Becoming addicted to alcohol isn’t just possible—it affects more people than many of us realize. Statistics show that being addicted to alcohol and alcohol abuse kills more than three million people a year, making up 6% of global deaths.
In the U.S. alone, 95,000 people die from alcohol use annually. Sixty percent of people have increased their use of alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what makes someone develop an addiction to alcohol when other people never do? Why is it that some people develop drug dependencies and others don’t?
There are complex factors that contribute to the risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain?
To understand alcohol addiction, first, you need an overview of how even low-risk drinking affects your brain.
- When you drink any alcohol, even on a single occasion, it’s absorbed through your stomach lining, making its way to your bloodstream.
- Once an alcoholic drink is in your bloodstream, it spreads to your bodily tissues, reaching your brain in just five minutes.
- After around 20 minutes, your liver will begin to process alcohol.
- When you drink more than your liver can process, you’ll feel intoxicated as your blood alcohol content goes up.
- As part of its short-term effects, alcohol begins to interfere with your brain’s communication pathways. Even moderate drinking can affect how your brain processes information and the function of the prefrontal cortex and other brain areas.
- A single drink can affect your judgment, behavior, and reaction time.
- Your brain will begin to release dopamine when you first consume alcohol. Dopamine is a pleasure neurotransmitter. You may feel confident, relaxed, and even euphoric. Simultaneously, your memory and reasoning can become impaired.
- After you become legally intoxicated and your blood alcohol concentration goes up, the symptoms of excessive alcohol become more severe and pronounced.
- You may have blurred vision, slurred speech, and a loss of control.
- Your motor skills can be affected, and you may experience physical symptoms like nausea or vomiting.
When you drink excessive amounts of alcohol, you might find yourself in dangerous situations. High alcohol intake puts you at risk of hurting yourself or someone else. If you drive and your blood alcohol content is over a certain level, you could face legal problems. The risk of alcohol use and the costs of alcohol misuse are often incredibly high for individuals and society.
With excessive amounts of alcohol, overdose is possible. Overdosing when drinking is known as alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can be especially common with binge drinking, according to the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Health consequences of binge drinking can include blacking out, slowed breathing, passing out, or being in a coma. Alcohol poisoning can also be deadly, according to the National Institutes of Health.
What Makes Alcohol Addictive?
When you drink, at least initially, it can be largely a social activity, and it’s often glamorized in popular culture. You might drink on special occasions or with friends to help you relax in social situations. Then, you may feel the high that alcohol creates in your brain in doing so. You could feel more relaxed or forget about your problems, and these effects can contribute to the addictiveness of alcohol.
- With relatively long-term alcohol use regularly, you develop a tolerance. You can no longer achieve those seemingly pleasurable effects from the same amount when you have an alcohol tolerance.
- You’re drinking more and more as a result. This could be one of the first signs of alcohol abuse or problematic alcohol use.
- As you develop a tolerance and drink more, your body adjusts. You don’t feel “normal” without alcohol at a point, which is a psychological addiction. If you don’t drink, you might feel strong cravings for alcohol that interfere with other parts of your life.
Alcohol isn’t just psychologically addictive—it’s also physically addictive.
- With physical addiction or dependence on alcohol, you can have withdrawal symptoms when you cut down your amount of alcohol consumption or stop.
- Moderate withdrawal symptoms include shaking, anxiety, depression, and in severe cases, seizures, hallucinations, and confusion.
- These alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms can occur a few hours or a few days after abstinence from alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Researchers believe alcohol is so addictive because it releases endorphins in a couple of key areas of your brain, which help with reward processing.
In one study from 2012, researchers theorized people who engage in excessive alcohol misuse experience a higher release of feel-good chemicals when they drink.
When alcohol affects your brain chemically in different areas, it contributes to alcoholism, also known as an alcohol use disorder. An alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that a mental health professional or an addiction counselor can diagnose. Medical professionals may be able to diagnose a substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder.
The Disease of Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholism or alcohol addiction can affect anyone, and it is a chronic disease, like heart disease. Some factors can play a role in developing alcoholism. These risk factors for this damaging condition include genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors, and developmental factors.
Alcoholism is a medical condition and disease because it changes the brain’s neurochemistry, pathways, and function. When you’re addicted to alcohol or another addictive substance, you lose control of your own actions.
Unlike drugs such as heroin or cocaine, alcohol is easy to obtain. Alcohol is also seen as socially and culturally more acceptable than drugs, so recognizing there’s a problem can become more difficult.
We also, as a society, tend not to understand how dangerous or even deadly problematic alcohol use can be. We often drink more than what medical professionals consider safe or healthy.
For example, one drink a day for women is all that’s considered safe. That means a standard drink, which is also much smaller than we may think.
Drinking can be part of daily life, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine when something problematic is taking place or when individuals at risk for addiction are struggling.
Potential signs that someone is addicted to alcohol or has alcohol dependence can include:
- A higher frequency of use or drinking more
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Drinking at times that would seem inappropriate, like right when you wake up
- Avoiding situations where alcohol won’t be present
- Problems in relationships due to alcohol use
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- Hiding your drinking or alcohol
- Depending on alcohol to function “normally.”
- Mental health or mood symptoms like depression
- Problems with your job or legal or financial troubles
- Extreme cravings for alcohol
- Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol addiction might mean someone experiences just a few signs at first. Then, over time, these can grow worse. A number of physical health problems can stem from alcohol abuse and addiction over time, including an increased risk of cancer, sexual problems, and impaired immune function.
Other effects of heavy drinking or excessive drinking also include high blood pressure, liver disease, and a higher risk of brain disease. For someone with an addiction to alcohol who is pregnant, it can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. Heavy alcohol use when pregnant can also lead to an increased risk of miscarriage, pre-term birth, or birth defects.
The effects of alcohol addiction and chronic alcohol misuse can spiral into many other far-reaching adverse consequences.
For someone with a mental illness, the effects of alcohol misuse can worsen their symptoms, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Treating People with Alcohol Use Disorders
Addiction is a complex, multi-faceted disease. Addiction can be different for every person experiencing it, but an individualized, tailored treatment plan can help people overcome the disease. Someone with an addiction to alcohol needs to recognize there is a problem, and they also need to have a desire to get sober.
- For many people struggling with a substance use disorder, their treatment process will begin with medical detox.
- During this time, you go through withdrawal with medical supervision.
- Having a medical detox can increase the likelihood of making it through this time. You’re in a safe, supportive environment. Medical interventions are available if you need them as you deal with symptoms.
- Someone with an alcohol addiction or another substance use disorder could begin a rehab program. Rehab is available inpatient and outpatient, with programs lasting anywhere from 30 days to a year.
- Support groups and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) help some people. These support groups tend to be most effective when you go through treatment first.
There are a wide variety of other components of treatment that might help someone who is alcohol dependent. These include counseling, medications, and lifestyle and nutritional changes.
- If someone has underlying mental health issues, treatment is needed for these too.
- For example, people often self-medicate with alcohol if they have conditions like a depressive disorder, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
- A treatment plan for an alcohol addict should target these underlying comorbid conditions that led to the initial use or misuse of alcohol in someone with an addiction.
- When they occur with alcohol dependence, these mental health conditions are known as co-occurring disorders.
Even long-term use and addictions to alcohol can be treated, but it’s up to the person struggling with alcohol to get treatment to avoid potentially devastating consequences of alcohol misuse.