Alcoholism, now known as alcohol use disorder, is a chronic disease in which a person has a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), in 2015 15.1 million adults in the United States have an alcohol use disorder.
Why is it that some people are able to drink alcohol and not develop an addiction while others become alcoholics? The answer to this question isn’t simple.
There are psychological, physiological, and genetic factors to consider. Click here to learn more about the biology of addiction.
Symptoms of Alcoholism
- Alcohol-related illnesses
- Memory lapses or blacking out after drinking
- Tolerance to alcohol and the need to drink more
- Lying about how much you drink
- Withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop drinking
- Drinking to relieve stress
- Finding excuses to drink
When you drink alcohol, it affects your brain by changing the balance of chemicals such as dopamine. Alcohol is a depressant and many people with problems such as anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and other psychological problems turn to it self-medicate.
A person may feel a drink makes them feel more confident and less anxious. This occurs because alcohol is a depressant.
Eventually, the drinker may crave alcohol more and more to feel better and avoid negative feelings. Over time, this can lead to addiction.
Individuals with mental illness, often undiagnosed, often use alcohol to cover up symptoms of their illness. This is very common in individuals with a severe mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Some people begin using alcohol to fit in with friends. They may begin a pattern of feeling they need “liquid courage” to fit in socially and relate to others.
Peer pressure can play a part in drinking as well. Young people may comply just to be part of the group.
Starting to drink at a young age is a risk factor for alcoholism.
Beer and alcohol advertisements portray drinking and partying as cool and exciting. This is a false and dangerous message for impressionable children.
Drinking is common and even glamorized in movies and television. This social acceptance of alcohol influences young people to try it.
Alcohol is sold just about everywhere these days and is easily accessible. This contributes to the consumption of alcohol and makes it difficult for alcoholics to avoid.
Genetics plays a role in triggering the onset of alcoholism. Research in addictive science suggests that children of alcoholics are four times more likely to abuse alcohol.
Scientists have not found a particular gene that increases the risk of developing alcoholism, but research indicates a strong genetic link.
They are working to pinpoint these genes with the hope of developing new medications for treating alcohol addiction.
Denial and Alcoholism
What starts out as fun times with friends can easily lead to an alcohol problem down the road. Many people drink more than the recommended amount, and this puts them at greater risk for developing a drinking problem.
This could include the college students who binge drinks on the weekends, the businessman who meets colleagues for drinks after work, or the stressed-out mother who has a few drinks when the kids are asleep. They could all have a drinking problem.
Most alcoholics spend a long time denying they have a problem and continue to drink. This is especially true of the functioning alcoholic who holds down a job and takes care of their family and responsibilities.
Many people have the concept that all alcoholics are nonfunctioning and have lost everything in their lives. While this may be true for some severe alcoholics, it is not the case for all.
In fact, functional alcoholics often hold onto this stereotype and use it as their excuse to continue drinking.
Alcohol and the Brain
The outward signs of excessive drinking such as stumbling, slurring, and forgetting are obvious. Heavy drinking results in trouble with coordination, balance, and judgment.
Reaction to stimuli slows down, and this makes driving or operating machinery very dangerous. All of these physical signs occur because alcohol affects the brain and nervous system.
Alcohol affects your brain chemistry and alters the function of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters transmit signals through the body that control the thought process, emotions, and behavior.
Excessive alcohol use can lead to blackouts or memory lapses. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to brain damage.
Continual drinking can cause the brain and body to rely on it. This leads to a vicious cycle of alcoholism.
Alcohol dependence can cause debilitating changes in brain chemistry. When an alcoholic stops or lowers their alcohol consumption, withdrawal occurs within 24 to 72 hours.
Withdrawal is the body’s attempt to readjust its chemistry. Some common symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Tremors (also known as “the shakes”)
- Delirium tremens (also known as “the DTs,” a state of confusion when the person does not have alcohol in their system)
Living With an Alcoholic
Alcoholism doesn’t only affect the one drinking. It affects all of their friends and family too.
Studies show that over 40 percent of Americans experienced alcoholism in their family. Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to be victims of abuse.
They are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, or behavior problems than children of non-alcoholic parents. They are also at an increased risk of becoming alcoholics themselves.
Living with an alcoholic partner is extremely difficult and frustrating. If you are in this situation, you may deal with disappointment, broken promises, and even abuse on an ongoing basis.
It’s important to take care of yourself and not blame yourself for your partner’s addiction. An organization such as Al-Anon can be a great place to find the support you need.
Biology of Addiction: Seeking Treatment
If you or a loved one has an alcohol use, there is hope. While overcoming any addiction isn’t easy, getting professional help from people who understand the biology of addiction can make the healing process more comfortable.