Dopamine and the Hedonic Set Point
When we drink alcohol, we are consuming a drug that impacts many different parts of our body. One of the organs most affected by alcohol is the brain.
With long-term, heavy alcohol use, we may experience severe cognitive and mood dysfunction. Our brain can even undergo structural changes like the reduction of gray matter. However, even moderate use of alcohol can result in changes in mood, mental and emotional health, and cognitive functioning. Understanding how alcohol impacts our brain can help empower us to change and heal. This knowledge also invites us to be more compassionate with ourselves - addiction is not simply a matter of “will power.”
While alcohol impacts the brain in many ways, today we will focus on dopamine and the hedonic set point. Dopamine is a neurochemical—a chemical released by our brain that talks with other neurons and reinforces pleasurable experiences. This function is a learning device rooted in our brain’s primal desire to ensure survival. Do something enjoyable, like receive an embrace or eat sugary foods, and your brain releases dopamine to encourage you to repeat that action.
Alcohol, like most substances of abuse, produces a quick flood of dopamine, overloading the brain with a much higher dose than most behaviors. This tells our brain that alcohol is helpful and necessary for survival. With this in mind, it’s understandable how repeated alcohol use can result in physical addiction; by regularly pumping our brains with synthetic levels of dopamine, we tell our brains that alcohol is more important than food, rest, sex, and other pleasureable experiences.