Alcohol is everywhere. Despite being a highly addictive and dangerous substance, it’s available in grocery stores, restaurants, bars, gas stations, and almost anywhere beverages are sold. One out of every two adults consumes alcohol in the U.S., making it the most widely used drug in the country.
While using substances such as heroin or cocaine is clearly seen as substance abuse, it isn’t as clear with alcohol. With Western cultures glorifying alcohol use in media, the line between alcohol use and abuse is blurred.
How does alcohol addiction develop? Who is more susceptible? How do I know when I have a drinking problem? How can I get help? These questions more often go unanswered in the movies, shows, and music that make alcohol use seem glamorous. The truth is, suffering from alcohol addiction is very real and requires medical help to find freedom.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Spotting the change from normal alcohol use to abuse can be difficult, but it’s crucial to understand alcoholism and get the help you need before heavy drinking takes a lasting toll on your health.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (the DSM-5) outlines its criteria for substance and alcohol use disorders. Meeting at least two of the following qualifies as a substance disorder:
- Using more of the substance or using it for longer than intended
- Having the desire to reduce use or quit entirely but not being able to follow through
- Investing significant time trying to obtain the substance
- Craving the substance
- Finding it hard to fulfill tasks at work, school, or home
- Continuing to use the substance regardless of consistent social problems caused or worsened by substance use
- Reducing social, employment-related, or recreational activities in favor of substance use
- Using substances in dangerous situations
- Using the substance despite obvious physical and psychological complications
- Noticing increasing tolerance marked by increasing amounts of the substance needed to achieve intoxication
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms and using the substance to avoid withdrawal
Effects of Alcohol Addiction
Psychological or Mental Effects
The subtle shift from alcohol use to abuse can be detected using a short series of questions called the CAGE method:
- Do you feel like you need to Cut down your alcohol consumption
- Do you find people who comment on your drinking Annoying?
- Does drinking make you feel Guilty?
- Is drinking the first thing you need when you open your Eyes?
If you can answer “yes” to any of these, you should take a closer and honest look at your drinking habits. If you can answer “yes” to more than one, you are likely forming a dependence on alcohol that is seeping into other aspects of your life.
Chronic alcohol abuse is also associated with an increased risk of depression and even dementia.
While the mental effects are serious, the most dangerous and lethal aspect of alcohol addiction is its physical effects. This is a double-edged sword as heavy use causes serious health complications. Still, quitting cold turkey can also be extremely dangerous. Physical signs of alcohol abuse include:
- Having to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to feel the same effects
- Feeling sick or feverish when you’ve gone without drinking for a period
- Being hospitalized for health complications due to alcohol use
- Risk of cirrhosis of the liver or other serious liver diseases
- High blood pressure
- Ulcers in the stomach
- Colon, mouth, and breast cancer
- Heart disease
- Lowered immune defense
- Risk of stroke
- Fetal alcohol syndrome risk for pregnant women
Alcoholism also has a noticeable effect on otherwise healthy social relationships with friends, family, or coworkers. These can include:
- Day drinking
- Consciously deciding to drink and drive
- Drinking daily
- Feeling a lower interest in other hobbies, obligations, or relationships due to alcohol
- Promising yourself you will stop drinking but failing to follow through
- Difficulty holding down employment
- Increasing domestic issues
- Finding yourself in and out of jail for issues concerning alcohol
Alcohol Addiction Statistics in the U.S.
- In 2021, the NIAAA reported that 995,000 minors in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 17 had engaged in binge drinking within a month of the survey.
- The same study found that 6 million American adults are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- 8% of pregnant women in the U.S. consumed alcohol during pregnancy in 2021.
Alcohol Abuse on the Body
Your brain maintains a very delicate balance of chemicals called neurotransmitters. The nature of addictive substances is that they alter these chemicals to achieve their goal. Whether it’s to dull pain, stimulate activity, or just activate the reward system, it all results from changing the brain’s chemistry.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it reduces neurotransmitter activity in the brain. The brain makes its depressants that it balances with stimulants. Introducing alcohol in small doses or occasionally rarely results in any issues. Still, chronic heavy use will cause your brain to compensate for the increase in outside depressants by stopping the production of natural depressants and increasing stimulant production.
At this point, you will have become dependent on alcohol to maintain that balance. Not drinking will result in an imbalance in the chemicals, causing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The more you drink, the more you must maintain that balance and avoid withdrawal—not to mention achieving the same buzz as before.
While drinking staves off withdrawal symptoms, continued heavy use also negatively affects your health. The degradation of brain tissue and the impact alcohol use has on the liver, kidneys, and heart are the fatal destinations for those that refuse treatment.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
If you or someone you know has an alcohol use disorder, you’re not alone. Clinical treatment is the only way to find true and lasting freedom from addiction safely and comfortably.
The first step in any level of alcohol abuse treatment is detox. Especially if heavy dependence has developed, your body requires alcohol to maintain a chemical balance and function normally. Stopping use cold turkey will leave your brain in a chemical imbalance, leading to severe withdrawal symptoms that can potentially be life-threatening. This is why going through alcohol detox is best done through medical supervision at an accredited detox facility.
During alcohol detox, healthcare professionals can monitor withdrawal symptoms and prescribe medications and treatments to keep you safe and comfortable as your internal chemistry returns to normal over a week. Near the beginning, these symptoms will peak and then mitigate as the week goes on.
Alcohol Inpatient Treatment
Detoxing is ideal for stabilization, but you’ll likely find yourself right back on the bottle without ongoing clinical treatment. You need to identify the motivation and root of your alcoholism if you hope to kick it for good and find lasting freedom.
Once the alcohol is out of your system, you’ll be free to start working on your mindset without the debilitating and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. The next step will be to engage in inpatient treatment, a longer process where you live on campus and participate in regular group and individual therapy sessions to address the root of your addiction.
Alcohol Outpatient Treatment
After inpatient treatment ends, you’ll be able to continue participating in those same therapy sessions, all while living at home and taking on more and more responsibilities from home. Now equipped with the mental skills you need to deal with the stresses and triggers of everyday life. As you transition out of traditional treatment, know that the journey to recovery never truly ends. Relapse is always waiting to strike, so plugging into the recovery community and surrounding yourself with healthy people and situations will steer you toward an alcohol-free life.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Many Daily Drinks Make You an Alcoholic?
The amount of alcohol each person can tolerate is unique to the individual. Your age, weight, gender, genes, and history with alcohol will all determine how much you can drink before developing an alcohol addiction. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) classifies heavy drinking as having at least four daily drinks for men and three for women.
What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking?
As a depressant, alcohol will eventually cause the brain to stop producing depressants to compensate and maintain chemical balance. This is the development of a dependence on alcohol, meaning your brain requires alcohol to function normally. This means stopping use suddenly will lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain. This will result in withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Heart rate increase
- High blood pressure
What Does Alcohol Do to Your Brain?
While the symptoms you experience are dependent on factors such as age, the severity of the alcoholism, general health, genetics, and history of alcoholism. Sustained alcohol abuse can also:
- Damage the tissue in your frontal lobe
- Cause permanent memory loss
- Result in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
- Damage to the cerebellum
Some of these effects can be permanent without immediate help if you’ve been drinking heavily for a long time.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States. (2023) Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use in the United States. (2023) Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-united-states
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Pregnancy in the United States. (2023). Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-and-pregnancy-united-states
Gallup, Inc. Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week. (2012) Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/156770/majority-drink-alcohol-averaging-four-drinks-week.aspx
Wilcox, S. (n.d.). Facts About Alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/alcohol/facts-about-alcohol
Wilcox, S. (n.d.). Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/signs-and-symptoms/signs-and-symptoms