Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?

Alcohol is incredibly popular in the UK, with many people enjoying a social drink from time to time. However, whilst it is legal, this does not mean that drinking alcohol is without risk. Alcohol is actually an incredibly addictive drug, and a dependence on the substance can form when consumed excessively.

If you are worried about drug addiction, know that you are not alone. Addiction is a chronic disease, but it is treatable.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a term used to describe both alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction is when a person has become mentally and physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol addiction can present differently from person to person but is typically characterised by an inability to remain sober and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop.

When someone is suffering from alcohol addiction, they are said to have a severe alcohol use disorder, and those who abuse alcohol are said to have a mild or moderate alcohol use disorder. The difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction is that those who abuse alcohol are able to quit when they desire, whereas those who are addicted cannot.

It is important to be mindful about the language we use and not use the terms ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ as these are outdated and carry a stigma. Alcohol use disorder is a clinical disease and should therefore be treated with compassion and care, the same way that a physical illness would be regarded.

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

In order to discuss why alcohol is so addictive, it is important to look at the role it plays in the brain. Alcohol impacts the reward centre of the brain and alters the way it functions. The reward centre plays an important role in the human brain because it is involved in supporting behaviour that is naturally rewarding. This includes things like sleeping, working, socialising, sex, and eating. The brain adapts to the presence of alcohol and starts to make alcohol a priority over everything else.

Drinking alcohol, or the body’s anticipation of using alcohol will send signals in the brain to release dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasurable sensations. The excess dopamine that is produced when drinking alcohol, the same as with other drugs, is what makes alcohol addictive.

Long-term heavy drinking affects the brain’s reward system by repeatedly flooding it with dopamine which results in the brain decreasing its production of dopamine when presented with naturally rewarding activities. The brain also increases the number of opioid receptors. These changes are what lead to alcohol addiction.

What Are The Risk Factors of Developing an Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is complex, and there is no one single causal factor, making it almost impossible to predict who will develop an addiction. Instead, there are various factors that can contribute to an increased risk of developing a drug addiction. Some of these factors include:

Internal Factors

  • Genetics
  • Personality
  • Mental health
  • Personality
  • Personal choice
  • History of alcohol misuse

External Factors

  • Environmental factors
  • Social factors
  • Peer pressure
  • Religion
  • Cultural/social norms
  • Age
  • Education
  • Employment status

What Are The Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol is a depressant substance, meaning that it suppresses the central nervous system. When you drink alcohol, especially when you engage in frequent and heavy drinking, it can affect the production of a chemical messenger called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA works by relaxing the brain, and over time the brain stops producing its own GABA as it becomes reliant on alcohol to stimulate its production. When you quit drinking, GABA levels with therefore be low and it is this lack of GABA that results in the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting alcohol.

Because it is so physically addictive, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to quit, and you should never attempt to stop alone. It is recommended that you reduce your alcohol use slowly with the guidance of a healthcare professional rather than stop suddenly. Always get the advice and support of a medical professional before attempting to detox from alcohol, as some withdrawal symptoms can be fatal.

For some with a mild alcohol use disorder, the symptoms will only be mild, but for others with a more severe AUD, they can be extremely dangerous. Some common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sweats

Some of the more intense and potentially life-threatening symptoms can include Delirium tremens (DTs). Between 3-5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal will experience DTs, which is one of the most serious symptoms. Some symptoms include confusion, aggression, irritability, hallucinations, trembling, sweating, fever, nightmares, vomiting and nausea, seizures, impaired consciousness, increased heart rate, delusions, and delirium. If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, it is vital to get medical attention immediately.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction treatment usually begins with detox in order to break the physical dependency. This can be either inpatient treatment, or those with a mild alcohol use disorder can undergo detox as part of an outpatient programme. Once detox has been successfully completed, rehab is recommended during the next phase of recovery in order to work on the psychological addiction to substance use. Psychological support for mental disorders will be given through therapy in order to help with overcoming the wish to use addictive drugs and get to the root cause of alcohol use.

Most people will also attend support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous during recovery in order to get continued motivation and peer support. Making lifestyle changes will also implement healthy behaviours to replace drinking, which will lead to a decrease in cravings. Lifestyle changes can include eating a healthy diet, yoga, meditation, art-making, exercise, and a structured daily routine.

The Final Word

Alcohol has a highly addictive nature due to the way it impacts the brain structure and reward system. Addictive drugs affect the reward system in the brain, leading to the release of dopamine which in turn makes people drink more in order to keep feeling the pleasurable sensations that these neurotransmitters produce. Alcohol misuse can quickly turn into alcohol dependence as it is a very addictive substance, leading to harmful consequences.

Fortunately, there is help available. At The Revoke Programme, we offer the highest quality outpatient and behavioural healthcare treatment. Our services are provided by a compassionate team of professionals who truly understand what you are going through. Our outpatient programmes provide you with top-tier care whilst enabling you to continue your daily activities. We are experts in providing psychological support to help you recover effectively and sustainably for the long term. Get in touch today to begin your journey of recovery.

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