If you’ve ever accidentally gotten way too drunk, you probably know that alcohol can play strange tricks on your brain.
A few drinks might get you to that sweet spot—still coherent, not too tipsy, and feeling like the life of the party. But then, you might feel the urge to have another (and another, and another … ).
The next morning, as you nurse a vicious hangover, you may find yourself wondering, “Why do I always want to drink more?” After all, it’s not like drinking that much alcohol is always an enjoyable—or even memorable—experience.
It turns out alcohol has some very real impacts on your brain that make it harder to put on the brakes. Below, we’ll dive into why being drunk can make you want to keep drinking—even when you know that it’s not going to end well.
Why Do People Crave More Alcohol Once They Start Drinking?
Whether you drink alcohol every day or every six months, there’s a chance you’ve experienced a binge drinking episode at least once in your life. And if you’ve ever woken up on the bathroom floor wondering, “What in the world happened last night?”, you know how poorly this can end.
But if the consequences of overdoing it are so unpleasant, what exactly causes so many of us to binge drink?
Social environment and emotions certainly play a role in how much you choose to drink. But that’s not always the entire story. Alcohol can also change how your brain works, making you crave that next cocktail without feeling concerned about the consequences.
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How Alcohol Affects Your Brain
Alcohol stimulates several different parts of your brain—including your reward system. This is the part of your brain that remembers when a certain behavior is pleasurable or beneficial, and encourages you to repeat it.
Many of us can vouch for the pleasurable effects of alcohol. But when it comes to the benefits of drinking, what’s so useful about feeling nauseous the next day? Why would our reward system encourage us to keep drinking more alcohol, when there’s clearly a miserable morning awaiting us?
A 2015 study in the Journal of Neuroscience may have uncovered the answer. The reward system includes multiple receptors for a chemical called dopamine, which helps us learn and repeat behaviors. According to the study, alcohol increases the activity of the receptors that say “do that again,” but not the receptors that say “that’s a bad idea.”
In other words, alcohol biases our reward systems to learn and remember its positive effects, but not its negative ones1. The more often you drink, the more your brain may wire itself to forget the consequences once the beer starts flowing. Instead of telling you “you might regret this,” your brain seems to say, “and, and, and I want more alcohol!”
Of course, that’s not all. If you’ve ever felt euphoric when drinking, research confirms that alcohol releases a flood of feel-good endorphins in your brain and body2. It can also temporarily reduce anxiety, making you less likely to worry about what might happen later.
It’s a perfect storm of factors, and it’s no wonder so many of us find ourselves agreeing to “one more shot,” or deciding “to heck with it,” once we’ve had a few.
Strategies to Avoid Drinking Too Much
Fortunately, there are some ways to overcome drinking urges and break the cycle of binging on a night out.
Try some of the following tips the next time you’re around alcohol:
- Set a drinking limit beforehand. Once you reach a certain level of intoxication, it can be tough to reel yourself back in. So, choose a fixed limit before you go out for the night. Ask a friend to hold you accountable, or try the coin trick: Place 2-3 coins in your back pocket and move one to the front for each drink. When your pocket is empty, it’s time to stop!
- Have a glass of water or another nonalcoholic beverage between drinks. This will quench your thirst, occupy your hands, and prevent you from having too many drinks too quickly. It may also keep you hydrated, and even limit drink offers; if others see a cup in your hand, they may assume the drink is alcoholic.
- Eat before you drink. A full stomach can help you stay a little more coherent once you start drinking. This can make it easier to say no to cravings, and slow down how quickly you get drunk.
- Practice some good responses for peer pressure. We’ve all been in situations where our friends want us to take round after round of shots. But remember that you don’t need to partake if you don’t want to. Practice what you’ll say beforehand, and be polite, but confident. Here are eight good excuses for not drinking.
The Bottom Line on Why Being Drunk Makes You Want To Drink More
Many people wonder, “Why do I want to keep drinking once I’m already buzzed?” The answer is complex, but a lot of it is linked to your reward system and brain chemistry. Alcohol sneakily activates receptors that tell you to repeat a behavior, while discouraging you from remembering the consequences.
If you often find yourself drinking more than you planned, try some of the above tips. And if it’s too hard to avoid overdrinking through willpower alone, know that you’re not the only one. Many people, even those who don’t drink often, struggle to stick with their limits once they start.
Brain chemistry can push us to repeat behaviors that aren’t good for us, but there are also ways to retrain the reward system. Drugs like naltrexone have been used for several decades to help reset people’s relationship to alcohol, with a high success rate.
Learn about getting help to cut back on alcohol, without identifying as an alcoholic.