Most adults can drink alcohol in moderation without experiencing lasting negative effects. Excess consumption, however, can lead to intoxication and abuse. Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a serious problem that can cause lasting damage to a person’s health, mental stability and relationships.
What is Alcohol?
Ethanol, or grain alcohol, is a component of many legal and widely available beverages. Like many mood-altering substances, ethanol increases levels of various neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain, causing elevated sense of well-being and impaired judgment and reflexes.
The Biology of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol intoxication causes a temporary shift in brain chemistry that slows the reflexes with a mild depressive effect. Alcohol affects the brain specifically by causing brain tissue to contract, interfering with nerve cell communication–this interference can cause sluggish behavior. Alcohol also depresses the central nervous system and destroys brain cells. Drinking excessively over a long period of time can cause serious problems with memory and cognition.
Alcohol Addiction Risk Factors
Several genetic and environmental factors link alcohol and addiction, and may increase the likelihood that an otherwise typical drinker may become dependent. These include:
- Age: Alcoholics often start drinking early in life.
- Family history: Alcoholics often grow up with parents who abused alcohol.
- Mental health: Certain existing mental health problems increase the likelihood of alcohol addiction.
- Sex: Men are slightly more susceptible than women.
- Social and economic circumstances: Alcoholics often consume excessive alcohol in order to cope with stress or manage social interactions.
Alcohol Addiction Warning Signs
How can you recognize an unhealthy dependence on alcohol in yourself or someone you know? Some signs in another person may include frequent intoxication, irritability when questioned about his habits, and a tendency to forget commitments made or conversations had while drinking.
If you feel that you may be dependent or are developing an addiction to alcohol, ask yourself the following questions. Do you:
- Drink alone or at odd times of the day, such as early in the morning?
- Experience sweating, shaking or nausea when you don’t drink?
- Find it difficult to turn down opportunities to drink, or to stop drinking once you’ve started?
- Hide or lie about your drinking?
If you can answer “yes” to one or more of the above, it may be time to consider alcohol addiction treatment.
Alcohol Addiction Treatments
While there is no existing cure for alcoholism, alcohol abuse can be managed successfully.
After seeking help, the first step of treatment involves overcoming the initial stages of withdrawal. The second step involves behavior modification and the avoidance of behavioral triggers in order to prevent relapse.
How to Seek Help
Talk to your doctor if you suspect that you’ve developed an addiction to alcohol or you’re finding it difficult to control your drinking habits. In addition to your doctor or mental health professional, the following organizations can provide the support and information you need:
- Alcoholics Anonymous – http://www.aa.org/
- The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence – http://www.ncadd.org
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Alcoholism. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcoholism/DS00340
MedlinePlus. (2010). Alcoholism. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/alcoholism.html
Ringold, S. (2006). Alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Journal of The American Medical Association. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcoholism/DS00340