Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?
A big part of what makes alcohol addictive is its ability to physically alter the brain's chemistry and functioning. Read more about what makes alcohol so addictive.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed legal ‘drugs’ in the world. From celebrating weddings and the birth of a child to unwinding after a long day at work and drinking to decompress, alcohol is a part of just about everyone’s life in one way or another. And while many think that alcohol consumption is harmless—after all it’s legal—this is far from the case.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 85% of adults in the United States (18 years of age and older) reported consuming alcohol in the past year. Of these millions, more than 25% reported binge drinking in the past month. Binge drinking is considered to be a red flag when it comes to consuming alcohol that often leads to more serious problems such as alcohol addiction.
The same NSDUH found that there are nearly 15 million Americans over the age of 12 years with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). An AUD is defined as a chronic brain disorder in which there is compulsive alcohol consumption, loss of control over drinking alcohol, and negative emotions experienced when an individual is not under the influence of this dangerous substance.
And the problem with alcohol is growing…
Recent research indicates that not only is alcohol abuse increasing in general, it has also seen a sharp rise since the COVID-19 pandemic with some reports showing an increase in alcohol purchases up by as much as 55%.
How does the body become dependent on alcohol?
Drinking alcohol causes your brain to release dopamine and more endorphins. In addition to producing feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, these chemicals also act as natural painkillers. Different people's brains react differently to alcohol and may have a genetic predisposition. Some people's brains release a greater amount of pleasure chemicals when they consume alcohol, which increases their chance to develop physical dependence.
A big part of what makes alcohol addictive is its ability to physically alter the brain's chemistry and functioning. Reward and pleasure centers in the brain become overloaded, causing cravings for those emotions again. A person may have the intention to stop, but alcohol can affect impulse control and decision-making, causing relapse to be more likely. Addiction to alcohol can begin as alcohol abuse and quickly progress to alcohol dependency. The signs are very similar to substance abuse too.
As with other addictive behaviors, alcoholism is a learned behavior that is influenced by a person's thoughts and beliefs. People who don't believe in treatment and recovery are less likely to make the effort required to successfully complete treatment. The symptoms of stress can also contribute to addiction, with the use of alcohol becoming a temporary and unhealthy way to cope. Eventually, this illness becomes an addiction.
Alcohol Consumption and Social Influences
One of the reasons that AUDs are increasing so much is that alcohol and drinking are socially acceptable—and even expected—in most communities. We are bombarded with ads for alcohol. These ads portray alcohol as not only harmless but as a way to have fun, enjoy family and friends, and let loose. And while many Americans can consume alcohol harmlessly, the millions who are unable to do so often succumb to the innocent portrayal of heavy drinking.
Many people who are living with an AUD, mistakenly think that really having a problem with alcohol would mean being that stereotypical alcoholic drinking on the streets or losing it all. That simply isn’t the case. Alcohol use disorder is a progressive disease. There are stages of alcoholism and the sooner an individual gets help, the better for not only them but their families as well.
Stages of Alcoholism: It’s Never Too Soon To Get Help
Different models of alcoholism identify various stages of alcohol use disorder ranging from three stages to seven stages. In general, there is an early stage, a middle stage, and a final stage. As mentioned, AUD is progressive and an individual with an AUD will progress unless proper treatment is received.
Early Stage: Drinking Problem
An alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be difficult to detect in its early stages. During this initial stage, the individual may start drinking more regularly and often consumes more in one sitting than before. This indicates that they are developing a tolerance to alcohol, one of the warning signs of an issue.
Middle Stage: Alcohol Dependency
The next stage is marked by tolerance. At this point, many people are dependent on alcohol not just to feel good but to not feel bad and to avoid withdrawal. The final stage of alcoholism is when the person must drink regularly in order to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. By the time a person reaches this stage, they are experiencing both physical and mental health deterioration—the outlook is bleak if they don’t get help.
Final Stage: Addiction Treatment
This final stage is when loved ones usually know for certain that there is a problem. At this stage, the person themselves most likely realize it too. During this final stage of alcoholism, it is imperative the person seek help and stop drinking. The consequences of not doing so are deadly.
However, what’s important to understand and educate more people about are the early stages of alcohol use disorder. During these stages, treatment is effective and many who seek treatment in these early stages avoid many of the detrimental effects of alcohol for themselves and their loved ones. Evidence-based treatment for AUD works no matter how early or late in addiction you or a loved one are.
When does alcohol abuse become an addiction?
Some people are prone to developing alcohol addictions. Genetic factors may live in environments where drinking alcohol is more prevalent. It is also thought that others who began drinking at a young age when certain parts of their brains involved in evaluating and judging were still developing. Physical adversity can lead to stress in many people, leading them to turn to alcohol as a means of coping with it. Alcohol dependence results from such circumstances.
If someone finds it difficult to stop drinking alcohol or experiences significant negative consequences from drinking alcohol, they may have an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorders are characterized by:
- Over-consuming alcohol or using it for a longer time period than intended
- Alcohol reduction efforts that have failed
- An insatiable urge to use alcohol
- Alcohol tolerance: drinking more alcohol to achieve the desired effect
- Alcohol withdrawal: feeling emotional and physically sick after quitting alcohol
- As a result of alcohol consumption, major professional and personal commitments are not fulfilled
- Alcohol use that interferes with personal and professional activities
- Continuous alcohol use despite psychological or physical harm, worsening health, and physical dangers
What are the long-term effects of alcohol?
Malnutrition, cancer, and liver disease are long-term effects of alcohol abuse. Some long-term effects of alcohol use may be avoided through alcohol addiction treatment.
Using the drug long-term can cause permanent brain damage, so the effects persist even if the user does not have alcohol in their system. Early recovery can also be affected by alcohol brain fog.
The long-term effects of abuse on the brain include:
- Decreased attention span
- Difficulty in forming thoughts
- Nerve damage
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy
- Trouble with balance
How to get help for alcohol addiction and substance abuse
If you or a loved one are drinking a lot of alcohol and think there may be a problem, Caron can help. At Caron, we provide comprehensive evaluation and treatment for AUD and substance use disorders (SUD). We believe that recovery isn’t just possible, it’s probable. Call today and start healing tomorrow. We’re just one call away at 800-854-6023.
By Barbara Krantz, D.O., MS, DFASAM, MRO
By Caron Medical Staff
By Anthony Campo, MD, FASAM, FAPA