by Annie Grace
While women may have a lower tolerance to alcohol, drinking is significantly more harmful to men than women. Out of 88,000 people who die every year from alcohol related causes 70.5% (or 62,000) of them are men. These statistics become more concerning when combined with the startling correlations between alcohol use, depression and suicide.
- Of the 17 million adults in the U.S. who suffer from alcohol use disorder 66% or 11.2 million of them are men.[i]
- Men are twice as likely as women to abuse alcohol.[ii]
- Suicide is 120 times more likely in adult alcoholics than the general population.[iii]
- Alcohol intoxication increases suicide risk up to 90 times[iv]
- 33% of suicide autopsies tested positive for alcohol[v]
- Men take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of women, representing 78% of all suicides.[vi]
|Human Brain by Dawn Hudson|
Dopamine is a neuromodulator associated with reward. While scientists used to think that the association of dopamine and reward meant both wanting and enjoying the reward, new studies are decoupling wanting and liking. We now realize that while dopamine helps us focus our attention to achieving reward, and injects this motivation with emotional urgency, it does not actually ensure we enjoy the reward.
All levels of drinking, from moderate to heavy, release dopamine into the brain. And in studies, despite similar levels of alcohol consumption, men had significantly greater dopamine release than women. This increase was found in the ventral striatum, an area in the brain strongly associated with reinforcement and addiction formation.
Dopamine is also known as the learning molecule. It allows us to imprint the sequence of events that lead to reward more effectively which insures we are better able to find reward in the future by recalling the events that led us to it. Unfortunately with alcohol what men’s brains are learning, at a faster rate than women’s, is craving for alcohol. Even worse, once the craving becomes habitual the liking decreases meaning that men - who habitually drink - may no longer truly enjoy it. Higher dopamine release ensures men have stronger cravings for alcohol but findings also demonstrate that when drinking becomes habitual the pleasure associated with drinking may no longer be present.
While ‘liking’ is a conscious activity, ‘wanting’ is often unconscious.[vii] This means that men, even after they feel a conscious desire to cut back may be compelled to drink. This is not obvious and creates confusion. And since men are known to value independence and control, and often regard needing help as a weakness they are more likely than women to continue to drink - despite the fact they are no longer truly enjoying it- as a path of least resistance.
Social Pressure: More Pressure On Men To Drink
Among men, the social pressure to drink among is incredibly high. In some European cultures, men report their social groups see not drinking as an insulting, not drinking is simply not an option. Men who decide to drink less are subtly ridiculed and even ostracized from their social groups.
So men carry on drinking, and pressuring each other to drink ever more. Hangovers come with bragging rights and are worn as a badge of courage, proving strength through tolerance and bravery by risking health and wellness in the name of ‘living on the edge’ and ‘having a good time.’
Yet, in private, many men often report they are unhappy with how much they are drinking, wishing they were easily able to drink less. It even affects body image with ‘beer bellies’ being a top complaint men have about their physical appearance.
We need to give men permission to be cautious with alcohol; permission not to drink.
Men, with their increased dopamine response to alcohol, are already at a disadvantage. Removing the social pressures on men to drink is important to help combat the horrors of alcohol addiction in our society. With alcohol related deaths being 2.4 times more likely in men than women, it’s time we started to pay attention. Why is it that alcohol is the only drug on the planet we have to justify not taking?
Not drinking can actually make you happier.
Once a person begins to develop a tolerance to alcohol (needing more drinks to experience the same level of drunkenness), the pleasure a person is receiving from drinking actually begins to diminish. In an effort to protect itself, and maintain homeostasis, the brain counteracts the pleasurable effects of drinking by releasing a chemical called dynorphin. Dynorphin is one aspect of tolerance; it is a naturally occurring painkiller linked to depression.
Further, dynorphin does not discriminate, it numbs the stimulation from drinking alcohol as well as the stimulation that every day pleasures induce. This means that drinking alcohol leads to a muted pleasure response to all types of enjoyable life experiences. It also explains why, with prolonged alcohol use, a person can no longer find joy apart from drinking and with regular heavy drinking dynorphin levels are so high that even the alcohol ceases to provide the illusion of pleasure. This is why alcoholics report that while they desperately crave alcohol (thanks to the high levels of dopamine present) they no longer enjoy drinking.[viii] This is a truly miserable experience.
If you worry that alcohol may be taking more than its giving, here are a few simple questions you can ask yourself. These questions are aimed to let you know that the levels of dopamine and dynorphin may have become elevated to such an extent that you are no longer fully, or consciously in control of your relationship with alcohol.
- Do you drink more than you set out to drink, more than you intended?
- Have you desired to cut back or stop drinking but found it harder than you expected?
- Do you find yourself regretting, on a regular basis, the aftereffects of drinking? (i.e., headache, hangover)
- Have you experienced a strong need, urge or craving for a drink after you have determined you were going to take the day off from drinking?
- Do you worry that drinking is making you feel depressed or anxious?
- Do you get into harmful situations while drinking (driving, fighting, unsafe sex)?
- Do you have to drink more than you once did to get the effect you want?
- Do you worry about how much you are drinking, but feel afraid of what that might mean?
- Do you find that your usual number of drinks have much less effect than they used to?
[i] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
[ii] N.B.L. Urban et al.. Sex Differences in Striatal Dopamine Release in Young Adults after Oral Alcohol Challenge.Society of Biological Psychiatry Published by Elsevier Inc. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.06.005. Retreived from: http://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/
[v] http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf (33.4%) & http://qjmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/99/1/57 (33-69)
[vii] Drug Addiction, Dopamine, and Liking vs. Wanting - MIT Study
[viii] Thad A Polk - The Addictive Brain.
Annie Grace grew up in a one-room log cabin without running water and electricity outside Aspen, Colorado. After she discovered her passion for marketing, she worked in corporate America. By the age of 26, she was the youngest vice president in a multi-national corporation and began drinking earnestly. By age 35, she was a C-level global marketing executive and was responsible for marketing in 28 countries. During that time, she routinely consumed a bottle of wine each evening.
Knowing she had to change her lifestyle, but unwilling to submit to a life of deprivation, she searched for a painless way to regain control of her life. Annie no longer drinks and has never been happier. She left her job as an executive to write This Naked Mind. This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol: Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life is her first book.
She holds a dual degree in business - marketing and entrepreneurship - with a minor in Spanish from Colorado State University, and a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Colorado.
A true world traveler, Annie has visited 26 countries (and counting). She currently lives in the Colorado mountains with her two sons and husband.