Why is Alcohol Addictive?
By The Recovery Village
Editor Abby Doty | Medical Reviewer Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Last Updated: May 16, 2023
Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Alcohol carries a high risk for psychological and physical addiction. It alters the brain’s chemicals, causing you to continuously seek out alcohol.
Alcohol is addictive because of the way that it interacts with the brain. It actually causes chemical changes that make someone want to use alcohol more with each drink, creating a cycle that makes it hard to live without alcohol.
How Addictive Is Alcohol?
Almost 140 million people1 in the United States use alcohol each year. Nearly 15 million2 people in the United States are addicted to alcohol, indicating that over 10% of people who use alcohol are addicted to it. It is by far the most widely used addictive substance. For comparison, tobacco comes in at a distant second, with under 59 million people1 using tobacco. Only 8.1 million people1 are addicted to illegal drugs — close to half as many as those addicted to alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction Symptoms
Alcohol addiction is typically considered present when someone is unable to stop using alcohol, even though it has created negative effects. The medical term for alcohol addiction is alcohol use disorder9 (AUD).
AUD is diagnosed by asking 11 different questions listed in a medical resource called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)10. Answering “yes” to 2–3 questions indicates mild symptoms, 4–5 questions indicates moderate symptoms and 6 or more indicates severe symptoms.
These questions ask if, in the last year, you have:
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
- Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unprotected sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?
AUD can only be diagnosed by a physician qualified to make this diagnosis.
Is Alcohol Psychologically Addictive?
Technically, addiction in the medical sense is purely a chemical change that occurs in the brain. There is, however, a psychological aspect to alcohol addiction. One key concept in psychiatric well-being is the ability to cope3 with stress and difficulty. The better that you can cope, the more mentally healthy you will be. Alcohol can, over time, become a coping mechanism, making it easier to cope with stresses and difficulties.
This method of coping can become a necessary psychological strategy that you use to stay mentally healthy, making it a form of dependence. This psychological component to alcohol addiction is often targeted during alcohol rehab, with new coping methods being learned to replace the coping help that alcohol previously provided.
Is Alcohol Physically Addictive?
Alcohol is considered a drug and is physically addictive, as it causes chemical changes in your brain that make you more and more likely to seek it out and use it again. Every time that alcohol is used, the physical addiction is reinforced.
In addition to addiction, alcohol causes physical dependence, a condition where the brain requires alcohol to function normally. Dependence is what causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms when someone stops drinking.
How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted to Alcohol?
Everyone who develops an alcohol addiction will ultimately have a different journey, and the time it takes to develop an alcohol addiction varies significantly based on multiple different factors. Additionally, many people who develop an alcohol addiction may not realize they are addicted until something suddenly happens that causes them to realize how much they need or want it.
Why Do People Get Addicted to Alcohol?
People get addicted to alcohol because of the chemical effects it has on the brain. People can also become psychologically dependent on alcohol to cope with the difficulties of life. While technically this is not a physical addiction, many experts think of it as a psychological addiction.
Addictive Properties of Alcohol
Alcohol is addictive because of the effect that it has on the brain. When used, alcohol activates receptors in the brain called GABA receptors5. These receptors slow brain activity, causing many of the symptoms that occur with alcohol use.
Alcohol also stimulates the release of chemicals called endorphins12 when used. These chemicals cause the sensation of pleasure. The brain releases these chemicals naturally to reinforce behaviors that are advantageous, like eating food, exercising or having sex. Alcohol releases an artificially high amount of these chemicals, causing a feeling of pleasure that makes the person using alcohol want to use it again. Constant alcohol use continues to reinforce more use, which creates a cycle that ultimately causes addiction.
Alcoholism Risk Factors
- Using 15 or more drinks a week for males or 12 or more drinks a week for females
- Genetic tendency for addiction
- Binge drinking
- Parental alcohol addiction
- Mental health problems
- Participating in a culture that promotes alcohol use
Related Topic: Is Alcoholism Genetic?
What Is the Link Between Genetics and Alcohol Addiction?
There are many different identified genes that increase the risk of alcohol addiction7. Some of the genes with the strongest influence are connected with how your body processes alcohol. Research has found roughly 50%11 of a person’s overall risk for an alcohol use disorder is hereditary.
Another important consideration is that exposure to alcohol use and alcohol addiction increases a person’s risk of developing an alcohol addiction. Someone with parents or close relatives who have an addiction to alcohol may be at an increased risk for alcohol addiction because of this exposure, even if there is no genetic cause of the alcoholism.
Alcohol Addiction Rehab
Alcohol addiction can require professional help to overcome. Treatment for alcohol addiction involves two main components — detox and rehab. Detox is the process of stopping alcohol and getting through withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol detox is one of the most dangerous forms of detox8, and it is very important to get professional help during this process.
Rehab follows detox and involves medical monitoring while learning coping skills and strategies to avoid relapse during individual, group, and family therapy. Rehab treatment at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is personalized to the individual using a full continuum of care, including inpatient, outpatient and aftercare services. Residential rehab patients at our 90-bed facility also have access to a variety of amenities, including:
- A fully-equipped fitness facility
- An indoor basketball half-court
- An outdoor volleyball court
- A game room
- Entertainment lounges
- Outdoor bocce ball and shuffleboard
The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is an accredited, evidence-based alcohol addiction rehab center with a proven record of helping people achieve lasting sobriety in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just 30 minutes from the Philadelphia International Airport. Our expert staff and state-of-the-art facilities have helped many people overcome their alcohol use disorder. We encourage you to reach out to our team to start your own journey to lifelong recovery.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
- National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. “Drug Abuse Statistics.” 2022. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use in the United States.” June 2021. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Taylor, Shelley E. & Stanton, Annette L. “Coping Resources, Coping Processes, and Mental Health.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, November 6, 2006. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Is there a difference between physical d[…]dence and addiction?” January 2018. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Davies, Martin. “The role of GABAA receptors in mediating[…]ntral nervous system.” Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, July 2003. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Mitchell, Jennifer M.; O’Neil, James P., et al. “Alcohol Consumption Induces Endogenous O[…]nd Nucleus Accumbens.” Science Translational Medicine, January 11, 2012. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Edenberg, Howard J. & Foroud, Tatiana. “Genetics and alcoholism.” Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, August 2013. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Drinkaware. “Alcohol withdrawal.” January 6, 2022. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Betwe[…]DSM–IV and DSM–5.” April 2021. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- Verhulst, B.; Neale, M.C.; and Kendler, K.S. “The heritability of alcohol use disorder[…]nd adoption studies.” Psychological Medicine, Cambridge University Press, August 29, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2022.
- University of California, San Francisco. “Clue as to why alcohol is addicting: Sci[…]es brain endorphins.” ScienceDaily, January 12, 2012. Accessed October 25, 2022.