Sunday, August 1, 2010

Doing The Neurotransmitter Dance

It's a beautiful Sunday morning. I have two days of drinking left before my 4-week alcohol cleanse. Meaning it's another party day - this time a barbecue with the family. :)

I now take two of these 28-day cleanses every year and have been doing so for years. The reason for them is one of the main keys to the success of this new plan. When I read Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story" she helped explain the reason that alcohol is so addictive - and damaging. I've outlined it in "The New Plan" tab at the top of the page, but it's so important - and so liberating - it's worth repeating (about a million times). Because becoming addicted to alcohol is not your fault. It's a normal, almost inevitable physiological response to having alcohol in your system, especially if you're predisposed to alcohol abuse. As I was.

The key to understanding the problem is that alcohol changes the chemistry of your brain. It's a very complicated series of reactions. (Dirk Hanson has written a wonderful book called "The Chemical Carousel" which explains it in detail.) Really simply put, when you have a drink, you have an unnatural jolt of serotonin and dopamine shoot through you. Among other things, these neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of well-being, pleasure, and joy - and it explains why we love drinking so much.

But understanding the role of dopamine and drinking really unlocked the problem for me. When you abuse alcohol - drink too much over too long a period - your brain adjusts by no longer producing dopamine naturally. Meaning when you're not drinking, you actually feel depressed. And the only thing that will help you feel better is a drink. But even when you do have a drink, the joy might only last a moment or two because once you've entered an addiction pattern, your brain reacts by shutting down dopamine production immediately. So you need another drink. And so on and so on.

But in "Drinking: A Love Story," Knapp explained that the brain can heal itself - and WILL begin producing dopamine again naturally if you quit drinking. I did. In 2003 I quit for six months. After that, I incorporated alcohol back into my life and now I enjoy all the benefits of drinking - without having to worry about hiding, lying, shame, guilt, fear - or uncontrolled addiction. Giving your brain - and your body - a break from the addictive qualities of alcohol on a regular basis will allow it to continue producing dopamine naturally. Which stops the deadly and depressing connection between dopamine and alcohol.

I consider this information from Knapp a life saver. It has made my cleanses a very spiritual time full of gratitude and wonder. And a lot of juice.

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