People drink alcohol for several reasons, but the main one is because it induces pleasure and relaxation.
Alcohol has been virtually ubiquitous in society for millennia. While early humans may have had their first tastes of alcohol from naturally fermenting fruits, people have since learned to systematically turn grapes, grains, sugarcane and other food items into the intoxicating beverage.
In fact, some anthropologists suggest that humans took up agriculture primarily for beer brewing.
Available in many forms, alcohol is drunk for a wide variety of reasons.
Relaxation and Pleasure
Alcohol can affect people differently, but pleasure and euphoria are both strongly associated with it. Our hardwired drive to seek pleasure is easily satisfied by alcohol. Therefore, the distinct reward of alcohol is at the core of why people drink.
Because people experience different levels of reward from alcohol, the drive to consume the beverage can also vary significantly.
Alcohol serves a variety of social purposes in numerous settings. At social gatherings, alcohol fosters bonding through disinhibition and shared pleasure.
Some religions, such as Catholicism, engage in ritualistic drinking on a regular basis. Alcohol also represents a rite of passage in many cultures, particularly among males.
The social aspect of alcohol also involves conformity to norms. Like many other social behaviors, alcohol usage is advertised between individuals and from parents to children. Examples set by others can be powerful motivators to engage in this activity, and some cultures openly frown on people who refuse an offered drink.
The ability of alcohol to relieve anxiety, depression and a variety of other unpleasant states can make it an effective option for self-medication.
Although many people self-medicate with alcohol for psychological reasons, others use alcohol to relieve physical pain. In fact, high doses of alcohol were once commonly used as anesthesia during surgical procedures.
Many individuals cite the health benefits of alcohol in explaining why they drink. Heart benefits, mostly relating to the ability of alcohol to reduce blood clotting, are probably the best-known positive health effects of drinking.
However, alcohol has also been shown to reduce risks of other health problems, including dementia and lymphoma.
Many health benefits of alcohol disappear with heavier drinking.
The euphoria and psychological relief brought by alcohol create the potential for addictiveness and pathological consumption. These issues are especially common in individuals with mood disorders, personality disturbances and hereditary inclinations to drink.
Liver cirrhosis, alcoholic cardiomyopathy and increased risk of stroke are three potential consequences of long-term heavy drinking.
Pathological drinking can also result in damage to other people, such as through violent behavior or drunk driving.
How Alcohol Works
Alcohol exerts its rewarding effects by activating systems within the body related to relaxation and pleasure. For example, alcohol stimulates activity within the GABA system, which reduces excitation and anxiety.
Serotonin and dopamine, involved in relaxation and euphoria, are also affected. Tolerance develops to all of these effects with continued drinking, even within hours, and the withdrawal that follows causes drinkers to experience the opposite of these effects.