More people over the age of 12 in the United States have used alcohol in the past year than any other drug or tobacco product, but why is alcohol addictive? Alcohol use disorder is the most common type of substance use disorder in the U.S., with nearly 15 million cases of alcoholism in people 12 and older in 2019 alone.2
While we know that alcohol makes people feel good, what makes it addictive to the point where drinking becomes the person’s top priority? Keep reading to see what we found.
Alcohol addiction is a chronic relapsing disease marked by compulsive alcohol consumption, the loss of control over how much alcohol is consumed, and the development of negative emotions when alcohol is not available. Also known as alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control drinking despite adverse social, physical, mental, and occupational repercussions.
AUD is a spectrum disorder that can be mild, moderate, or severe, and encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcoholism. Alcohol addiction refers to the moderate to severe form of AUD.
But how does addiction happen in the brain? Alcohol, like other drugs, has a powerful effect on the brain, producing pleasurable feelings like relaxation and calm while blunting unwanted negative emotions and thoughts.
These side effects can motivate people to continue drinking alcohol, despite the dangers to their mental and physical health. For instance, research shows that over time, stress drinking – while it may provide temporary relief – usually enhances negative thoughts and emotions between episodes of drinking.
These changes can further motivate the individual to drink alcohol more often, creating an unhealthy cycle of heavy drinking. As frequent alcohol consumption persists over time, professional chances occur in the functionality and chemical structure of the brain.
These changes can compromise brain function and lead to a transition from controlled and occasional drinking to chronic abuse. With this in mind, alcohol addiction occurs in three stages:
During this stage, the person experiences the rewarding effects of alcohol, such as euphoria, relaxation, reduced anxiety, and smoother social interactions. Repeated activation of the basal ganglia’s reward system in the brain reinforces drinking behavior, contributing to increased consumption.
The basal ganglia region of the brain also plays a role in motivation as well as the formation of drinking habits and behaviors. This repeated activation of the basal ganglia triggers changes in the way a person responds to stimuli linked to drinking alcohol, such as specific people, places, or cues like glassware or descriptions of drinking.
Over time, these stimuli can trigger powerful urges to drink alcohol. Ultimately, repeated alcohol consumption can form a habit.
When a person who’s addicted to alcohol stops drinking, they experience withdrawal symptoms, including sleep disturbances, pain, tremors, irritability, and anxiety. These negative feelings are thought to occur for two reasons.
First is a diminished activation in the brain’s reward systems in the basal ganglia, which makes it difficult for the person to experience pleasure in their daily routine. Second, increased activation of the brain’s stress systems due to the diminished activation of the chemical gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) leads to symptoms like anxiety and irritability.
At the alcohol withdrawal stage, an alcoholic no longer drinks alcohol for the pleasure of it or the high but rather to escape the feelings of withdrawal.
In this stage of AUD, the individual seeks alcohol again after a period of abstinence. People in this stage may also have a history of attempts to quit drinking and relapse.
At this point, a person becomes preoccupied with alcohol and how to get more of it and constantly looks forward to the next time they’re going to drink. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for this change.
This brain region’s functions include the ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, time management, and decision-making, all of which are compromised in people experiencing alcohol addiction. At this point, the individual would require an intensive PHP or residential treatment program to get sober.
Considering the many physical, mental, and social risks of alcohol addiction, why do people get addicted to alcohol? Simply put, alcohol is addictive because it stimulates the release of the chemicals dopamine and endorphins in the brain, producing a high.
These chemicals produce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction and act as a natural painkiller. Therefore, it’s common for people to drink alcohol while socializing or to numb physical or emotional pain.
Long-term heavy alcohol consumption can make changes in the brain’s chemistry and functioning, which plays a major role in why alcohol is addictive. The brain’s reward and pleasure centers are overstimulated, creating dependence.
As a result, when the person isn’t drinking, they may experience physical and emotional signs of discomfort, such as irritability and tremors, otherwise referred to as withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are often distressing enough to where the person will keep drinking to avoid them.
Ultimately, this repeated pattern of behavior leads to a physical and emotional addiction to alcohol that takes precedence over all other things in the person’s life. People with alcohol use disorders may neglect their health, finances, jobs, and even their families because of their addiction to alcohol.
Now that we understand why alcohol is addictive, what help is available for those struggling with alcoholism? Our Chicago rehab center offers various forms of substance-specific treatment, including an alcohol addiction treatment program that’s specially made for people with this drug use disorder.
Our specialists work with clients to overcome the physical and psychological factors of addiction so they can break the relapse cycle and make permanent changes to their lives. Long-lasting sobriety is our goal for our patients.