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Alcohol Addiction: Causes, Effects and Treatment

Alcohol addiction, alcoholism, or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic and compulsive disorder characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, loss of control over consumption, and negative consequences related to its use. Alcohol dependence occurs when a person can not control or limit alcohol consumption and starts to experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, neglecting responsibilities due to alcohol use, and continuing to drink despite negative consequences. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 or older were estimated to have an alcohol use disorder. This represents a significant portion of the population struggling with issues related to alcohol addiction.

Alcohol addiction arises from biological predispositions, environmental influences, social factors, and personal circumstances, all contributing to the development and perpetuation of addictive patterns of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol addiction has detrimental effects on physical health, mental well-being, relationships, and overall functioning, leading to a decline in quality of life and an increased risk of various health complications. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) alcohol addiction contributes to long-term health consequences such as liver disease, making it a major contributor to alcohol-related deaths. Alcohol poisoning also remains a significant concern, with around 2,200 deaths each year. Men, particularly middle-aged, are predominantly affected, but the issue spans across various demographics.

The treatment approaches for AUD encompass a range of interventions, such as medically supervised detoxification, therapy modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and medications when appropriate, all tailored to address the unique needs of individuals on their path to recovery.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

what is alcohol addiction

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a life-altering condition characterized by the uncontrollable consumption of alcohol despite negative consequences. It involves a combination of physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, leading to a loss of control over drinking behavior and an inability to stop or limit consumption.

At its core, alcohol addiction involves a strong craving or urge to drink, often accompanied by a preoccupation with alcohol and prioritizing its use above other responsibilities and activities. Individuals with alcohol addiction may experience tolerance, needing to consume larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect, and withdrawal symptoms when they try to reduce or stop drinking. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 29.5 million people ages 12 and older in the United States were diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in that year. This shows the significant prevalence of AUD across various demographic groups in the U.S.​ 

What are the Stages of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction or alcoholism begins from the early stages of problematic use, leading to tolerance and dependence, and eventually leading to full-blown, chronic addiction. Here’s a look at the four stages of alcohol addiction:

1. Pre-alcoholic StageIn the initial phase, individuals may start experimenting with alcohol and may begin to develop a tolerance. Occasional binge drinking and increased consumption to manage stress are common.
2. Early Alcoholic StageThis stage sees the onset of problems directly linked to alcohol use. Excessive drinking, frequent blackouts, neglect of responsibilities, and personal relationship issues occur. Despite the adverse impacts, denial about the problem is typical.
3. Middle Alcoholic StageCharacterized by a significant rise in alcohol consumption and the development of physical and psychological dependence. Life increasingly revolves around obtaining and consuming alcohol, leading to severe health issues, deteriorating relationships, and potential legal and financial troubles.
4. Late/Ending Alcoholic StageThis advanced stage involves severe physical and psychological effects from prolonged alcohol abuse. Symptoms include organ damage, mental health decline, and loss of control over drinking. Social isolation, job loss, and daily dysfunction are common, potentially leading to life-threatening conditions without intervention.

These stages are not experienced uniformly by everyone with alcohol addiction. The progression sometimes varies, and individuals usually seek help at different points in their journey.

What are the Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol addiction, like other forms of addiction, is a complex condition influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and individual factors. Here are some common factors that contribute to the development of alcohol addiction:

1. Genetic Factors

Genetics plays a significant role in the risk of developing alcohol addiction, though it is not the sole factor. According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), genetics accounts for about half of the risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Certain genes affect the amount of alcohol people consume and their likelihood of developing alcohol dependence. These genetic factors may influence how a person responds to alcohol, how much pleasure they derive from drinking, or how high their tolerance might be.

2. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors significantly influence the risk of developing alcohol addiction, with impacts stemming from various socio-cultural and familial contexts:

  1. Family and Upbringing: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), individuals who grow up in environments where alcohol use is normalized, or where family members have alcohol use disorders, are more likely to develop alcohol problems. Children of alcohol-dependent parents are approximately four times more likely to develop alcohol issues themselves compared to their peers from non-alcohol-dependent families.
  2. Socioeconomic Factors: Economic stress and poverty are linked to higher rates of alcohol consumption and addiction. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that individuals facing socioeconomic pressures will turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, with lower socioeconomic status being associated with an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders.
  3. Peer Influence: Peer groups significantly impact alcohol use, especially among adolescents and young adults. Social pressure and behaviors of peers who engage in heavy drinking can influence an individual’s drinking habits. The prevalence of alcohol use among peers is a strong predictor of personal alcohol consumption and potential misuse​.
  4. Cultural and Societal Norms: Cultural practices and societal attitudes towards alcohol consumption also play a critical role. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in societies where heavy drinking is more accepted or even encouraged, there tends to be a higher prevalence of alcohol use disorders​.

3. Neuropsychological Factors

Neuropsychological factors involve the interplay between the brain’s neurochemistry and mental health. Conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD increase the risk of AUD. Alcohol increases dopamine release, reinforcing drinking behavior and leading to dependence.

Research by the NIAAA shows that 20% to 40% of individuals treated for anxiety disorders also struggle with AUD. Chronic alcohol use alters neurotransmitter activity, making it difficult to stop drinking.

4. Behavioral Factors

Certain behavioral patterns significantly elevate the risk of developing alcohol addiction. According to the NIAAA, behaviors such as early initiation of alcohol use, regular heavy drinking, binge drinking, and using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress or emotional distress are all potent risk factors for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

  1. Early Initiation: Starting to drink alcohol at a young age is a strong predictor of later alcohol abuse. Research indicates that individuals who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives compared to those who begin drinking at age 21 or older.
  2. Regular Heavy Drinking and Binge Drinking: Engaging in heavy drinking,defined as consuming more than four drinks on any day for men or more than three for women, or binge drinking, which involves drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion for men or four or more for women, can significantly disrupt the neurochemical systems in the brain. This disruption enhances the likelihood of developing an addiction.
  3. Using Alcohol to Cope: Utilizing alcohol as a means to manage stress or emotional issues often leads to greater alcohol dependency. This pattern of using alcohol to self-medicate can accelerate the progression to alcohol addiction by reinforcing the behavior and increasing tolerance and dependence.

These behavioral factors do not operate in isolation but interact with genetic, environmental, and psychological factors to influence the causes of alcohol use disorder. This complex interplay means that the risk of developing AUD arises from a combination of multiple factors, making it important to address all potential areas when considering prevention and treatment strategies​

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

The symptoms of AUD can vary in severity, including physical, mental, and emotional distress. Here are some common symptoms of AUD:

Physical Symptoms

  • Increased tolerance to alcohol.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, sweating, nausea, and seizures.
  • Alcohol-related health problems, including liver disease, gastrointestinal issues, and neurological complications.
  • Changes in appetite or weight loss/gain.
  • Sleep disturbances or insomnia.

Psychological Symptoms

  • Inability to control or limit alcohol consumption.
  • Preoccupation with alcohol, spending excessive time thinking about it, or obtaining it.
  • Failed attempts to quit or cut down on drinking.
  • Neglecting important responsibilities and obligations due to alcohol use.
  • Continued drinking despite experiencing negative consequences.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies.
  • Cognitive impairment, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Increased irritability or agitation.
  • Anxiety and feelings of restlessness.
  • Depression or low mood.
  • Guilt or shame related to alcohol use.
  • Using alcohol as a means of coping with emotions or stress.
  • Social isolation or strained relationships due to alcohol use.

What are the Effects of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction or dependence can have wide-ranging effects on various aspects of a person’s life, significantly impacting physical health, mental well-being, and social interactions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use leads to more than 95,000 deaths each year in the United States, making it one of the leading preventable causes of death​. Here are the 4 major effects of alcohol addiction:

1. Physical Health Effects

  • Liver damage: Chronic and heavy alcohol use can lead to liver diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Alcohol abuse can contribute to high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Alcohol can cause inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), ulcers, and an increased risk of digestive system cancers.
  • Weakened immune system: Excessive alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb and utilize essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
  • Increased risk of accidents and injuries: Alcohol impairs judgment, coordination, and reaction times, increasing the risk of accidents, falls, and injuries.

2. Mental and Psychological Health Effects

  • Depression and anxiety: Alcohol abuse can contribute to the development or worsening of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
  • Cognitive impairments: Long-term alcohol use can lead to memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and decreased cognitive function.
  • Increased risk of substance use disorders: Alcohol addiction can increase the risk of developing co-occurring substance use disorders, such as drug addiction.

3. Social and Relationship Effects

  • Strained relationships: Alcohol abuse can lead to conflicts and strained relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners.
  • Social isolation: Individuals with alcohol addiction may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves from others.
  • Legal and financial issues: Alcohol-related behaviors, such as drunk driving or legal troubles, can result in legal consequences and financial difficulties.

4. Occupational and Educational Effects

  • Impaired work or school performance: Alcohol addiction can negatively impact job performance, attendance, and academic achievement.
  • Unemployment or job loss: Alcohol-related problems can lead to unemployment, job instability, and a decline in career prospects.

How is Alcohol Addiction/Dependence Diagnosed?

Diagnosing alcohol addiction or dependence involves a series of steps guided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 29.5 million people aged 12 or older were diagnosed with AUD while using the DSM-5 criteria. The process starts with a clinical interview, where healthcare providers delve into the individual’s alcohol use patterns, medical and family history, and the physical and psychological symptoms they experience.

The DSM-5 criteria are then applied to determine if an individual meets the definition for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). This includes assessing whether there’s a problematic pattern of alcohol use causing significant impairment or distress. Specific symptoms considered are the inability to control drinking, using alcohol longer than intended, craving alcohol, and continuing use despite negative consequences, among others. Based on the number of symptoms identified, AUD is classified into three levels of severity: mild (2-3 symptoms), moderate (4-5 symptoms), and severe (6 or more symptoms).

A physical examination and laboratory tests will follow to check for physical signs of alcohol abuse and related health issues, particularly liver damage. Given the frequent co-occurrence of mental health disorders with AUD, such as depression or PTSD, an assessment for these conditions is also commonly included. Identifying the severity of the disorder helps professionals develop an effective treatment plan tailored to the individual’s needs, emphasizing the importance of early intervention for better outcomes.

What are the Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction?

treatment options for alcohol addiction

The treatment for alcohol addiction and dependence begins with safely removing alcohol from the body through detox and introducing one or a combination of several forms of therapies to ensure your mental focus is reshaped and removed from the substance. Below are some of the treatment options for alcohol addiction:

1. Alcohol Detoxification (Detox)

Detoxification is the initial step in any form of substance use disorder, involving a period of fasting from alcohol. Detox involves safely removing alcohol from the body under medical supervision. It helps manage withdrawal symptoms and ensures the person’s comfort and safety during this process.

2. Behavioral Therapies

Therapy plays a crucial role in alcohol addiction treatment. Different types of therapy can help individuals change their thoughts, behaviors, and emotional responses to alcohol. Here are the treatment modalities for alcohol addiction:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This therapy helps individuals identify and modify harmful thoughts and behaviors associated with alcohol use. It teaches practical skills to cope with cravings, handle triggers, and address underlying issues.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET): MET focuses on enhancing an individual’s motivation to change their drinking habits. It helps them explore personal motivations, set goals, and build confidence in their ability to make positive changes.
  • Contingency Management (CM): CM uses a reward system to reinforce abstinence or progress in treatment. It provides incentives or rewards as positive reinforcement for staying sober or achieving specific treatment goals.
  • Family Therapy: Family therapy involves the participation of family members in the treatment process. It helps improve communication, address family dynamics, and provide support for the person in recovery.

There are several other forms of behavioral therapies that are used to treat alcohol use disorders and your medical specialist will decide, in conjunction with you, which approach is best, depending on your situation.

3. Medications

Medications can be used to aid in alcohol addiction treatment. They can help reduce cravings, manage withdrawal symptoms, or create unpleasant effects when alcohol is consumed. Commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Naltrexone: reduces alcohol cravings and blocks the pleasurable effects of drinking.
  • Acamprosate: helps individuals maintain abstinence by reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
  • Disulfiram: produces unpleasant physical effects when alcohol is consumed, serving as a deterrent to drinking.

4. Support Groups

Joining support groups, such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provides a valuable support network for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction. These groups offer a platform to share experiences, seek guidance, and receive ongoing support from peers who understand the challenges of addiction.

5. Aftercare and Relapse Prevention

After successfully treating alcohol addiction, you will be placed in an aftercare program to help eliminate the chances of a relapse. These programs will help hold you accountable without judgment and that relapse is not a sign that the treatment has failed, it is a common occurrence during addiction recovery. 

Is Recovery from Alcohol Addiction Possible?

Recovery from addiction is possible. The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) found that approximately one-third of individuals who met the criteria for alcohol dependence were in full recovery after three years. Evidence-based treatments, such as behavioral therapies and medications, have proven effective in reducing substance use and promoting sustained recovery. Support from recovery-oriented systems of care and mutual-help groups, like AA and NA, further enhance the possibility of recovery. While recovery is unique to each person, with the right support, treatment, and commitment, individuals can overcome addiction and lead fulfilling lives free from substance abuse.

How Do I Support a Loved One Struggling With Alcohol Addiction?

To support a loved one struggling with alcohol addiction:

  • Educate yourself and show empathy.
  • Encourage professional treatment; offer assistance in finding resources.
  • Listen without judgment and provide a safe space for them to open up.
  • Establish healthy boundaries that prioritize your well-being.
  • Support healthy habits and activities that promote recovery.
  • Avoid enabling behaviors that can perpetuate addiction.
  • Seek support for yourself to navigate the challenges.
  • Be patient, and understanding, and offer encouragement.
  • Recommend support groups as additional resources.
  • Remind your loved one that you care and are there for them every step of the way.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from mild to severe, including tremors, anxiety, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, and increased sweating with a rapid heart rate. Individuals also experience insomnia, irritability, mood swings, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. There’s often increased sensitivity to light and sound, elevated blood pressure, and rapid breathing. In severe cases, withdrawal will lead to delirium tremens, a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

alcohol withdrawal symptoms

How Do I Know if I Need Help for Alcohol Addiction?

You might need help for alcohol addiction if you find it difficult to control your drinking, experience strong cravings, or continue to drink despite facing negative consequences. Other signs include neglecting responsibilities, relationship issues due to drinking, physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms, and a need for increasing amounts of alcohol to feel its effects. If drinking has become a central part of your life and previous attempts to reduce or stop have failed, it may be time to seek professional assistance.

How does alcohol intolerance differ from alcohol addiction?

Alcohol intolerance is a metabolic disorder where the body lacks the enzymes needed to properly metabolize alcohol, leading to immediate and uncomfortable reactions such as facial flushing, nausea, and rapid heart rate after consuming alcohol. Unlike alcohol addiction, alcohol intolerance is not related to the compulsive use of alcohol or the physical and psychological dependence associated with addiction. Individuals with alcohol intolerance often avoid alcohol due to these adverse reactions, whereas those with alcohol addiction continue to consume alcohol despite negative consequences, driven by cravings and dependency.

Can Ambien be safely used for insomnia in individuals recovering from alcohol addiction?

Using Ambien for insomnia in individuals recovering from alcohol addiction requires careful consideration and medical supervision. Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic that can help with short-term sleep issues but carries a risk of dependency, especially in those with a history of substance abuse. It is crucial to evaluate the individual’s overall health, addiction history, and potential for misuse before prescribing Ambien. Non-pharmacological approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and lifestyle modifications, are often recommended to promote healthy sleep patterns without the risks associated with sedative medications.

What role does nutrition play in the recovery from alcohol addiction?

Nutrition plays a vital role in the recovery from alcohol addiction by helping to restore the body’s overall health and well-being. Chronic alcohol use often leads to nutritional deficiencies, which can impair physical and mental health. A balanced diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants supports the healing process, boosts energy levels, and improves mood and cognitive function. Proper nutrition aids in repairing liver damage, strengthening the immune system, and reducing cravings for alcohol. Incorporating a structured nutritional plan into recovery programs enhances the effectiveness of treatment and supports long-term sobriety.

What Should I Do if I Relapse After Receiving Treatment for Alcohol Addiction?

If you experience a relapse after receiving treatment for alcohol addiction, it’s essential to take immediate action. Reach out for support by contacting your treatment provider or therapist. Share your relapse openly and honestly, as they can provide guidance and help you navigate this setback. Attending support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), can also offer valuable support from individuals who understand your struggle. Take the opportunity to reevaluate and adjust your treatment plan, identifying any triggers or areas that may require additional attention. 

Ryan Wakim MD
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Dr. Wakim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a passion for and expertise in addiction, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders and the subspecialty of interventional psychiatry. He obtained his medical degree from West Virginia University where he also completed his residency training, finishing as chief resident. Dr. Wakim co-founded and served as the CEO of Transformations leading to a successful merger with Shore Capital in May 2021. He is purpose driven towards improving the standard of and removing stigma related to behavioral healthcare. Dr. Wakim enjoys golf, traveling and time spent with his two dogs, Lulu and Rayna.

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