat one meal a day, if that. Drinking is their focus, they are malnourished and are usually thin. I do always enjoy your emails however! Regards Marilyn
Yes I should have been clearer. I do specify ‘as long as they haven’t drunk too much’. I go into a bit more detail in the book in the Chapter on Weight. At higher levers the stimulants are such that they reduce appetite, so when people are drinking at very high levels they cannot eat or find it difficult too. They totally lose their appetite. It’s the lower levels where this is apparent.
Initially, I gave up alcohol because I found myself binge eating whether hungry or not. I wanted to lose weight but sadly, I exchanged my addiction to alcohol for an addiction to sweets ! I’m not too concerned though ……..at least I’m alcohol free. Thank you William for this email . You hit the nail on the head .
Now I understand why I was overweight .
I love reading your articles and I look forward to more .
Excellent post William, thank you. But I do have an issue with your explanation about dopamine. Yes dopamine is a motivating chemical, and I certainly have experienced the feeling of not caring about anything after a few drinks. But you said your body releases dopamine when you drink, if that was the case then drinking would motivate you to do things rather than causing you to not care about things.
As you said people often want to eat (especially carbs) the morning after drinking, I think this is because alcohol interrupts the normal production of insulin. Alcoholic drinks contain a lot of fructose causing our pancreas to produce a lot of insulin to process the sugar, often this reduces our blood sugar levels too much (during the night) so our body craves food that will raise it and this will give us an energy boost. In my opinion there isn’t a connection between dopamine and overeating, at least in relation to alcohol consumption. I’d be interested in your comments.
Having studied nutrition, this is my understanding also.
Maybe I can wade in and clarify: the serotonin and dopamine pathways compete with each other. Dopamine can be thought of as the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking chemical – “this is so good – I need more; I need that hit again!”. Serotonin is the contented, happiness chemical -“this feels nice and so I don’t need any more”.
Substance addiction feeds into the dopamine pathway. We have to be addicted (or rather, motivated) to repeat our behaviour for survival: in essence, having sex and finding food (or, in this day and age, feeling valued at work so that you go back the next day and eventually get paid, and then you can put food on the table). But this addiction / motivation (dopamine) pathway needs to be in balance with serotonin.
This, incidentally, goes some way to explaining why addiction gets bound up with depression, because of serotonin deficiency.
Appetite is usually depleted the morning after drinking because the central nervous system (the sympathetic part) is overactivated (in order to keep us alive), causing a rise in adrenaline and noradrenaline. William covers this well in his book and also in one of his posts, if I remember correctly. When this part of the nervous system is dominant, we don’t want to eat (no one wants to eat before a sky-dive, due to high levels of adrenaline, for example). Most alcohol addicts can usually only eat when they have had some alcohol, to quell this effect. Chances are they will eat stodge and fast-food just to get something down and stop the yowling from the stomach.
Going off-topic a little, but since fructose and insulin have been mentioned, you might be interested to know that from my research in nutritional biochemistry, and from my experience as an addict, wine drinkers rarely think they have a sweet tooth. My view is that they do, but they are getting it from the sugar in wine. They often substitute sugar when they stop drinking. In contrast, people (again, including me in the past – I’m not judging anyone here) who drink neat spirits will overeat on the sweet stuff as much as the stodge when they’re still drinking. But both groups tend to eat high levels of sugar after they stop drinking.
If you’re overeating on the sweet stuff after giving up alcohol, the first thing I would suggest is to give yourself a huge pat on the back. You’re not drinking! There are ways to curb the sugar addiction, if anyone is interested.
Thank you, William, for continuing to post. I hope you realize how much you keep us on track. I’m also a writer – if you would like me to proofread (it’s one word, by the way!) any of your posts before they go out, I would be happy to do that as a free-of-charge service.