Alcohol is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the United States. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that more than 14 million Americans had an addiction to alcohol in 2019. The World Health Organization reports that every year an estimated 3 million people die from harmful alcohol use. Yet, people continue to drink alcohol seemingly without any major concerns for their health, including more than 47% of Americans who binge drink regularly. Despite our social acceptance of alcohol, we must acknowledge that alcohol is, in fact, a highly addictive substance.
What Is Alcohol?
There are many different types of alcohol, but “ethanol,” is the only alcohol that’s used in beverages. Ethanol, also called “ethyl alcohol,” is the active ingredient found in beer, wine, and spirits. The process used to create ethanol is very simple. Essentially, yeast ferments, or breaks down, the sugars in different foods. For example:
- Winemakers use yeast to break down the sugar in grapes to make wine.
- Brewers ferment the sugar in malted barley, a type of grain, to make beer
- Yeast breaks down the sugar in potatoes, beets, and other plants to make vodka
- Fermented apples create apple cider
Even though the process happens naturally, fermentation doesn’t require oxygen, which makes alcohol a fairly strong substance. That’s why too much alcohol can lead to intoxication.
Chemists classify alcohol as a depressant. This means that alcohol slows down vital functions in the central nervous system, which can cause:
- Slurred speech
- Unsteady movements
- Slow reactivity
- Inaccurate perceptions of what’s actually happening
In Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, authors Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson refer to alcohol as a “sedative-hypnotic” drug. While low doses of alcohol stimulate the body, making drinkers feel euphoric and talkative, too much alcohol sedates users, making them drowsy.
“When people drink alcohol, they feel pleasure and relaxation during the first half hour or so, often becoming talkative and socially outgoing,” the authors explain. “But these feelings are usually replaced by sedation (drowsiness) as the alcohol is eliminated from the body, so drinkers may become quiet and withdrawn later. This pattern often motivates them to drink more to keep the initial pleasant buzz going.” Therein lies alcohol’s addictive nature.
How Addictive Is Alcohol?
Measuring the actual addictiveness of alcohol can be difficult. Unlike illicit drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and ecstasy, alcohol products are not regulated under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA is a law that determines how drugs can be used and sold in the United States. Because alcohol isn’t regulated by the CSA, alcohol doesn’t fall into the Drug Enforcement Agency’s drug scheduling classification. But that doesn’t mean that alcohol isn’t addictive.
We can measure alcohol’s addictiveness by analyzing the way ethanol compels people to keep drinking even after they’ve experienced its harmful consequences. Not long after stimulating the central nervous system, alcohol can:
- Distort your judgement
- Decrease your coordination and balance
- Reduce your ability to think rationally
- Impair your ability to see and hear clearly
- Limit your ability to concentrate
- Cause blackouts that negatively affect your memory
Regardless of these impairments, most people feel the need to continue drinking alcohol. The compulsion to keep drinking despite adverse consequences happens because alcohol triggers the release of pleasure producing chemicals in the brain, including dopamine and GABA.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, which the body makes to send signals throughout the brain. Known as the “feel good” chemical, dopamine plays an important role in how happy we feel. In fact, dopamine is responsible for the happiness we feel when we first drink alcohol.
- GABA is another neurotransmitter. Unlike dopamine, which stimulates the body, GABA calms the body. GABA triggers the sedated feeling we experience as alcohol’s stimulating effects wear off. Unfortunately, GABA can also increase the activity of dopamine. When this happens, the brain craves even more pleasure, which makes alcohol users want to keep drinking.
The desire for greater amounts of pleasure typically leads to heavy drinking or chronic alcohol use, which, in turn, can lead to addiction. In fact, regularly drinking alcohol can actually rewire the brain, making users chemically dependent on alcohol. By the time this happens, users feel like they need alcohol to feel and function “normally.”
Even though alcohol addiction develops in several stages, scientists, chemists, and behavioral health experts know, without a doubt, that alcohol’s effects on the brain can be very, if not extremely, addictive. Sadly, the number of people grappling with addiction confirm the addictiveness of alcohol.
How Common Is Alcohol Addiction?
According to the National Institute of Health, approximately 33% of Americans develop an addiction to alcohol at some point in their lifetime. In 2018, more than 15 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder. In 2019, more than 14 million people in the United States had an addiction to alcohol. Despite everything we know about alcohol and the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, many people continue to drink heavily. In fact, Americans today consume more alcohol than U.S. citizens drank right before the government enacted the Prohibition Amendment in 1920. Unfortunately, this had led to alarming alcohol addiction statistics.
Considering the following facts:
- According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, more than half of all American adults have a family history of problem drinking or alcohol addiction.
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that more than 10% of children in the United States live with a parent that has alcohol use problems.
- Every year, about 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes.
- Alcohol is the 3rd leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
- According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 400,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had an addiction to alcohol.
Statistics also show that men are more likely than women to drink excessively. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Men are twice as likely to binge drink than women.
- More than 20% of men report binge drinking and do so 5 times a month, consuming about 8 drinks per binge.
- In 2019, more men had an alcohol use disorder than women.
- Men have higher rates of alcohol-related hospitalization than women.
- Men account for approximately 75% of deaths as a result of excessive drinking, totaling an estimated 68,000 deaths each year.
- Men are 50% more likely than women to have been intoxicated before a fatal car accident.
In comparison, the CDC reports that excessive alcohol use and alcohol addiction claim more than 27,000 lives of women and girls each year. Additionally:
- About 13% of women report binge drinking about 4 times a month, consuming an estimated 5 drinks per binge.
- Nearly 20% of women of child-bearing age (18 to 44 years old) binge drink.
- More high school girls (about 32%) consumed alcohol than high school boys (about 26%). Similarly, binge drinking is more popular among high school girls (15%) than high school boys (13%).
Unfortunately, the prevalence of alcohol addiction has also contributed to an increase in alcohol-related conditions.
How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect The Body?
Despite alcohol’s popularity, chronic and heavy drinking can affect nearly every part of the human body. “I think people sort of forgot all the problems [with alcohol],” William Kerr, Senior Scientist at the California-based Public Health Institute, said. Here are several ways that heavy drinking and an addiction to alcohol can wreak havoc on your health.
Alcohol and The Brain
In addition to impairing your judgement, some of alcohol’s immediate effects on the brain include:
- Memory loss
- Loss of consciousness
- Respiratory suppression
In comparison, long-term effects of alcohol addiction on the brain often include:
- Thiamine, or vitamin B1 deficiency, which can cause chronic memory loss
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or “wet brain,” which can cause permanent mental confusion, coordination problems, and learning and memory difficulties
Chronic alcohol abuse can also cause the frontal lobes of the brain to shrink, triggering symptoms such as:
- Poor judgement
- Permanent memory loss
- Repetitive compulsive behavior
- Frequent, abrupt mood changes
- Loss of empathy
- Poor concentration and an inability to plan
Alcohol’s Effect On The Bones and Muscles
In addition to causing many different types of injuries, alcohol can cause severe long-term effects on your bones and muscles, including:
- Osteonecrosis, a painful condition that causes bone tissue to die
- Muscle wasting and weakness
Alcohol and The Heart
When you drink, alcohol temporarily increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Long-term effects of alcohol addiction can include:
- Heart attacks
- A weakened heart
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart disease which can eventually lead to heart failure
Alcohol and The Liver
Alcohol can be particularly harmful to the liver. Because the liver processes alcohol, excessive drinking can scar the liver (cirrhosis) and disrupt the way the organ functions. In addition to increasing your risk of jaundice, alcoholism can cause:
- Fatty liver disease
- Liver disease
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver cancer
Alcohol and The Lungs
Alcohol can increase your risk of pneumonia, while heavy drinking can also inhibit the lungs’ ability to clear mucus and foreign matter. As such, saliva and other substances can enter the lungs and cause inflammation and infections such as bronchitis.
Prolonged alcohol use is commonly associated with:
- Higher rates of pneumonia
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, a life-threatening condition that allows fluid to fill the lungs
- A weakened immune system
Alcohol and The Mouth and Throat
Alcohol, like tobacco and nicotine, is a carcinogen. This means that alcohol can cause cancer. Chronic alcohol abuse actually increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, and voicebox. If you drink 5 or more standard drinks a day, you are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop these cancers in comparison to non-drinkers.
Other Ways Alcohol Addiction Affects The Body
When you drink in moderation, the body treats alcohol as a waste product and excretes it. Unfortunately, even a tiny bit of alcohol left in the bloodstream can affect the body’s systems. Too much alcohol can:
- Inhibit new bone production, increasing the risk of osteoporosis
- Cause erectile dysfunction in men and infertility in women
- Increase the risk of breast cancer
- Lead to gum disease and tooth decay
- Trigger stomach ulcers and gastritis
- Increase the risk of internal bleeding
Luckily, recognizing the signs of symptoms of alcohol addiction can help prevent the development of these alcohol-related conditions.
Recognizing Alcohol Addiction
Once individuals develop a chemical dependency on alcohol, they tend to have a difficult time controlling their alcohol consumption. Because of this, recognizing the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction becomes especially important. Essentially, being able to discern unhealthy patterns of alcohol consumption can help save lives.
Initial Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Some of the earliest symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Drinking more than planned
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite consequences and concerns
- Frequent, but failed, attempts to cut down or quit drinking
Unfortunately, if individuals don’t quit using alcohol at this point, they typically begin to develop a tolerance to the substance. This means that their body has become accustomed to alcohol. When this happens, individuals need to drink even more to “feel good” or get their desired effect.
When an individual is dependent on alcohol, they may feel like they need alcohol to function well. When they are unable to drink, they typically experience withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Headache or fever
- Fatigue, often followed by insomnia
- Tremors and shakes
- Mood swings
- Excessive sweating
- Loss of appetite
- Unusually fast heartbeat
Preoccupation With Alcohol
At this point, individuals may become preoccupied with alcohol. Symptoms in this stage can vary, but most individuals:
- Lose total control of their alcohol use
- Neglect responsibilities in order to consume alcohol
- Start missing work or school
- Talk about alcohol often
- Justify or make excuses for their drinking
- Lie, manipulate or deceive others in order to conceal their alcohol consumption
- Experience frequent blackouts
When alcohol addiction fully develops, personality changes begin to occur. Often, individuals become more aggressive and may have trouble keeping a job or maintaining relationships with friends and family. Heavy drinkers often experience:
- Panic attacks
They may also:
- Drink alone
- Explain that alcohol helps them sleep or deal with stress
- Engage in risk behaviors
- Drink and drive
- Use other drugs to increase the effects of alcohol
Other Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Other signs of alcohol abuse you can easily recognize include:
- Excessive drinking even after experiencing social, legal, or relationship problems
- Alcohol use that causes mental or physical damage such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, falls, crashes, and injuries
- Using alcohol to cope with mental health challenges and interpersonal problems
- Getting angry or defensive when confronted about alcohol use
- Feeling guilty about alcohol use
- Drinking in the morning to “treat” hangovers
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption decreases or ceases
How Is Alcohol Addiction Treated?
There’s no denying that alcohol is a highly addictive substance that can cause a number of problems. The good news is that alcoholism is a treatable condition.
Here at Soba Recovery, we treat addiction through the following steps:
- Detoxification allows our dedicated team to help you rid your body of alcohol in a safe, non-judgemental, effective environment.
- Residential inpatient. This core treatment program allows individuals to stay at our on-site location for 30 days so they can receive the counseling and behavioral therapy they need to effectively overcome substance abuse.
- Partial hospitalization, or part-time day treatment, is a step-down level of care after or instead of inpatient treatment. Like inpatient treatment, this service includes counseling and behavioral therapy.
- Intensive outpatient acts as a continued treatment to help our clients obtain and maintain long-term recovery. These treatment sessions can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. You can schedule intensive outpatient sessions at various times depending on your specific needs.
- Outpatient is designed to help those who have completed an inpatient or intensive outpatient program continue their recovery.
- Sober living homes in Texas and Arizona offer you accountability and a safe and sober environment where you can fully recover.
- Aftercare is specifically designed to meet your needs. Through our aftercare program, we can provide you with counseling to support you as you return to work or school and reconnect with your friends and family.
Contact Us To Obtain The Sober Life Of Your Dreams
Alcohol is a highly addictive substance that can be difficult to overcome. Fortunately, our team here at Soba Recovery has more than 30 years of combined experience treating addiction. Our holistic recovery programs can help you obtain the sobriety you’ve been dreaming of and waiting for. Contact a member of our team today to learn more about how we can help you regain your freedom.