What the Health: Why do we crave alcohol?

11 Jul 2022

Alcohol cravings are defined as an emotionally charged desire or ‘neediness’ to consume alcohol. Alcohol remains a commonly consumed beverage for many around the world. In moderation, it can provide pleasurable effects, helping to reduce overthinking and improving social confidence. As such, people may crave alcohol when attending social events or experiencing stress. While these cravings are usually harmless, they can become problematic when they interfere with daily function and make it difficult to think of anything else.

Why do we crave alcohol?

What triggers alcohol craving can be different for everyone. Alcohol consumption activates the brain’s reward circuitry, allowing external cues and alcohol-related thoughts to be paired with experiences of alcohol reward via conditioning. This is why craving can occur spontaneously, for example suddenly craving an alcoholic drink upon seeing those around you drinking. Negative emotional states (e.g. stress) or a sense of physiological deficit (e.g. the feeling of thirst) can also trigger alcohol cravings and elicit a desire to drink.

Upon experiencing these thoughts, you may then experience a series of physiological responses, including salivation and increased heart rate. These anticipatory responses can mislead the body into thinking that it needs to consume alcohol, reinforcing your thoughts of craving. These changes often happen without ones awareness as well, adding an element of intrusiveness to these cognitions.

Importantly, a key component of what makes cravings so impactful is how it promotes the generation of mental imagery. Mental imagery incorporates various aspects of cognition and memories to construct vivid imagery related to alcohol consumption. This experience is inherently pleasurable, providing momentary relief to the alcohol cravings. However, the relief is temporary, which elevates an awareness for the deficit of alcohol, promoting a negatively-reinforcing cycle of craving which continues to intensify until the cravings are either satisfied or the cycle is broken.

Why is this important?

While for most people these cravings are brief and tolerable, excessive or dysfunctional levels of alcohol craving can be an early indicator to be careful of your drinking behaviours. Alcohol cravings are now recognised as one of the driving forces behind drinking behaviours, with both the DSM-5 and ICD-10 diagnostic manuals for addiction disorders introducing craving as a diagnostic criterion. Research has also found that the targeting of craving in treatments have been effective in reducing drinking behaviours and promoting alcohol abstinence as well.

For those who are in the process of cutting down their alcohol intake, or simply contemplating it, being aware of their own cravings and understanding how to manage them can be a great first step. If you feel like your alcohol use is getting out of control, please consider contacting an alcohol support group (such as the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) at 1800 177 833) or getting in touch with a psychologist.

AUTHOR: Brandon Cheng is currently a PhD candidate, holding a UQGSS Research Training Program Scholarship. With particular interest in addiction research, Brandon’s PhD is aimed to further understand the multidimensional nature of craving and motivation in alcohol use.