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How Alcohol Withdrawal Works

Alcohol Withdrawal

It is common knowledge that prolonged and excessive use of alcohol can cause tolerance and physical dependence, eventually leading to alcohol withdrawal syndrome when an individual reduces or stops consuming alcohol. Far fewer people have an understanding about what neurological mechanisms cause alcohol addiction and withdrawal to occur in the first place, however.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

To understand how alcohol addiction works, it's first necessary to understand how alcohol consumption affects the brain. Alcohol works by altering the levels of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit signals from brain cell to brain cell. There are a variety of neurotransmitters, each with multiple functions, and together they are responsible for controlling thought processes, emotions, and behavior.

Alcohol influences two neurotransmitters in particular, GABA and Glutamate:

  • GABA is an inhibitory transmitter which means it decreases brain activity and produces calming effects when levels are elevated. When alcohol is consumed it increases the effect of GABA. Elevated activity from GABA is what causes the classic symptoms of drunkenness such as slurred speech and loss of motor control.
  • Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, meaning it increases brain activity and acts as a sort of natural stimulant. When alcohol is consumed it decreases the effect of Glutamate, causing the body to slow down on a physiological level.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal

When one consumes alcohol, the brain acts as if there is more GABA and less Glutamate present. This produces the classic symptoms of drunkenness and explains how Dihydromyricetin reduces intoxication symptoms by reducing alcohol's effect on GABA.

As an individual continues to drink to excess on a regular basis, the brain produces less GABA and more Glutamate in an attempt to restore normal brain chemistry. If this individual then quits drinking a rebound effect is produced. The brain is still producing less GABA than is needed without alcohol and more Glutamate, so when the alcohol is taken out of the picture the brain acts as if there is a shortage of GABA and a surplus of Glutamate.

This is what causes alcohol withdrawal, and until the brain can renormalize levels of GABA and Glutamate the individual experiencing withdrawal will suffer painful and sometimes life-threatening symptoms.

Why Are Some People More Susceptible to Alcoholism?

If alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal are caused by alcohol inducing long-term changes in brain chemistry, and alcohol withdrawal occurs when the brain attempts to reset to normal neurotransmitter levels, than why is it that some people are more susceptible to alcoholism than others? This is where factors such as genetics and psychology come into play. Like many drugs, individuals usually become psychologically addicted long before physical dependence occurs. People who drink to forget their problems, or people who self medicate anxiety with alcohol are far more likely to develop drinking patterns conducive to forming a physical dependence than someone who has some drinks on the occasional night out.

Genetics certainly play a role as well. Research has shown that children of alcoholics are four-times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, and while some of this may be due to environmental factors studies have shown that a genetic link does exist.

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