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Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol addiction can be characterized by several conditions. These conditions may include:

  • Loss of control over one’s drinking
  • Feeling consumed by thoughts and behaviors around drinking
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms from stopping the use of alcohol

The causes of alcoholism are social, psychological and physiological and genetics play an important role. Alcohol abuse often results in failure to fulfill major obligations. These could be at work, school or home. Addiction may also lead to social and legal problems or drinking in hazardous situations. In the United States an estimated 15.1 million people aged 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder. There were 65.3 million who reported drinking in the past month, and 16.3 million were heavy alcohol users.

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

Ethanol is the primary chemical in alcohol. Ethanol causes changes in the brain that make people addicted to alcohol. Drinking alcohol temporarily increases production of the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin. Ethanol also inhibits a brain chemical called glutamate. This produces a feeling of calmness. The brain compensates for alcohol’s effects by increasing the activity of chemicals in an attempt to function normally.

When a person drinks alcohol on a regular basis, the brain adapts to the presence of alcohol. It then takes greater amounts to feel good. This is called tolerance. If a long-term heavy drinker stops drinking, the brain is forced to readjust. This may result in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These troubling and life-threatening symptoms often lead to relapse.

The Role of GABA in Alcohol Addiction

GABA is the brain chemical responsible for alcohol’s sedative and calming effects. Alcohol is a depressant that binds to GABA-A receptors, resulting in increased sedative side effects. The exact mechanism of ethanol actions on GABA-A receptors is unclear. In mouse studies, these receptors appeared to play a role in the rewarding, motor-impairing and sedative effects of ethanol. Scientists believe long-term alcohol abuse forces the GABA-A receptor to become less sensitive. This leads to some of the common side effects of alcoholism.

The Science Behind Alcoholism

A study published in 2013 found alcohol exposure shifts control away from the prefrontal cortex. This isthe area of the brain involved in decision-making and control of emotions. Responsibility shifts to the dorsal striatum. This area of the brain controls motivation and habit formation. Past studies have shown that alcoholism and problems with skills like impulse control go hand in hand.

Alcohol and Endorphins

Using PET imaging, researchers studied 25 subjects. Thirteen individuals drank heavily and 12 drank moderately. They detected endorphins being released in response to alcohol consumption. The impact was more pronounced in heavy drinkers. The amount of endorphins being released in the brain was linked to a higher degree of feeling intoxicated. “This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant, and may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place,” said Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at UCSF.

How Addictive Is Alcohol?

The following set of criteria can be used to determine how addictive specific drugs are:

  • Withdrawal: Presence and severity of withdrawal symptoms.
  • Reinforcement: A measure in human and animal tests of the substance’s ability to cause users to take it repeatedly
  • Tolerance: The amount of a substance needed to satisfy increasing cravings for it, and the level of stable need that is eventually reached.
  • Dependence: How difficult it is for a user to quit. This can include:
    • Relapse rate
    • Percentage of people who eventually become addicted
    • Degree to which the substance is used despite evidence of its harmful effects
    • Users’ rating assigned to their need for the substance.
  • Intoxication: Intoxication level can be associated with addiction and increases the personal and social damage.

On a scale of one to six, with one being less serious and six being the most serious, these are the specific addictive properties of alcohol. When compared to other substances, alcohol has a higher withdrawal and intoxication rate than heroin or cocaine.

  • Withdrawal: Six
  • Reinforcement: Four
  • Tolerance: Four
  • Dependence: Three
  • Intoxication: Six

People abuse alcohol for a variety of reasons. This ranges from social acceptance to pain relief and self-medicating a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety. Research indicates genetic factors make up about half the risk of alcohol addiction. Finding the area of the brain that responds to alcohol will ultimately lead to more effective treatments for alcohol addiction.

Am I an Alcoholic?

Symptoms of alcohol addiction can be physical or psychological in nature. They depend on how much alcohol you abuse and how long you’ve been alcohol dependent. A person may want to consider an inpatient alcohol treatment center if they can relate to any of these:

  • Needing more and more alcohol to feel drunk (developing a tolerance)
  • Failed attempts at decreasing or quitting drinking on your own
  • Needing alcohol to feel “normal”
  • Having blackouts due to heavy alcohol consumption
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Financial or legal problems such as DUIs due to alcohol abuse
  • Compromised relationships because of alcohol abuse
  • Compromised work status or performance due to drinking
  • Feeling unable to quit drinking once you start (binge drinking)
  • Putting yourself or others in danger when drinking
  • Drinking alone or hiding or lying about alcohol consumption
  • Drinking when you intended to stay sober

Alcoholics may experience one or several of these symptoms. The DSM-5 defines substance use disorders as severe, moderate or mild depending on the number of diagnostic criteria you meet. Alcohol addiction treatment can help with alcohol abuse at any of these levels.

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Abuse?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 18 million adult Americans are either alcoholics or abuse alcohol. This means they engage in drinking that results in harm. Alcohol abuse affects millions of people. This is partly because drinking is socially acceptable as a legal substance. It’s also easy to get and part of many social events.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol affects the brain in many ways. At first it causes euphoria, excitement and lowered inhibitions. Depending on the amount of alcohol you drink, it can also have less desirable effects like:

  • Poor sleep
  • Decreased coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Delayed reactions
  • Confusion
  • Exaggerated emotions
  • Inability to stand or walk
  • Vomiting
  • Blackouts
  • Slowed respiration and circulation
  • Suppressed reflexes

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

When you abuse alcohol, the liver becomes more efficient at removing it from your blood. That’s why you must drink larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect.

Long-term, heavy drinking can contribute to:

  • Dementia
  • Several types of cancer (mouth, pharyngeal, esophageal, laryngeal, breast, bowel and liver)
  • Malnutrition
  • Liver damage
  • Emotional instability
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Heart disease
  • Brain damage
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Skin problems
  • Sexual performance problems

If you or someone you know is living with an alcohol addiction, Promises Treatment Center can help you today. Contact our recovery specialists today to take to first step toward treatment.

Posted on August 5, 2016 and modified on April 10, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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