Understanding Alcoholism: Is Alcohol an Addictive Substance?

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Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, is a disease that causes out-of-hand drinking and a near-constant craving for alcohol. It is important to understand that alcoholism can range from being mild, moderate, or severe as alcohol is an addictive substance. Understanding alcoholism is complex. So complex in fact that alcohol, although not recognized in any substance schedule under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) and entirely unregulated statewide, is responsible for millions of deaths and is among the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States. It is estimated to be imbibed by over 2 billion people daily.

Alcoholics will often prioritize drinking over their personal safety, their relationships, and their careers. Understanding that alcoholism can cause debilitating side effects and may have an overall detrimental effect on the sufferer’s quality of life is extremely important in order for one to receive help. Treatment is available for alcoholism, and long-term recovery is achievable. Avenues Recovery is here to provide a complete guide on understanding alcoholism and what you can do to prevent its detrimental effects. 

Understanding Alcoholism and Asking: Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Different forms of alcohol can be addictive due to the fact that alcohol releases dopamine and endorphins, which cause a person to experience pleasurable sensations and not feel pain. Although alcohol is considered to be a depressant, the initial phases of intoxication mimic the effects of a stimulant substance. It will instruct the brain to release dopamine at heightened levels, therefore inducing euphoria and lowering inhibitions. Eventually, however, it will increase the effects of a neurotransmitter known as Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) . GABA dampens brain response and inhibits the body’s performance, causing the clumsiness and speech impairments alcohol is famous for. It is thus classified as a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant.

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Understanding Alcoholism and the Statistics Involved

To grasp how addictive alcohol is, one just needs to take a look at the numbers involved. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, close to 30 million individuals in the US ages 12 and older experienced alcoholism in 2021. Greatly exacerbating the issue, over 90 percent of sufferers of AUD never seek treatment, and in many cases do not have the slightest inkling that they are in fact dealing with a vicious disease [1]. Furthermore, close to three million lives are lost annually from alcohol-related causes worldwide. In the United States alone, alcohol’s death toll is at 95,000, and it ranks as a leading cause of preventable death [2].

Is Alcohol a Physical Addiction? 

Alcoholism encompasses both physical and mental aspects. Although one may be physically addicted to having another drink, the motivation behind it is likely in order to satisfy an emotional need or lacking.

Causes and Risk Factors 

In order to understand alcoholism, one must take into account various risk factors and causes of alcoholism. Below are some physical and emotional/mental factors that contribute to alcoholism.

  • Age that one began to drink. The earlier one begins to drink the more likely they are to develop alcoholism
  • Family history of alcohol use. People who have a family history of alcohol abuse are have more of a chance to also have alcoholism. 
  • Genetics. Although the development of alcoholism is dependent on one’s environment, genetics contributes to alcohol use disorder.  
  • Co-occurring disorders and mental health conditions. Such disorders are associated with alcohol abuse and cause one to be more vulnerable to developing it. 
  • Social surroundings. Social pressures can have an effect on one to develop alcoholism. If one is in an environment where people are constantly drinking as a form of having fun and unwinding, that person will have a greater chance of having alcohol use disorder. In such situations, socializing without drinking is much more recommended and will help one in the long-term. 

Additionally, due to the pleasurable feelings that are elicited from different forms of alcohol, people who experience, grief, trauma, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress may use alcohol as a way to escape their problems. 

Understanding When Alcoholism Is a Problem: Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

The earlier one spots warning signs of alcoholism, the faster it is able to be addressed. Signs of alcoholism include but are not limited to:

  • Inability to stop drinking when you want to
  • Spending a large amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Craving alcohol to the exclusion of all else
  • Suffering negative effects in your relationships and career
  • Driving under the influence
  • Losing large amounts of time in “alcohol blackouts”
  • Suffering withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol wears off

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms of alcohol use disorder, reach out for treatment as soon as possible before the symptoms and side effects of alcoholism worsen.

DSM-5 Criteria of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

In addition to the common symptoms mentioned above, the DSM-5 uses 11 criteria to diagnose AUD. They are listed here.

In the past year have you:

  1. Drank more than you had planned to?
  2. Been unsuccessful in lessening your alcohol intake?
  3. Spent more time than intended getting alcohol and recovering from alcohol? 
  4. Experienced strong cravings for alcohol that prevented you from thinking?
  5. Sacrificed other responsibilities such as family or jobs at the expense of drinking.
  6. Continued to drink even though it was detrimental to your relationship with your family and friends. 
  7. Given up hobbies and other activities that you used to enjoy due to your drinking.
  8. Gotten into dangerous and risky situations due to your drinking. 
  9. Continued to drink despite experiencing physical and psychological problems?10. Experienced tolerance, which made you need to drink more to experience your previous high. 
  10. Experienced alcohol addiction withdrawal symptoms such as seizures, trouble sleeping, sweating, nausea, and restlessness. Under the DSM guidelines, presenting with at least two of these criteria indicates an AUD. Meeting two criteria is classified as mild alcoholism, upon reaching four to five symptoms the alcohol addiction is considered moderate, and six symptoms or more is severe.

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Denial of Alcohol Abuse and High Functioning Alcoholics

Denial, while present in all forms of addiction, is perhaps most rampant with alcoholism. In many cases, alcoholics continue to function at high levels and are therefore dismissive of the possibility of struggling with addiction. According to studies by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), almost 20 percent of U.S. alcoholics classify themselves as functional . They are often well-educated, middle-aged men who have families and hold stable jobs but nevertheless struggle with alcoholism. Hence, they are referred to as high-functioning alcoholics.

The fact that drinking is legal and unregulated also contributes heavily to the perception that excessive drinking is not a real problem and indeed not an illness.

When done properly, intervention is a useful tool in getting the alcoholic to understand the magnitude and ramifications of his alcohol issue. No commitment to recovery can begin until he or she is finally convinced that they do in fact have a problem and need help.

Side Effects of Alcohol Addiction

The range of illnesses linked to alcohol is staggering. Its list contains a veritable who’s who of infamous killers. Cancers, liver and kidney failure, and chronic heart disease all feature prominently and are a mere sampling of the damage caused by alcohol abuse.

Alcohol is metabolized through the liver. With overconsumption, the liver works overtime to process the deluge and can become permanently scarred. This condition is called Cirrhosis and is very common among alcoholics.

Below are some side effects of the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol abuse:

  • Damage to the central nervous system
  • Damage to the heart
  • Liver damage
  • Digestive problems
  • Endocrine damage
  • Higher risks of cancer
  • Damage to the immune system

Withdrawal Symptoms from Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol withdrawal can be severe. Some of the symptoms that one may experience are:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaking extremities
  • Nausea 
  • vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Sweating 
  • fever
  • Insomnia from alcohol detox
  • Confusion and hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Due to the dangers of suddenly quitting alcohol, it is imperative to undergo the detoxification process in a professional setting under the watchful eye of medical professionals. Once sobriety is accomplished, a recovering alcoholic should enter treatment to learn the tools with which to achieve long-term sobriety.

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Treatment for Alcoholism

The are various ways to approach treating alcoholism. Treatment can be provided in an inpatient rehab or at an outpatient rehab. Some treatment options include:

  • CBT for addiction
  • Matrix model therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Support Groups such as 12 step programs 

Great care should be taken in choosing a facility whose foremost priority is the health of its clients. There are many trustworthy providers in the substance abuse and addiction treatment field who work with integrity and passion. It is vital to ensure that a recovering alcoholic finds such a community; his or her life is at stake. 

Alcohol Addiction Treatment at Avenues Recovery

Understanding that alcoholism is treatable is the first step in recovery. One does not need to go through alcohol addiction alone. At Avenues Recovery, we offer a variety of treatment programs and resources to help those struggling with addiction. If you or a loved one are experiencing alcoholism or any other type of addiction, reach out to us today to get the help you deserve. Start your journey to recovery today!

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