My Addicted Brain

495_alcoholismIn recent years my daily drinking has caused me concern … increased health risks, trigger for migraines, occasional hangovers or slow morning afters. But despite these concerns I haven’t been able to stop.

Emory University (who recently ran a course The Addicted Brain via the www.coursera.org platform) defines addiction as a behaviour you are unable to stop despite distressing negative impacts. While the impacts I’m concerned about can be a little distressing at times, for the most part I do manage my addiction within acceptable social boundaries.

Not only that, many of my friends and colleagues exhibit similar behaviours, making it even more difficult to find the impetus to change. Isn’t my drinking pretty normal? I’m not an “alcoholic”. It’s not that bad … etc. etc.

After listening to an interesting podcast (interview with Jill Stark, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, who wrote a book about her year of sobriety), I became aware of how we boast about our excessive drinking exploits, such as a particularly bad hangover. We talk about such experiences like they are a badge of honour, marks of a hero status. Interesting when you step back from it.

alcohol-brain
Fortunately, I don’t drink THIS much!!!!

Anyway, I decided to take a “harm reduction” approach. I didn’t want to stop drinking altogether. I just wanted to reduce the harmful affects and reduce other risk factors as I progress into my senior years. Critics of the harm reduction approach believe such an approach fails to address the underlying dependence. Alcohol free days for example, are really just all about waiting for the next time you have a drink.

While I found this to be true – there is always a risk of over-indulgence, the first day  drinking after a period of abstinence – I still felt it was better than doing nothing.

The problem with the addicted brain is that if you partake in regular consistent consumption of a drug (such as ethanol in alcohol) over a long period of time, your brain builds up resistance. This means you have to consume more to get the same effect. Alarmingly, I’ve found this to be true, with my 1-2 drinks gradually developing into 4-5 (eek!) over the last 2-3 decades.

So where am I now? Still very much on this journey. While I have had some success in alcohol free days and reducing my intake, I know that my brain has not yet come to terms with this reduced intake. I’m sure this topic will be returned to in the coming months/years as I try to find a way to take responsibility for my lifestyle choices and the impact they have on my health as I age.

Love to hear what you think.

4 thoughts on “My Addicted Brain

  1. Hi Margot, this is a very interesting and relevant topic. I have made a study of wine over many years (including making it).
    I have concluded that It is one of God’s gifts to the human race. Winegrapes have grown wild for thousands of years and are the only fruit with a sufficiently high natural sugar content to make wine with the right alcohol level (10 to 14%). Throughout history it was used as an antiseptic and to make water safe to drink.
    The fact that the yeast necessary for fermentation occurs on the grape skin surface further proves the point.
    Ancient scripts prescribe the acceptable number of drinks as three in one sitting (they don’t say what size – yay! )
    The other remarkable property of wine is “the power to banish care” and humans, with their often brutal and short lives, have always been in need of that.
    Having said all that, over-indulgence can be a problem (myself included). I will follow your harm reduction program and other people’s ideas with great interest.
    Stay well,
    Peter.

  2. Hi Jane, thanks for your considered feedback. Much of what you say resonates with our experience. You are doing very well and I think a Harm Reduction approach such as you have taken is very effective. It is interesting the push and pull of our body, one part enjoying the break and the other part eager for more. We need our pre-frontal cortex to work efficiently to help us make the best decisions for us overall. I’m sure we will talk more about this in the future.
    Margot

  3. Hi Margot – I really enjoyed your blog. This is an interesting topic indeed. Stan and I try to go alcohol free during the week. We don’t miss it too much at the time, but by Thursday evening, we are glad of a cold one. There’s no question of “would we just forget about having a drink tonight as well?”
    For the last few years I have done “febfast” and it has caused me to have some unexpected thoughts and emotions. There’s a type of relief in the fact that I have a reason not to drink. It’s almost liberating. When the end of February approaches I feel a sort of impending inevitability. The benefits of not drinking become more obvious in about the 3rd week – better sleep, concentration, a bit of weight loss, and a clearer head all round. But again, there is no question when the end of February comes around that I would not have a drink.
    I guess I do really enjoy partaking in all the aspects that accompany it – like an icy beer on a hot day after working in the garden. Or a glass of sav blanc with the girls over lunch.
    As you said it’s a matter of trying to minimise the bad effects where possible.
    Cheers and thanks for the thought provoking article.
    Jane

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