behaviors. Alcohol becomes more important because drinking it excessively tricks a primitive, unconscious part of our brain into believing it’s more critical to our survival than it actually is. The artificially high levels of dopamine that flood the brain when we ingest alcohol begin a cascade of other reactions and responses. The brain has a hedonic set point (a term coined by Dr. Kevin McCauley), which means that it both needs a certain amount of dopamine to register pleasure, and is programmed to downgrade levels of dopamine when we receive too much pleasure. Our bodies are constantly trying to find stasis, or balance, and the hedonic set point is an example of that. When high levels of dopamine are regularly released into the system from chronic use of alcohol, the dopamine is down-regulated (or balanced) by something called corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF—a hormone that makes us feel anxious or stressed. If we flood our system with higher-than-normal levels of dopamine, we also flood our system with higher-than-normal levels of CRF, or anxiety. Over time, when our system is assaulted by surges of dopamine, our hedonic set point goes up (requiring more dopamine to feel good), and things that used to register as pleasurable (like warm hugs or our children’s laughter) don’t release enough dopamine to hit that raised baseline. To boot, activities that normally relieve stress, like a bath or a brisk walk, also lose their effectiveness. Alcohol becomes the quickest way our body learns to handle anxiety (which begets more anxiety because alcohol is a depressant, and the body reacts to it by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which means the net effect of a glass of wine is more stress, not less). Our bodies are adaptive, and they adapt to an environment that expects the effects of alcohol. So here we are: we start using alcohol because it gives us more pleasure than sex and does more for stress management than chamomile tea. Over time it gets wrapped up in our survival response, so we are motivated to drink with the same force that motivates us to eat—only the force is stronger than the desire to eat because our midbrain, which ranks everything based on dopamine, thinks we need alcohol more than food. That seems like enough fuckery to contend with, but there’s more to the story.
Holly Whitaker (Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol)