What Makes Alcohol Addictive?
The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported more than 28 million people in the U.S. aged 12 and older struggled with an alcohol use disorder in the surveyed year. The survey also found a significant increase in alcohol and drug use since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Misuse of alcohol destroys relationships, careers, and health, causes legal and financial problems, and leads to risky behavior that can be lethal. If you struggle with alcohol use, have tried but been unable to quit drinking, or have a loved one with an alcohol problem, you have probably asked, “Why is it so difficult to stop such a destructive behavior?”
The more you understand how alcohol affects the brain and body, the better understanding you will have as to why the cycle of alcohol dependence and addiction is so difficult to break without professional help.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic but treatable medical condition. As with other chronic conditions, like diabetes or coronary artery disease, you can learn to manage AUD and live a happy, healthy, and sober life.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcohol use disorder as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” AUD is the clinical name for alcohol abuse, dependence, or addiction.
Certain patterns of drinking may indicate you have an alcohol problem. Do you:
- Continue to drink despite adverse outcomes?
- Have trouble controlling how much you drink?
- Need to increase the amount you drink to achieve the desired effect?
- Sometimes get into risky situations while drinking, like driving, swimming, or having unsafe sex?
- Have withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking?
See the NIAAA website for a more extensive list of the criteria used by physicians to diagnose AUD. If you have two or more symptoms, it would be wise to undergo an assessment by your medical provider or an addiction specialist.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction
Certain factors make it more likely you will develop an alcohol addiction, including:
- How much and how often you drink – chronic drinking alters your brain so that it demands alcohol to trigger pleasure.
- Whether you binge drink – binge drinking is defined as a man drinking five or more drinks and a woman four or more drinks in a short time. The CDC warns, “Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States” and is associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder.
- The age you started drinking – the NIAAA warns if you started drinking alcohol before the age of 15, you are five times more likely to develop an AUD than if you began drinking when you were 21 or older.
- Genetics and family history – certain inherited genes account for about half the risk of developing an AUD. Parental drinking patterns and other environmental factors also affect the chances of having an alcohol use problem.
- Past trauma-childhood or adult trauma increases the risk for addiction to alcohol, drugs, or both.
- A mental health disorder – anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder increases the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder and vice versa. Having both an AUD and mental health disorder is common and is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Body
Whenever you experience something pleasurable, your brain’s reward center responds by increasing levels of “feel good” hormones like serotonin and dopamine. The natural release of these chemical messengers prompts you to associate the experience with positive feelings.
Alcohol and other addictive substances also interact with the brain’s reward center but trigger an unnaturally high level of serotonin and dopamine to flood the system. The surge of hormones causes an intense sense of well-being and strongly reinforces your motivation to repeat the experience.
As you continue to use alcohol regularly, your brain adapts to its presence and begins to demand increasingly more significant amounts of alcohol to deliver the desired response. Having to drink more alcohol to get the effect you want signals your body has developed a tolerance to the lower dose. Tolerance means your body has become physically dependent on alcohol to feel good and is often the first step to addiction. If you stop drinking once tolerance and dependence have taken hold, you will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Fear of Withdrawal Reinforces Alcohol Addiction
Have you tried to stop using alcohol but lost your resolve once you began to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings? Even if you have never experienced withdrawal before, the fear of the process may prevent you from seeking the help you need to overcome alcohol dependence or addiction.
Emotional cravings can be as challenging to overcome as physical withdrawal symptoms. If you have been using alcohol to soothe feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression or boost your self-confidence, you may find it very difficult to face how you might feel without alcohol.
Because it is a depressant, alcohol slows down functions of the central nervous system, including the brain and the spinal cord. In response, your body produces high levels of stimulating chemicals to accommodate the influx of alcohol.
If you stop using alcohol once your body develops a tolerance, dependence, or alcohol addiction, you will experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal effects occur because your body is still in a heightened state of chemical production, and the abrupt cessation of alcohol throws your body out of balance. Side effects occur as your body battles to regain a normal equilibrium and function.
Detoxification (detox) can be uncomfortable and even dangerous in some instances. Most experts agree that a medically supervised detox program keeps you safe and much more comfortable than trying to quit drinking independently.
Detox Comfortably Under Medical Supervision
Alcohol detox is the first step toward long-term sobriety. At Midwest Recovery Centers, we have seen firsthand how critical a safe, supervised detox process is to successful recovery. By ensuring you are comfortable and fully supported physically and emotionally, we know your chances for long-term recovery are excellent.
Licensed healthcare professionals who are experts in addiction recovery oversee every facet of our residential detox program. Once you complete detox, you may continue your recovery by enrolling in our multi-phase treatment program, or we will help you find a program that best fits your needs.
Contact us for more information.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.