Yes. Alcohol is a potentially addictive substance, but the risk each individual has for developing an addiction to alcohol depends on various personal factors. While alcohol use is prevalent in the U.S. and many countries globally, not every person who drinks will develop a dependency.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the clinical term for problematic drinking that has become compulsive and severe. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), AUD is a chronic brain disease characterized by periods of relapse.
Alcohol does have varying effects between individuals, and these risk factors impact who is more vulnerable to having issues with alcohol consumption.
Some risk factors for alcohol abuse and dependence include the following:
- Family history of alcoholism
- Age at first consumption
- Frequency of drinking
- Number drinks consumed
- Age and sex
- Other health factors
There has also been speculation that people who become addicted to alcohol may be affected more by alcohol’s ability to make a person feel energetic and euphoric early on versus those who feel tired, lethargic, or out-of-sorts when they drink.
How Does Alcohol Addiction Happen?
NIAAA reports that consuming small amounts of alcohol is relatively safe for many people. Still, as an individual progressively drinking alcohol in increasing quantities and begins to abuse it, there can be alterations in the brain’s functioning and structure that result in an AUD.
As these brain changes in the brain occur, occasional and moderate alcohol use can turn into a chronic, compulsive drinking habit where the individual often feels incapable of controlling or cutting back on their drinking.
NIAAA has identified three stages in the alcohol addiction cycle:
Binge/intoxication: This part of the cycle is hallmarked by a loss of control over alcohol consumption. Anyone who has drunk a bit too much alcohol can probably describe feeling intoxicated or drunk. However, they might not know what, precisely, was going on in their brain at the time.
For example, many substances, such as alcohol or opioids, affect the basal ganglia that result in the person feeling genuine pleasure. That is because alcohol prompts the release of natural opioids and the feel-good neurochemical dopamine.
Chronic, heavy use of a substance such as alcohol can cause brain changes, particularly in the basal ganglia, making it more difficult to feel alcohol’s desirable effects, thereby increasing the need for more alcohol. This is also the point at which and cravings for alcohol can develop. The brain begins to associate certain feelings, people, places, or situations as triggers for alcohol use.
Negative affect withdrawal: When alcohol begins to be cleared from the body, the reward system is left in a deficient state, causing stress to the brain’s amygdala. This condition can cause irritability, anxiety, and general discomfort in association with other alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Upon repeated disruption of the brain’s neurobiological reward system, individuals become less sensitive to other pleasure forms. Their brains start to send messages to drink more, which are often experienced as alcohol cravings.
Preoccupation anticipation: As the brain’s patterns of pleasure and reward-seeking become dysregulated, the brain experiences increased stress. This effect drives alcohol cravings to become more robust and distracting.
During this time, an individual becomes preoccupied with alcohol and can experience impulsive behaviors toward its obtainment and use. This results in the cycle starting all over again, and it becomes an alcohol binge.
The neurological patterns that develop in the brain during active and excessive alcohol consumption can remain even after the person stops binge drinking. The brain can ingrain drinking habits that are challenging to break, which is why alcohol abuse can be a chronic disorder with a high potential for relapse.
The amount of time and level of alcohol use needed to develop AUD varies between individuals. In general, however, the longer a person drinks in excess, the more likely they will begin to develop a dependence or addiction.
Regarding Addiction, How Does Alcohol Compare To Other Substances?
Being legal in the U.S. for persons over 21 to consume, alcohol is the most widely available and commonly used and abused addictive substance. Moreover, alcohol’s legality doesn’t make it any less addictive, and in fact, often makes it accessible to many people who cannot drink legally.
Marijuana is the most frequently used “illicit” substance, even though it is now legal or decriminalized in many states and municipalities for medicinal or recreational use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that 22.2 million people use marijuana, with about 30% of those users having a marijuana use disorder (MUD). That equates to around 6.6 million people with MUD compared with at least 16 million with an AUD.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reports that in 2016, approximately 2 million individuals had substance use disorders (SUDs) involving prescription painkillers, and 591,000 had an addiction to heroin.
These numbers suggest that alcohol use disorders are much more common than those related to other drugs of abuse. However, other substances can be far risker in terms of overdose potential. Indeed, ASAM further reports that opioid addiction is the leading cause of the overdose epidemic in the U.S, killing tens of thousands of people each year.
Furthermore, opioids are responsible for 130 fatalities a day, according to NIDA. In comparison, alcohol poisoning is responsible for approximately six deaths a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This indicates that while alcohol abuse is more common, opioid abuse is much more lethal.
How Is Alcohol Use Disorder Treated?
AUD is best treated with behavioral therapies, addiction counseling, peer support groups, and holistic and experiential activities. There are also a few options available for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for alcohol dependence.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines the following MAT options for AUDs:
Naltrexone: This medication works to block the pleasant and rewarding effects of intoxication, providing a strong deterrent to alcohol use. People with an AUD can benefit from this drug, as it helps them avoid relapses and remain motivated to stay in treatment and recovery.
Disulfiram: This medication is used to treat chronic alcoholism in those who have already gone through the withdrawal process and are abstinent. It can produce very uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, within ten minutes if even a tiny amount of alcohol is ingested, making it a strong deterrent against drinking.
Acamprosate: This medication is for individuals already in recovery and can help to prevent alcohol consumption.
Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol has historically been considered to be a matter of willpower and a failure of moral character. Still, research and science have demonstrated that powerful systems are triggered in the brain when alcohol or other addictive substances are consumed. While excessive alcohol consumption causes fundamental biological changes that promote and sustain the cycle of addiction, certain medical treatments can also help people struggling with alcohol use disorder.
Just Believe Recovery is a specialized drug and alcohol rehab center that offers a modern, comprehensive substance abuse treatment approach. Our programs feature services clinically-proven to be beneficial for the recovery process, including the following:
- Behavioral therapy
- Individual/group counseling
- Group support
- Health and wellness education
- Relapse prevention
- Meditation and yoga
- Art and music therapies
- Aftercare planning
- Alumni programs