The Phenomenon of Craving in Alcoholism Explained

alcoholismResearchers at McGill University have determined that for those individuals more likely to become alcoholic, they have an exaggerated dopamine response to alcohol. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, more energetic, and likely is most important in the feeling of well being that comes from those experiences that trigger good feelings (be they emotionally or chemically induced). For the alcoholic or individual on the path to becoming an alcoholic it is the large dopamine release triggered by the first drink that prompts the person to go for another, and then another, again and again.  It’s not the topic of this debate blog as to whether you are born an alcoholic or you become one, but I would suggest to you that if you have the genetic predisposition (addictions run in your family), then you likely have the capacity to over-excrete dopamine and thus can very quickly become an alcoholic if you trigger the phenomenon of craving by having those first few drinks.

An addiction specialist was once asked by one of his patients in a treatment center if he was an alcoholic?  His response was “I don’t know, I’ve never had a drink”. The point was that he knew he was at risk due to his family history and he chose not to find out.  In today’s world where we are surrounded by toxins and endocrine disrupters that can alter our brain chemistry, it is more important than ever that we not tempt fate by drinking or using drugs of abuse that are active on the dopamine system (methamphetamine, cocaine, THC/ marijuana, opiates, club drugs, etc.).

In the 12-step recovery programs and the “big book” of alcoholics anonymous, the phenomenon of craving is understood and talked about as the reason you should never take that first drink once you have been able to escape your alcoholism or addiction.  This study gives a scientific reason for this recommendation.


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Dr. Paul


  • People who claim to drink compulsively and then are unable to stop despite their strongest efforts usually have a long history of lying. Which makes me think their alcoholism is only the last in the series.

  • Paul Thomas, M.D.

    generally it is those who cannot stop despite their strongest efforts who have the disease of alcoholism. It’s not a character defect, but the brain is hi-jacked by alcohol. Same thing happens with opiates for example. Do some end up quiting without assistance – sure. Most need help, 12-step programs or addiction counseling etc. Even if you have been there and won (quit on your own) – that does not mean everyone can just quit their drinking or drug use.

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