Alcohol has a rich and varied history that spans centuries and cultures, serving numerous roles throughout human civilization. While it’s been used for celebratory purposes, relaxation, and socialization, alcohol has a dark side that’s often hidden by its apparent “harmlessness.” Why is alcohol addictive? What are the signs and symptoms of alcoholism? Is alcohol a drug? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that is found in various forms across the world. While it has a long history of use, its effects on the body and mind have made it a subject of both fascination and concern.
Alcohol comes in various forms, the most common being ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages. These beverages can be broadly categorized into three main types:
- Beer: Typically lower in alcohol content, beer is made through the fermentation of barley, wheat, or other grains
- Wine: Made by fermenting grapes, wine has a higher alcohol content than beer and comes in various varieties, including red, white, and sparkling
- Spirits: These include hard liquor such as vodka, whiskey, rum, and gin, and they have the highest alcohol content of all alcoholic beverages
Alcohol is widely consumed in the United States. Most American adults consume alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Among them, 6.7% will develop alcohol use disorder (AUD). In 2020, 55.8% of adults aged 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol in the past month, with 23.0% engaging in binge drinking and 5.8% reporting heavy alcohol use. These statistics reveal the widespread prevalence of alcohol consumption in the country.
Is Alcohol Addictive?
The short answer is yes, alcohol is addictive. It’s not just the intoxicating effects and social appeal that make it addictive. Alcohol can create physical and psychological dependencies. So, if you’re also wondering, “is alcohol a drug?”— the answer to that is yes as well.
Alcohol works as a depressant, slowing down brain activity and inhibiting certain neurotransmitters. This leads to the relaxing and sedative effects that many people find appealing. Casual drinking can quickly turn into alcoholism under certain circumstances. Social acceptance can mask an alcohol problem for a while. In the early stages of alcohol abuse, you may be able to hide excessive drinking from loved ones, friends, and coworkers, but it becomes harder and harder to hide the problem.
Prolonged alcohol use can result in the development of tolerance. This is when the body adapts to the presence of alcohol and requires more to achieve the same effects. This is the first step toward alcohol addiction or dependence.
With prolonged, heavy alcohol abuse, the body can become physically dependent on alcohol. When you’re physically dependent on alcohol and you suddenly stop drinking, you can experience withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, nausea, and seizures. These symptoms are a clear sign of addiction.
Apart from the physical aspect, alcohol can also create a psychological dependence. People may turn to alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, or other emotional challenges. This reliance on alcohol to manage emotions is another indicator of addiction.
Getting to the point of addiction is a complex process that involves physical and psychological factors. On a purely physical level, alcohol is addictive because of the way it changes your brain. Alcohol and other addictive substances affect your brain’s reward center. This is the part of the brain that helps ensure your survival.
The combination of physical and psychological dependence, along with tolerance, is why alcohol is addictive and poses a significant risk to those who misuse it.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction is crucial to getting help for oneself or a loved one. These signs can manifest in various ways, including physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Physical Signs of Alcohol Addiction
- Increased tolerance: needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effects
- Withdrawal symptoms: experiencing tremors, nausea, or anxiety when not drinking
- Neglecting responsibilities: failing to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home due to alcohol use.
Emotional Signs of Alcohol Addiction
- Mood swings: frequent and unpredictable changes in mood, from euphoria to depression
- Depression and anxiety: alcohol can exacerbate or even trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety
Behavioral Signs of Alcohol Addiction
- Loss of control: being unable to stop or control alcohol consumption
- Neglecting hobbies and interests: abandoning once-enjoyed activities in favor of drinking
- Secretive behavior: hiding the extent of alcohol use or drinking in secret
- Relationship issues: strained relationships with family, friends, and colleagues due to alcohol-related behaviors
- Legal problems: getting into legal trouble as a result of alcohol-related incidents like DUIs.
Get the help you need to begin your journey to recovery.
What is Alcohol Treatment Like?
The type of treatment for alcohol addiction depends on factors like:
- How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
- How much alcohol you’ve been drinking
- If you’re abusing drugs as well
- If you have co-occurring disorders like medical conditions or mental illness
- Your support system
Some people do best in an inpatient treatment program. In this case, you live at an addiction treatment center, attend programming during the day, and participate in recovery activities in the evenings. This provides 24/7 recovery support and distance from triggers to drink.
Other people begin recovery in an outpatient program. Outpatient programming includes:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) – Attend full days of treatment, but you do not live at the treatment center
- Intensive outpatient program (IOP) – Attend at least 10 hours of treatment per week
- Outpatient program – Attend around one to three hours of treatment every week
- Many people choose to live in a sober living residence with other people in recovery while attending outpatient treatment. This setting can be more supportive to sobriety than living at home.
Medically Assisted Alcohol Detox
Whether you start with a residential program or outpatient program, you should never try to stop heavy drinking without medical help. Alcohol withdrawal can be painful and dangerous for people with a dependency and addiction. In severe cases, people have died during alcohol withdrawal.
Medical detox from alcohol involves staying at a treatment center throughout alcohol withdrawal. You receive 24/7 care from medical staff who monitor your vital signs and attend to any medical emergencies. You’re also provided medications to ease symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so you’re as comfortable as possible.
Behavioral Therapies and Relapse Prevention
After you detox from alcohol, you need to discover the reasons why you use alcohol so you can learn to cope with challenges without substance abuse. Treating alcohol addiction with evidence-based and holistic therapies and building a sober support system are key components of alcohol rehab.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment at Aliya Health Group
You or your loved one didn’t choose to become an alcoholic, but it’s important to know alcohol addiction doesn’t improve on its own. Choosing to enter an alcohol rehab center is a courageous step. Aliya Health Group is here to provide support.
We offer evidence-based alcoholism treatment programs that are customized to your unique needs. Our comprehensive care continuum includes:
- Alcohol detox
- Drug detox
- Inpatient rehab
- Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
- Outpatient treatment
- Sober-living residences
Common components of an addiction treatment program include:
- Individual, group, and family therapy
- Mental health treatment for dual diagnosis/co-occurring disorders
- Therapeutic models like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Trauma-focused therapies like EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)
- Holistic therapies like yoga, art therapy, and music therapy
- Introduction to support groups like 12-step groups or SMART Recovery groups
- Aftercare recovery resources
Alcohol addiction is a treatable condition, and there are various approaches to help individuals on their path to recovery, and Aliya Health Group is here to help you every step of the way.