Why Is Alcohol Addictive? Effects, Factors & Treatment
Last Updated: November 3, 2023
Alcohol can be physically and mentally addictive. It alters the chemicals in the brain, which can result in powerful cravings for alcohol.
The brain craves more alcohol with each drink due to its interaction with the substance. This can lead to a cycle that makes it challenging to quit drinking. The brain undergoes chemical changes when exposed to alcohol, which is why it has this effect.
For example, with repeated drinking, the brain and body develop a tolerance to the effects of alcohol. This means the usual doses will not provide the same effects, and increased amounts will be needed to feel the sensation of being drunk. Over time, a person may develop a dependence, so they need alcohol just to function because they experience withdrawal when not under the influence. This is just one of the pathways by which alcohol is addictive.
How Addictive Is Alcohol?
According to recent data, 138.5 million Americans 12 and older are alcohol users, and 20.4% have an alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for alcohol addiction. This means just over one-fifth of those who consume alcohol will develop an addiction.
The Brain and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is widely considered a disease that affects the brain. Some people do not understand this because they are unaware of the chemical changes in the brain. The truth is that alcohol misuse changes the structure and function of the brain over time, leading to addiction.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain
Due to its impact on the brain, alcohol is a substance that can lead to addiction. GABA receptors in the brain are activated by alcohol, which results in a decrease in brain activity and relaxes the body. This decrease in activity causes symptoms commonly associated with alcohol use.
Alcohol triggers the release of endorphins — chemicals that create feelings of pleasure. Endorphins are normally released when we eat, exercise or have sex. However, alcohol triggers an excessive release, creating an artificial pleasure and reinforcing the desire to drink more. This can lead to addiction. The more alcohol is consumed, the stronger the addiction becomes.
Ultimately, alcohol addiction is caused by the effect alcohol has on the brain and the reinforcing cycle it creates.
Tolerance and Dependence
It is common for addiction to come with tolerance and dependence. Tolerance occurs when your brain becomes accustomed to the effects of alcohol and requires a higher amount to experience the same effect. Over time, increasing alcohol intake can negatively impact the mind and body, and tolerance is one of these effects. With tolerance, a person can drink large quantities and still not appear under the influence.
Dependence happens when your brain adapts to alcohol’s presence by altering its natural function. This results in the brain relying on alcohol to operate normally. If you stop consuming alcohol after developing dependence, you may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that will persist until your brain adjusts to the absence of the substance.
Genetic Factors and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is not solely determined by genetics. Still, some people may be more prone to developing alcoholism due to their genes.
Genetics play a significant role in making people more likely to become addicted to alcohol. Researchers have identified certain genes that strongly affect how the body processes alcohol. In fact, about 60% of the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder comes from inherited genes.
Family History and Alcoholism
It is important to remember that exposure to alcohol use and addiction can increase a person’s chance of developing alcohol addiction. Even with no genetic predisposition, individuals with a family history of alcohol addiction may be at a higher risk due to this exposure.
Environmental Factors and Alcohol Addiction
Social situations, certain cultural values and environments that promote alcohol use may impact the risk of alcohol addiction.
Excessive alcohol consumption can occur in certain social settings, making individuals more susceptible to developing alcohol addiction. One example is college campuses with a prevalent drinking culture and peer pressure to engage in heavy drinking.
Nonetheless, other social situations and cultural traditions can cause people to consume alcohol excessively, going against their own preferences. These can include:
- Cultural norms that promote or condone excessive drinking
- Family traditions of drinking to celebrate special events, such as birthdays or holidays
- Learning from family or friends that drinking is an acceptable coping mechanism
Stress and Alcohol Addiction
Sometimes, people turn to alcohol when stressed because it can help them temporarily relax and forget their worries. But this can become a problem if they start relying on alcohol too much. This often happens when people are going through tough times, like losing their jobs or getting divorced. Stress can be even more challenging for people with a mental health condition and may lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking excessively.
Psychological Factors and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is not just about physical changes in the brain. There is also a psychological component to it. It’s not only about the chemical effects of alcohol but also the emotional and mental factors that can contribute to addiction.
The Reward System and Alcohol
Being able to handle stress and difficult situations is really important for our mental health. If we’re good at dealing with those things, we’ll be mentally healthier. Some people use alcohol to cope with stress over time, which can help them deal with things that are hard to handle.
But if you rely too much on alcohol, you can become dependent on it. When people go to rehab for alcohol dependence, they learn new ways to cope with difficult situations that don’t involve alcohol. This helps them break the cycle of depending on alcohol for support when things get tough.
Alcohol and Mental Health
Mental health problems can be complicated. Medicines that help with mental illness can take a while to start working and require patience. This makes some people try to treat themselves by using alcohol, but this can be dangerous. If you have a mental illness, you are already at a higher risk of becoming addicted to alcohol, and using it to feel better can make that risk much worse.
Physical Factors and Alcohol Addiction
People with alcohol addiction or dependence may have physical factors that make it hard for them to stop drinking or make them feel like they need to keep drinking.
Withdrawal from alcohol can be dangerous and unpleasant. People addicted to alcohol who have tried to stop drinking know it’s not easy. This is because the brain constantly urges them to drink, making quitting difficult.
Alcohol can make you crave more of it because it triggers the reward system in your brain. Alcohol cravings can be very strong when you first stop drinking and can last a long time, even after you’ve stopped. As a result, these cravings might prevent you from quitting drinking or make you start drinking again after you’ve stopped for a while.
Am I Addicted to Alcohol?
Alcohol addiction means someone can’t stop drinking, even if it’s causing problems. It’s called alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the medical world.
To find out if someone has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), doctors use a set of 11 questions from a medical book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The more “yes” answers a person gives, the more severe their symptoms.
The scale rates symptom severity as follows:
- Two to three positive responses mean the individual has mild symptoms
- Four to five show moderate symptoms
- Six or more positive responses show severe symptoms
The questionnaire will ask if you have done any of these activities over the past year:
- Had times when you drank more or longer than planned?
- More than once wanted to cut back or quit drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking, being ill from alcohol or getting over other aftereffects of drinking?
- Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with caring for your home or family or caused job or school problems?
- Continued drinking even though it was causing problems with your friends or family?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you or gave you pleasure to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of injury (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a hazardous area or having unprotected sex)?
- Continued drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem?
- Continued drinking after a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you originally did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual amount of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart or a seizure.
- Sensed things that were not there?
It’s important to remember that only a trained doctor can accurately diagnose AUD.
How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted to Alcohol?
How long it takes to develop an alcohol addiction differs for every person. Many factors may contribute to the timeline and presentation of alcohol addiction. In fact, many may not even realize they have an alcohol addiction until an event or loved one makes them aware of it.
Get Help for Alcohol Addiction at The Recovery Village Kansas City
Alcohol addiction can be hard to overcome without professional help. Treatment usually has two parts: medical detox and rehab. During medical detox, the individual stops drinking and experiences withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol detox can be dangerous and even life-threatening, so getting professional treatment is important.
Rehab follows medical detox and involves medical monitoring while learning coping skills and strategies to avoid relapse during individual, group and family therapy. Rehab treatment at The Recovery Village Kansas City is personalized to the individual, using a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and aftercare services. Residential rehab patients at our 40,000-square-foot facility also have access to many amenities, including:
- A full gym
- Outdoor basketball court
- A computer lab
- Art and music therapy
- Rec room
- Fire pits
The Recovery Village Kansas City is an evidence-based alcohol addiction rehab center in Raytown, Missouri, just outside Kansas City. We believe everyone can recover from addiction, and we take a holistic approach to treatment, addressing all areas of life impacted by addiction. Contact us today to speak to one of our Recovery Advocates.
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