What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, with more than 50 percent of adults having a family history of alcoholism or alcohol abuse, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Those suffering from alcohol addiction are normally physically and mentally dependent on the substance.

How alcohol addiction works

Alcohol addiction is believed to result from a combination of nature and nurture, as both biological and environmental factors can enable someone to develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Biological factors may include a genetic predisposition to alcohol, whereas environmental factors may include spending time with a peer group that abuses alcohol. Most people who develop alcoholism do so gradually while others find themselves addicted after their very first drink.

When an individual consumes alcohol, the brain is flooded with dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the section of the brain that controls movement, emotion, cognition, motivation and feelings of pleasure. Excessive drinking causes an overload of dopamine in the brain, which produces a euphoric effect. However, the brain adjusts to this change in chemistry by producing less dopamine and/or reducing the number of receptors in that part of the brain. This means individuals suffering from alcohol addiction are often unable to feel joy without the help of alcohol and many develop depression (if it was not present prior to the addiction).

While the effects that alcohol has on the brain and the neurological explanations for addiction have been determined, it is still unknown why some individuals can stop after a couple drinks and never develop a problem while others struggle with alcohol addiction. That being said, there are many known factors influencing alcohol’s effects on a person, including the individual’s physical condition, the food consumed prior to alcohol intake, the rate at which the alcohol was consumed, the use of drugs in combination with alcohol and family history. Alcohol dependence can affect people of all ages, genders, races and ethnicities.

The consequences of alcohol addiction

Excessive drinking can reduce judgment and lower inhibitions, resulting in poor choices that may have an adverse effect on a person’s employment or relationships. Since inhibitions are lowered and self-control is diminished, excessive consumption of alcohol can result in dangerous sexual relationships and experiences. There has been a proven tie between alcohol consumption and unprotected sex in addition to the increased likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. Chronic drinking can also wreak havoc on a person’s brain and body, resulting in liver disease, ulcers, stroke and an increased risk of cancer. This kind of alcohol use can produce long-lasting chemical changes in the brain that interfere with a person’s judgment, focus and ability to feel normal without the aid of alcohol.

Alcohol poisoning is a serious and sometimes deadly consequence of excessive drinking. Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone consumes a large amount of alcohol over a short period of time. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include vomiting, slow or irregular breathing, clammy skin, low body temperature, slow or irregular heartbeat (which can result in cardiac arrest), seizures or confusion. Like alcohol addiction, the amount of alcoholic beverages and blood alcohol content it takes for someone to suffer alcohol poisoning depends on a number of factors including gender and weight.

Moderate drinking is considered a lower-risk pattern of drinking, though it is important to exercise caution when consuming any amount of alcohol. Low-to-moderate levels of alcohol still alter the release of endorphins in the region of the brain linked to addiction, which is believed to reinforce excessive alcohol consumption. This is more dangerous in those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, though a genetic predisposition is no guarantee that the individual will develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

While an individual’s initial decision to drink is typically voluntary, the body and brain changes over time and the disease takes away the individual’s long-term self-control and ability to resist cravings and impulses associated with alcohol. This is why an individual cannot simply stop drinking; alcoholics have an inability to control themselves around alcohol.

Aside from the health consequences and interpersonal problems that arise from alcohol addiction, crime is closely linked to alcohol abuse. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998, two-thirds of violent, domestic abuse offenders were reported as having consumed alcohol prior to the assault. In the same report, a random study was conducted during which 40 percent of offenders in a sample of 5.3 million had been under the influence of alcohol at the time of their offense for which they were later convicted. These numbers do not even include alcohol-related DUI offenses.

Alcohol addiction can be chronic, meaning relapses are possible even after long periods of sobriety. Triggering life events or relationships can throw the recovering alcoholic right back into the throes of the disease as can struggles with co-occurring conditions such as a mental health disorder. This is why treatment for alcohol addiction is vital as it can help an alcoholic break free of their addiction and lowers their risk of relapse.

For those dealing with alcohol addiction it is important to find treatment as soon as possible. To learn more about the treatment options for alcohol addiction in your area you can call the Florida Alcohol Addiction Helpline at 866-220-5381 for more information.