According to historical evidence, humans have been making and consuming alcohol for 9,000 years or more. Alcohol is woven into the fabric of society, playing a role in special occasions and most social events.
Even though alcohol is widely accepted, overconsumption can wreak havoc on your health and trigger addiction. In the US, alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance.
Why do people drink alcohol if it’s addictive?
Contrary to drugs like methamphetamines, alcohol doesn’t create instant dependence. Getting addicted to alcohol isn’t something that happens after having one drink. Instead, it can creep in and become a coping mechanism.
Social drinking can easily turn into a drink every night, multiple drinks per night, and eventually dependence.
If you or a loved one is battling an alcohol addiction, one of the most valuable things you can do is develop an understanding of the motivations and triggers behind alcohol consumption. Continue reading to find out the main reasons why people drink, despite the dangers.
It Tastes Nice
One of the most basic reasons people drink alcohol is because it tastes nice. If you’re a non-drinker, this might come as a surprise. Most alcoholic beverages are an acquired taste. Wine and beer are probably the most palatable, but spirits can be pretty hard to swallow if you’ve never consumed alcohol before.
However, all alcohol is created from sugars. Even if certain alcoholic beverages, like spirits and dry wines, don’t taste sweet, they can still act on the same areas of the brain that sugar activates.
Mixed drinks such as cocktails contain both ethanol (alcohol) and extra sugar from soda, fruit juices, or syrups. “Hard” versions of soft drinks and other ready-to-consume mixed drinks are even more tempting to the taste buds, as the high sugar content and carbonation masks the bitter taste of the added alcohol.
It Lights up the Same Pleasure Centers as Sugar
Because alcohol can light up the brain in the same way that sugar does, an existing sugar addiction can increase the risk of alcohol addiction. In reverse, people who are recovering from an alcohol addiction may substitute alcoholic beverages with sweets and soda.
A study from 2014 showed that sweet-liking is associated with a risk of heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems in young adults.
In other words, having an inherent sweet tooth can cause some people to start drinking alcohol. Children who eat a lot of sugar may also have a higher risk of consuming alcohol as teenagers.
More recent research indicates that children’s propensity to consume sugar can predict regular alcohol consumption in adolescence.
Youngsters See It as Daring and Adult
Having a sweet tooth isn’t the only thing that can predispose people to excessive alcohol consumption. The above study also showed a link between alcohol-related problems in young adults and high novelty-seeking.
Teens may drink and experiment with drugs out of curiosity, boredom, or rebellion. It can be a way to demonstrate their independence. If peer pressure is involved, drinking may also be a way to show they are daring or more “adult” than their peers.
Alcohol Boosts Dopamine Levels in the Brain
Another reason people drink and become addicted to alcohol is because it releases happy chemicals in the brain. Alcohol increases the release of dopamine, a key happiness neurochemical. This is what’s primarily responsible for the immediate feelings of ease and relaxation that come with having a drink.
It’s also one of the reasons why one drink can lead to a second, third, and fourth. As dopamine levels drop after the initial alcohol-triggered spike, this triggers a physiological reaction that stimulates you to consume more alcohol.
Unfortunately, repeated, ongoing exposure to addictive substances like alcohol causes the dopamine connections to remodel themselves. This is a protective mechanism that happens in response to the excess dopamine release. To achieve homeostasis, the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors and increases the dopamine transporters that are responsible for carrying dopamine away.
These brain changes play a key role in substance addiction and can make it very hard to stop drinking alcohol. As the brain’s dopamine pathways adapt, it takes more and more alcohol to achieve the same pleasurable feelings. Without alcohol, the brain is deprived of its baseline levels of dopamine.
If you stop drinking alcohol, you may feel:
This is one of the reasons why alcohol addiction can be so challenging and why it’s important to seek out the right alcohol addiction recovery programs.
Alcohol Is Associated With Unwinding
Alcohol is often viewed as the ultimate way to unwind. It’s highly socially accepted to pour a glass of wine after a tough day or engage in a bit of weekend drinking as a reward after working hard all week.
Although alcohol can make you feel more relaxed in the moment, it can also elevate stress hormones. The body mediates stress through the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, a feedback highway between the brain and the adrenal glands.
Consuming a lot of alcohol can stimulate this axis and increase levels of stress hormones. However, the stress response that alcohol can trigger also interacts with the dopamine system. In short, binge drinking may feel good while you’re doing it, but underneath the increased dopamine levels, your body might be pumping out stress hormones.
Alcohol can also feel like a stress antidote because it slows down brain activity. If you’re overthinking, feeling anxious, or having intrusive thoughts, this slowdown in brain activity may feel like a relief.
Alcohol Lowers Inhibitions
If you’re still wondering why do people drink alcohol, another common reason is that it can be a social lubricant. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can make people feel relaxed, calm, and confident.
Holding a drink in one’s hand also gives people something to “do” while mingling, as opposed to standing around empty-handed.
Having a drink on special occasions isn’t usually a problem, but if you rely on it to have a good time while socializing, this can indicate dependence.
If you’re someone who feels shy, inhibited, anxious, or generally uncomfortable in social settings, alcohol can become a crutch. Even people who are naturally social can come to rely on alcohol to grease the wheels of social interaction.
It Sends People off to Sleep
While some people drink alcohol to feel socially confident, others use it to sleep. Roughly 20% of adults in the US use alcohol as a sleep aid.
Thanks to its initial relaxing effects, alcohol can induce sleep and increase adenosine levels. But this can have a negative payoff later in the night. After the initial rise, adenosine levels drop off in what’s known as the “rebound effect.”
The sedative effects wear off, and sleep can become more shallow. Alcohol can negatively affect your sleep cycles and decrease sleep quality by as much as 24%.
It’s a Social Custom
Social custom is another powerful factor in why people drink. Research shows that social norms can be a strong influencing factor in alcohol dependence. The more socially acceptable alcohol is, the more likely people are to consume it.
Societal acceptance can also easily turn into peer pressure. This is most prevalent with younger adults, but it can influence older adults as well. If everyone at a social occasion is drinking alcohol, abstaining might make you feel like you stick out, “aren’t fun,” or appear uptight.
These subtle (or overt) societal pressures can have a bigger impact than we realize. For example, staying sober during the holidays can be challenging. If everyone around you is consuming alcohol, it can feel strange to be the only one saying no to a drink.
Fortunately, the social norms around alcohol are slowly changing. A growing number of people are becoming sober curious.
Alcohol Can Be a Coping Mechanism
Thanks to the way that alcohol interacts with the brain’s chemistry, it can also turn into a coping mechanism for things like:
A meta-analysis shows that people with mental health disorders are twice as likely to report an alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, using alcohol to self-medicate can make mental health issues worse. While alcohol might offer temporary relief, as we outlined above, it can lead to changes in the brain’s dopamine pathways over time, resulting in constant cravings.
If alcohol has become your main focus, this is one of the signs that you may need rehab.
Even if you aren’t suffering from a mental health disorder like depression or PTSD, you might still come to rely on alcohol to help you cope with the general stresses of everyday life.
Why Do People Drink Alcohol? Mostly to Feel Good and Fit In
Why do people drink alcohol when it’s known to be addictive? Mostly to feel more relaxed and fit in with others. However, over time, casual drinking can turn into dependence.
Do you or someone you know need help with alcohol addiction? American’s Rehab Campuses offers a variety of alcohol addiction recovery treatment options, including medical detox programs. We take a multidimensional approach to recovery that encompasses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of addiction.
Contact us via email to get help, or call our 24/7 admissions team for even speedier assistance.