Since the start of the Covid19 pandemic in South Africa, alcohol consumption and binge drinking have increased substantially as a coping mechanism. Add to that our current loadshedding schedule that is playing havoc with our personal and business lives, financial worries, increased workloads and productivity required from fewer people due to retrenchments etc., you have a recipe for disaster!
But what exactly is alcohol doing to our brains?
“Continuous drinking and binge drinking is like allowing a burglar into your home to access your computer and randomly delete any files that he wants. That’s scary stuff!” explains Kerry Rudman from Brain Harmonics, a Neurofeedback organisation specialising in retraining brains. “Far from damaging entire brain cells, alcohol damages dendrites which are the tips of nerve cells that deliver incoming messages to the brain. It does this by widening the channels that let calcium flow into the brain. An excess of calcium kills off dendrites, which means you lose incoming messages and get disrupted brain function.”
Brain cells exist in a complex state of interconnections – a lot like the branches of a tree. International academic Professor Pentney discovered that after consuming alcohol, these ‘branches’ rearrange themselves differently on the tree. In her words: “A different branching arrangement would result in a message transmission, which would change the way that particular part of the brain works.”
Sadly, scientists have not yet discovered what these structural changes mean, however, the plot thickens. There are a number of co-conspirators involved in the alcohol story – calcium is just one.
Why do some people crave more than others?
It turns out that our brains are like a radar, seeking out whatever we are deficient in. Several scientists investigating why some people drink more than others, have found that the act of swallowing alcohol causes a release of endorphins in our brains, giving us a feeling of wellbeing, much like a ‘runners high’. And it doesn’t take more than a glass or two to cause this endorphin rush.
“Beta-endorphins are a natural kind of ‘morphine’, released by the brain whenever we feel pain, excitement, exercise vigorously or drink alcohol,” explains Rudman. “That’s all very nice for most of us, but as Spanish researchers have found, some people are born with very low levels of beta-endorphins, so will naturally seek out anything that gives them more – and therein lies the path to addiction.”
Nature can indeed be cruel. To make matters worse, studies have found that greater amounts of beta-endorphins are released when people at high risk for alcoholism drink, encouraging them to drink more than others. In addition, not only are the endorphin levels of high-risk drinkers three times lower in brain fluid than those of ‘normal people’, their levels of stress hormone, corticotrophin, are four times higher, but so is the resulting level of stress, causing them to return for more.
So how can you help your brain and consume less alcohol?
“A conscious decision needs to be taken to consume less alcohol,” explains Kerry Rudman. “However, this will not be an instant fix to your problems or fix what has already happened in your brain.”
In 1989, Eugene Peniston of the Fort Lyon (CO) VA Medical Center undertook a ground-breaking study of alcoholics who received alpha-theta neurofeedback training in addition to the program normally provided by the facility. Five years after treatment, 70% of the participants were still abstinent.
Alcohol and drugs are psychoactive substances. They act in the brain, and their effects represent changes in neurological functioning. It is possible to learn to control one’s brain states from within, without drugs and alcohol. In this way, addictions can be overcome without a lifetime of struggle and craving. Neurofeedback (also called EEG biofeedback) trains the brain to modulate its level of activity, to become more or less activated according to the needs of the individual. Some addictions, such as alcoholism, often involve brain over-activation. In these cases, it can be helpful to teach the brain to quiet down, become less activated. In other cases, for example, in people with ADHD who abuse amphetamines, the brain is under-activated and needs to learn to speed up.
Research has shown that success in alcohol treatment is worse for those alcoholics who have the least alpha and theta activity, and the most beta. This finding supplements the discovery that alcoholics as a group have less alpha and theta and relatively more beta than non-alcoholics. That is, alcoholics form a continuum, with the most cortically hyper aroused (those with less alpha and theta) showing worse outcomes than others who are less hyper aroused.
“Neurofeedback for alcoholism, and some other addictions, is a process of teaching the client first to increase the amount of alpha waves, and then to increase theta,” says Rudman. “The person progresses into a relaxed, then dreamy and hypnogogic state. Eyes are closed, and they receive feedback via sounds presented through headphones. Usually a reclining chair is used, a blanket is offered to increase comfort and the sense of security, and the room is darkened or a light-preventing mask is used.”
While in the hypnogogic theta state the client is asked to do visualizations picturing refusal to drink (or to do drugs) and abstinence from alcohol and other substances. In the many clients who also suffer from post-traumatic conditions the hypnogogic state facilitates the re-experiencing of traumatic memories in a setting that allows them finally to be processed and remembered in normal ways and places in the brain. Spiritual experiences often accompany the reprocessing of old memories.
A second subset of addicts is cortically under-aroused and needs to activate their brains. Cocaine and methamphetamine users, for example, are different from most alcoholics – in some ways 180 degrees apart. Those who prefer speed often show high amounts of theta to start, and so need a different protocol, at least at the beginning.
Although this is a different pattern from alcoholism, we see the same effort at self-medication here: amphetamines reduce slow wave activity (theta and low alpha waves) and increase beta. This is rewarding for the sluggish, under activated brains of the cocaine and amphetamine users.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, take a look to see what Neurofeedback Training could do for you.