Karyn recently asked about my doing a blog post amplifying the concept of the ‘stimulant vs depressant’ side of alcohol consumption, and its impact on moderation. This coincided with someone sending me an email asking about moderation. Hence this post.
I am not going to go over the basics of the physiological effects of drinking in detail (you can find them in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website in Chapter 2 if you are not familiar with them) suffice to say the human brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing stimulants. However the human brain only has a limited supply of these stimulants. In the normal course of events only a very small amount of them are needed, however to counter the alcohol (which is a powerful chemical depressant) it needs far more of them. Over time therefore the brain creates more and more of them, and even becomes proficient enough to release them in response to expected, rather than actual, drinks drunk. For example if every time you drink you drink 8 drinks, as soon as that first drink hits your bloodstream your brain will release stimulants to counter the alcohol in the full 8 drinks, not just the one you have already drunk. This is why, for many, the first drink will actually ‘pick them up’ even though alcohol is a chemical depressant (along with the fact that alcohol anaesthetises feelings of tiredness).
I can think of a couple of occasions (literally 2 during 25 years of drinking) when I had 2 drinks and tried to have no more. On both occasions I couldn’t sleep. I realise now that I was so used to drinking more, that my brain would release stimulants to counter the dozen or so drinks I would usually drink, rather than the two I had actually taken. On one occasion I just lay there tossing and turning all night, on the other I made it to the off licence just before it closed and picked up a substantial amount more to drink.
For this reason I conclude that moderation isn’t an option. But just as the brain gets used to heavy drinking, cannot it not re adjust to lighter drinking? What if, for example, I took just two drinks and suffered the stimulant onslaught (if I can call it that) and kept doing this say, every three days? Would my system readjust to the smaller amount of alcohol? I don’t know for definite but logic would dictate it must do. How long would it take? Again I can only guess but it would be days or weeks, rather than months or years, judging from how long it takes the brain to read adjust from other drugs. So isn’t this a way to moderate?
I think the first question must be would it be worth the effort? It would be a fairly unpleasant process. For me the answer is simple; absolutely not. This is because I no longer see any pleasure in drinking at all, indeed I see it as detracting from my personal happiness and mental resilience, so even if could guarantee it would work I have no interest in drinking again.
The next question to address is would it work long term? We already know the answer to this because we’ve experienced it before. We’d go through the same process as when we drank the first time, which is to slowly (or quickly) increase our intake as our ’tolerence’ (which is the name we use to describe the brain’s ability to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol) increased. So even if you were to go through the painful process of reducing your tolerance, the natural tendency would be for it to keep increasing. You would, I think, have to keep going through the ‘stimulant onslaught’ process every few weeks (or even days) to keep bringing the tolerance down.
However there is another factor to consider and this is not physiological but mental. The fact is that long term heavy drinking leads to your learning, on both a conscious and subconscious level, that the withdrawal from alcohol (no matter how slight) can be relieved by another drink. Even if you could return your ‘tolerence’ to its original pre-drinking level, the mental associations would remain. I cannot think of a way of reversing this aspect so the unpleasant physiological process would ultimately be for nothing. Even the very mild alcohol withdrawal of the first time drinker is enough to cause the desire for another drink in anyone who associates the relief of this withdrawal with another drink.
The final overriding point to make is that a person would only want to moderate if they retain some belief that there is some genuine pleasure in drinking. Although I always say that Alcohol Explained is information and ideas, rather than doctrine and instruction, and it is up to the individual to accept or reject it as they see fit, and to put anything they find useful to whatever use they see fit, I can’t help but think that if a person wants to moderate they have somehow missed one or more points somewhere along the line.
Thanks for the blog post. It reminds me how stressful it is to try to moderate… especially I comparison to spending a good chunk of time alcohol free. The thought of getting back on that rollercoaster is almost sickening. Moderation is an illusion when you are talking about an addictive drug. And really, who talks about moderation when addiction isn’t a concern? “Oh, I’ve been moderating my reading, I’ve been keeping my fresh air to a reasonable level. I only go outside on weekends… ” Natural sources of dopaine need no moderation. Moderation doesn’t free you from addiction, it locks you into addiction, somewhere in the continuum of despair.
Thanks. Very informative and helpful. Moderation is not for me. ????
Almost 3 months sober now, and although still early days I also share your uninterest in never drinking again, partly thanks to your book, and partly that something had just switched in my thinking. Something that I have wondered is about drinking non-alcoholic beers and if this is help or a hinderance? In the early days of stopping I used AF beers to satisfy the psychological evening urge; the sound, taste, action of pouring myself a beer. It worked a treat, and overtime have ‘weened’ myself off, with now only occasionally enjoying an AF beer. My question is that if the brain ” even becomes proficient enough to release [chemical stimulants] in response to expected, rather than actual, drinks drunk” then could my brain be releasing the stimulants, in anticipation, when I tuck into an AF beer?
That’s an excellent question, fortunately not because the brain only reacts to the actual alcohol chemical itself. I have the odd non alcoholic beer myself sometimes.
Greetings from across the pond 🙂 (USA.) So much truth in this post, saving for future reading. Thank you again for your book, and what you do to enlighten us on alcohol!
Hello Amy! Thank you for leaving a message!