Why is Alcohol So Addictive, Alcoholism Explained
Many of us have had the experience of deciding not to drink but then proceeding to do so anyway. For some of us, alcohol becomes something we continue to consume despite the obvious bad consequences. So, what is it about alcohol that makes us want to drink more, and can we become dependent on it?
What does alcohol do to us when we drink it?
Alcohol is a very simple substance that can cause significant alterations in the brain’s complicated functioning. When we drink alcohol, additional chemicals in our bodies are released, making us feel happier and less sensitive to pain. As a result, it’s no wonder that once we start drinking, we want to keep going.
For some of us, alcohol becomes something we continue to consume despite obvious negative consequences.
What’s the attraction to alcohol?
All of the things we identify with alcohol are perhaps just as significant as the pleasurable sensations it produces. For many of us, a beer or glass of wine signifies the end of a long day at work or the end of childcare duties. It’s a treat, a reward. It’s how we socialise, celebrate, and get to know one another.
So far, so good. But why do some of us continue to drink despite causing us more harm than good? Are some of us ‘addicted’ to alcohol?
There is a lot of debate over what constitutes an ‘addiction.’ The most straightforward description is that it is doing something to the point where it causes us harm and not being able to stop. This can happen for a variety of reasons. People will frequently discover that a substance or behaviour (such as drinking or gambling) provides them with some sort of release – from everyday worries or more serious and problematic issues such as depression, anxiety, or traumatic memories.
Over time, that substance or behaviour may begin to take precedence over other things, and we may begin to feel anxious if we do not feed our addiction. This is referred to as a “psychological addiction.”
Several underlying factors may explain addiction. It might be that some substances or behaviours are ‘addictive,’ meaning that our brains enjoy them and desire more of them; or that some people are genetically prone to becoming addicted to a substance or behaviour; or simply that some people are tormented by their feelings and need to block them out.
Alcohol can cause physical dependence in addition to ‘psychological addiction.’ Heavy drinking over time can cause the body to crave alcohol every day, and if the drinker tries to stop abruptly, they may experience sweating, shaking, and nausea, as well as go into shock and die. People who are physically addicted to alcohol will need specialised medical help to stop drinking and may need to detox in a hospital under medical or nursing supervision.
‘Alcoholism,’ like ‘addiction,’ is a term that generates a lot of discussion. The concept of “alcoholism” as an illness emerged in the 19th century. It was a far more humane concept at the time than the prevailing belief that heavy drinkers were weak or immoral.
Since the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous has promoted the notion that someone is suffering from ‘alcoholism’ (and that ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’). It is an idea that has helped millions of people to turn their lives around.
Today, millions of people worldwide are leading happier and more fulfilling lives as a result of recognising that they were “alcoholics” and deciding to take action by never drinking again and seeking professional treatment.
Others who suffer from alcoholism or addiction find labels like ‘alcoholic’ and ‘alcoholism’ (or ‘addict’ and ‘addiction’) to be unhelpful. They may not regard themselves as ‘alcoholics’ or ‘addicts,’ but rather as people who are suffering from life and using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Instead of abstaining entirely, they may prefer to restrict their alcohol consumption to a more moderate level.
Am I an alcoholic?
Whether or not we accept terminology like ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict,’ it is critical that we use them with caution. Believing that drinking problems exclusively affect people who are ‘alcoholics’ or ‘addicts’ is a simple approach to brushing aside what may be severe alcohol problems in our own lives. Whatever language we use to characterise ourselves, the truth is that any of us who drink excessively may cause problems for ourselves and others and may require assistance to resolve those problems.
Alcohol and The Brain
Alcohol (ethyl alcohol) is a basic molecule that can produce profound alterations in the brain and the body’s complex systems. Alcohol is a highly addictive substance because it produces these changes.
People typically desire to continue drinking because of the positive sensations they experience. The production of several chemicals in the brain is increased when you drink alcohol. Two of these molecules, dopamine and endorphins, provide happy experiences and act as natural painkillers.
Alcohol can impair impulse control and decision-making, resulting in alcohol abuse and addiction. Despite the negative consequences, many people consume alcohol, increasing the risk of addiction.
How Does Alcoholism Affect the Brain?
Alcohol has a detrimental impact on the parts of the brain that control balance, memory, speech, and judgement, increasing the risk of accidents and other undesirable outcomes.
When consuming alcohol, the brain’s “reward centre” is affected, and pleasurable sensations (such as anxiety decrease) are produced.
Long-term, heavy drinking impairs brain processes and functioning by causing changes in brain neurons (such as size reductions).
The effects of alcohol are especially harmful to a developing brain. Alcohol abuse when a foetus is still in the womb or later in adolescence and early adulthood can disrupt brain development, resulting in long-term abnormalities in brain structure and function.
Heavy Drinkers’ Response to Alcohol
The release of endorphins in the brain and the desire to drink more to recreate that feeling are amplified in heavy drinkers. The more people drink, the more endorphins are released, making them feel joyful and increasing their need for alcohol.
Binge drinking or alcohol abuse becomes alcohol addiction when cravings meet physical dependency. But it’s possible that it’s not simply because of the endorphins.
According to several studies, drinking alcohol also stimulates the production of dopamine, a pleasurable neurotransmitter. The problem is that drinkers enjoy themselves when they drink – the more they drink, the better they feel – and they want to replicate that experience whenever possible.
This makes binge drinking particularly appealing to those who are functional (e.g., have a career, a family, etc.). However, binge drinking can quickly progress into alcohol addiction – or cause an accident that is harmful or fatal to the drinker or someone close to them.
What Makes Alcohol Addictive?
Alcohol is the most often used addictive substance in the world today, but what makes it so? In 2019, 54% of adults In England reported drinking alcohol in the last week. Men were more likely to drink than women (59% of men and 50% of women).
Figures based on YouGov surveys show 18.1% of adults in England were drinking at “increasing or higher risk” in the three months to the end of October 2021, equating to 8 million people. That is much higher than in February 2020, before the pandemic, when 12.4% or about 6 million people drank at these levels.
If you’ve ever seen someone struggling with alcoholism, you know how difficult it can be to understand how to help. The truth is, people, drink for different reasons, so there is not one single solution. Treatment that works for one patient may not work for another. When it comes to addiction recovery, both physical and psychological addictive aspects play a role.
Here are some of the main reasons why alcohol is highly addictive:
1. Physiological Changes
Alcohol alters the chemistry of the brain, making it addictive.
The central nervous system (CNS) is suppressed by alcohol, and normal brain activities are slowed. This is accomplished by slowing the release and reaction to regular brain chemicals.
At the same time, alcohol boosts the production of other neurotransmitters that provide pleasurable sensations, such as dopamine and endorphins. The regular release of these neurotransmitters is repressed as a result, and the person only feels good when they drink or use drugs.
People tend to require increasingly large amounts of alcohol to become inebriated when these changes occur. As a result, individuals frequently increase the amount of alcohol they consume.
These brain modifications create a vicious cycle of dependence that keeps the person addicted to alcohol over time.
Genetic factors contribute to some people’s propensity towards drinking. Some people’s brains release more pleasure hormones in reaction to alcohol, making them more vulnerable to physical addiction.
3. Social Pressure
Alcohol consumption is often a social activity. People drink because their friends, coworkers, and family are drinking.
Alcohol consumption is prevalent around the world. In 2019, 70% of U.S. adults 18 and older reported drinking in the past year.
According to one study, a third of adult drinkers acknowledged drinking more than they meant due to peer pressure. When socialising with coworkers, two-fifths of adult drinkers felt under too much pressure to drink.
4. Withdrawal Symptoms
Many people continue to be addicted to alcohol because they don’t want to face the withdrawal symptoms of drinking abstinence.
When an alcoholic stops drinking abruptly, they will likely suffer tremendous cravings for alcohol as well as a several other unpleasant physical withdrawal symptoms, including:
To avoid these symptoms, an alcoholic may continue to drink or begin drinking after brief periods of abstinence.
5. Alcohol-Positive Advertising
Alcohol companies saturate the media with video, digital, and print marketing. They portray drinking as an enjoyable, relaxing, and socially acceptable activity.
Between 1971 and 2011, alcohol advertising in the United States increased by more than 400%.
6. Availability of and Proximity to Alcohol
Because alcohol is legal in the United Kingdom, it is more readily available than other substances. Alcohol can be found in various places, including homes and family gatherings, barbecues, restaurants, nightclubs, movie theatres, and resorts.
7. Positive associations with alcohol
Alcohol is often linked to positive connections such as celebrations. It’s frequently seen at events or used to commemorate occasions (“toastings,” for example). Many people use alcohol as a reward at the end of the day or after accomplishing something, creating a positive relationship with the substance.
8. Easing of mental health symptoms
There’s a clear correlation between alcohol dependence or addiction and mental health problems. A concurrent mental health diagnosis is present in 40% of patients with AUDs. Dual diagnosis is the term for this condition.
People with untreated depression, anxiety, or PTSD are more likely to develop alcoholism because they may use the medication to self-medicate. Self-medicating with alcohol can lead to a need to drink more and more, eventually leading to alcoholism.
Who is More at Risk of Developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
Certain factors like age, family history, genetics, and others, can make a person more at risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). The presence of any of the below factors can make a person more at risk of developing alcohol addiction:
- Drinking earlier – According to one study, those aged 26 and older who started drinking before the age of 15 were more than five times as likely to develop AUD as those who waited until they were of legal drinking age.
- Genetics – Heritability affects around 60% of people who are addicted to alcohol.
- Mental Health disorders — A wide range of psychiatric conditions (including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder) are comorbid with AUD and are associated with an increased risk of AUD. People who have experienced childhood trauma are more susceptible to AUD.
- Family history of alcoholism — People who have a family history of alcoholism or that grew up around an alcoholic family member are more likely to develop alcoholism later in life.
Getting The Help and Suppor You Need
Despite all the data on substance use disorders, overcoming alcoholism requires making difficult choices. However, those who make wise decisions can look forward to a bright future.
If you or a loved one is addicted to alcohol, we’d like to put our experience and knowledge at your disposal. Call us on 0800 999 1083 for confidential help and to discuss treatment options.