Why Do We Crave Alcohol?

Cravings are something we talk about casually sometimes.

Most of the time it’s exaggeration for effect. But for some people, cravings are a real and challenging part of daily life.

What is the difference between wanting to drink, alcohol cravings and being obsessed? The answers lie in different parts of our brains.

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Human Brain Stimulation Or Activity With Neuron Close-up 3d Rendering

Causes of Alcohol Cravings

A craving for alcohol is part of withdrawal. The full spectrum of withdrawal can last for months but cravings.

To understand why it happens we have first to know what alcohol does to our body when we drink too much regularly.

Your Body on Alcohol

When we start drinking we know how it makes us feel. You might be relaxed, happier, and more confident. These feelings come from your brain’s reward system.

You might have heard of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These are chemicals that make us feel good.

They can come from everyday experiences. A walk on a beautiful day, spending time with someone you like, or even getting a promotion at work are all-natural reward boosters.

The biggest impact might be one you haven’t heard of – GABA.

Neurotransmitters and action ofalcohol

GABA and Alcohol

If you have ever felt that terrible chest tightening anxiety that comes with a hangover, low GABA levels are to blame.

GABA receptors are in our limbic system inside the amygdala. You might have heard of the amygdala. It controls our fears and anxieties. GABA is the good guy in this situation, it manages levels and keeps us on an even keel.

GABA controls our central nervous system. It sends signals to connect the different parts of our body and allow them to communicate.

This is why your brain and legs might not work together when you are drunk. Your brain isn’t communicating – I want to walk straight. Therefore, we sometimes fall when drunk or hurt ourselves unintentionally.

Having lots of GABA in your system makes you feel relaxed and calm.

Alcohol ‘pretends to be GABA’. That is how alcohol works. Alcohol directly interferes with GABA by reducing how much there is in our system.

This gives us the feel-good experience of having lots of GABA in our system without needing the real thing. That is what causes the relaxed and happy initial feeling of alcohol.

Hangxiety – Hangover Anxiety

So, what’s the problem? If you feel good surely there isn’t one?

GABA withdrawal is the issue at hand. Because when alcohol acts like GABA your neurotransmitters believe it. They think there is too much GABA in your system.

The feeling you get when drunk is not ideal if you think about it. You wouldn’t want to drive or go to work feeling extremely relaxed and zoned out. Your body realizes this and tries to get back to normal.

To do this it reduces the amount of GABA in your body to get you back to normal. This means instead of being relaxed and calm you feel overexcited and often anxious.

Short and Long-Term Cravings

If you only drink occasionally then your body eventually realizes GABA levels are low and it sets it right.

Not so if you drink too much over a long time. Spending months or even years drinking regularly lowers your GABA levels to a stage that causes withdrawal.

This is the cause of cravings. Your body can correct the imbalance given time. That time increases the worse the problem is.

Until your body does this, you will crave that feeling alcohol can give you. Sadly, this leads you to believe the only way to feel better is to drink again.

This may be true short term, but long-term low GABA, serotonin and dopamine levels can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Woman craving alcohol with a bottle

Alcohol Cravings vs Alcohol Obsession

Cravings are a physical and psychological need for something in this case alcohol. They only last until we have detoxed and have no alcohol in our system.

So why do we think we are craving long after we are sober?

The answer lies in the mind. Not in neurotransmitters this time but in the hippocampus. One of the most important parts of the brain, issues with the hippocampus can leave us obsessed with a feeling we remember and how we think about our experiences.

Alcohol and what we believe it does FOR us becomes the focus of our obsessions. We convince ourselves that alcohol made us happy and feel good.

Scientists believe that prolonged overuse of alcohol can shrink the hippocampus and contribute to addiction, anxiety and depression.

Breaking the Cycle


The answer to cravings is hard but simple: stop drinking. The more you continue to drink the worse the problem becomes. Drinking more might seem to help for a bit, but it only makes you sicker.

Obsession with Alcohol

Finding something else, healthier and if possible happier to fulfil our needs is the best way to curb obsession.

Attending counselling and therapy can relieve our symptoms and help us understand how we became obsessed with alcohol.

Focusing on our body and wellbeing is a great way to heal and stops us from obsessing about alcohol.

Supplements to aid with anxiety – one of the most common cravings and obsession symptoms – may help. Bacopa Monnieri has shown good results in studies related to GABA and anxiety behaviour from alcohol dependence.

If you want to cut down or stop drinking and manage alcohol cravings Desistal can help you on your journey.

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https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332218383914 Bacopa monnieri abrogates alcohol abstinence-induced anxiety-like behaviour by regulating biochemical and Gabra1Gabra4Gabra5 gene expression of GABAA receptor signalling pathway

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24243728/ Inhibitory effect of bacosides on spontaneous morphine withdrawal-induced depression in mice

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC165791/ The role of GABAA receptors in mediating the effects of alcohol in the central nervous system

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32174208/ Hippocampal functional network: The mediating role between obsession and anxiety in adult patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder