There are many parts of the brain that make us feel amazing and it seems nature has programmed us for pleasure. There are a mixture of receptors (message receivers) and neurotransmitters (messages) in our brain, all with different effects and all manipulated into action by alcohol and narcotics.
We broke down the effects of alcohol and well known recreational drugs, and the results are surprising. Whilst ecstacy and alcohol don’t share any of the same receptors, the similarities between alcohol and heroin were more similar than you’d expect.
This chart and the receptor insights below should help you understand what happens when you drink a little more,
Opioid receptors enable pleasure and were unknown of before scientists started to investigate how opioid receptors work in the body. Common opioids include morphine and heroine, but we also make opioids naturally in the body (e.g endorphins are opioid based). When opioids are released they block pain, calm people, slow breathing and have an anti-depressant effect. Both heroin and alcohol stimulate opioid receptors, as do ketamine and cannabis. The mu opioid is one of the opioid receptors alcohol stimulates which causes an increased search for alcohol/ possible addiction.
Gamma aminobutyric acid aka GABA is a neurotransmitter that really chills us out. The body has many different systems, and our nervous system is our one of electricity. Ions are fired between synapses which allows electrical currents to pass through, and this is how thoughts are made. It is also part of how we sense things and move. The way GABA works is by binding to and changing the shape of the receptor receiving the electricity so the current has to stop and slow down. It inhibits the stimulating messages, and so relaxes us mentally and physically, can affect our coordination and makes us lose our inhibition at high doses. GABA receptors are in fact the target of popular anti-anxiety pills benzodiazepines but alcohol also stimulates these receptors too (which explains why it can make us clumsy!).
Alcohol also causes the release of dopamine, which is partially why it can be addictive. Dopamine is known as the “reward” neurotransmitter which is why we seek it more and more. It is even released when we see a little notification on our social media, as we have found something we are looking for and so this is a partial explanation for social media addiction. Ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine also stimulate the release of dopamine.
Alcohol is a staple part of many cultures, and there are many pros and cons of it. The ancient Greeks even had a God of Wine, however that isn’t to say that this liquid is without its problems. Whilst alcohol is useful to make people feel more confident, chatty, to help them destress and let loose, as well as having some health benefits (for example lowering LDL- bad cholestorol) it also has a dark side. Alcohol can make people aggressive, unable to look after themselves, unable to monitor their behaviours, can make people extremely nauseous, is a diuretic so makes people literally dry out, has been heavily linked to liver damage and many types of cancer. It can also be very addictive and in extreme cases can lead to irreversible psychosis. On a less severe scale though alcohol more often than not leaves people feeling awful for the next day (or few days), with headaches, fatigue and nausea all part of the package. The more and more you drink, the higher your threshold for alcohol becomes, and eventually if pushed far enough the body needs the ethanol in alcohol to maintain its normality which makes alcohol addictive.
|Site of Pleasure (receptor/neurotransmitter)||Effect||Drugs that stimulate these sites|
|GABA||Relaxation, sedation, loss of inhibition||Xanax, benzodiazepines, valium, alcohol|
|Opioid||Pleasure, satisfaction||Heroine, ketamine, cannabis, morphine, alcohol|
|Dopamine||Reward and pleasure||Ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, alcohol|
|Serotonin||Antidepressant, hallucinogenic, elevated mood||LSD, ecstasy, cannabis, heroine, ketamine, cocaine, prozac|