Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?
Last Updated: November 2, 2023
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 people in the United States use alcohol each year. Nearly 15 million 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 people using tobacco. Only 8.1 million people are addicted to illegal drugs — close to half as many as those addicted to alcohol.
The Brain and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is ultimately considered a disease of the brain. Because the physical effects of alcohol addiction are chemical changes in the brain, some people fail to realize that it can be considered a disease. It does, however, actually change the structure and function of your brain, ultimately creating the addiction.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain
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 advantageous behaviors 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 reinforces more use, which creates a continuous cycle that ultimately causes addiction.
Tolerance and Dependence
Tolerance and dependence both often accompany addiction. Tolerance occurs when your brain becomes used to the effects of alcohol, making it necessary to use larger and larger amounts to achieve the same effect. This leads to more and more alcohol use, increasing its negative effects on the body and mind.
Dependence occurs when your brain changes its normal function to accommodate the presence of alcohol. When dependence develops, your brain “depends” on alcohol to function normally. When you stop using alcohol after dependence has developed, you will experience withdrawal symptoms until your brain readjusts.
Genetic Factors and Alcohol Addiction
There are several genes found to make someone more likely to develop alcoholism if they drink. While genetics is not the only factor that leads to alcoholism, it does have a lot of influence.
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.
Family History and Alcoholism
Another important consideration is that exposure to alcohol use and alcohol addiction increases a person’s risk of developing 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.
Environmental Factors and Alcohol Addiction
One important factor that can influence the risk of alcohol addiction is your environment. Certain social situations, cultures and environments promote alcohol use and may increase the risk of alcohol addiction occurring.
Certain social situations can increase the frequency and intensity of alcohol use, leading to an increased risk of alcoholism. The most striking example of social factors can be certain college lifestyles, where a drinking culture is present and one’s peers encourage heavy alcohol use. There are, however, many other social situations or cultural practices that can lead someone to drink in ways they wouldn’t otherwise choose to.
Stress and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol provides a sense of numbness and release that make it a powerful (albeit temporary) escape from stress. Someone who struggles to cope with stress or depends on alcohol as a coping mechanism may have environmental factors that increase stress, such as divorce or job loss. These types of situations can drive them to rely on alcohol more heavily and frequently. Stress can be especially impactful in those who have an underlying mental illness.
Psychological Factors and Alcohol Addiction
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.
The Reward System and Alcohol
One key concept in psychiatric well-being is the ability to cope with stress and difficulty. The better 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 of alcohol addiction is often targeted during alcohol rehab, with new coping methods being learned to replace the coping help that alcohol previously provided.
Alcohol and Mental Health
Mental health issues are complex and difficult to treat. Many mental health medications take time to work and act slowly. These factors often lead those with mental illness to seek relief where they can find it. Alcohol offers this relief and can become a desirable means of self-treating for mental health problems. The problem with this is that mental illness increases the risk of addiction by itself. Using alcohol to treat mental illness can significantly increase the risk of alcohol addiction developing.
Physical Factors and Alcohol Addiction
When alcohol addiction or dependence has developed, it creates physical factors that make the person using it want to keep using it or not want to stop.
Alcohol withdrawal is very unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Anyone with an alcohol addiction who has tried to stop drinking will quickly realize that the experience is not fun. This can make it so that the brain is not only in a constant cycle of strengthening the desire to use alcohol but also disincentivizes stopping alcohol use.
Because alcohol activates the reward systems in the brain so strongly, it creates strong, almost irresistible cravings for alcohol. These are especially intense during withdrawal but can continue for months or even years after quitting alcohol. Alcohol cravings can keep someone from stopping alcohol or tempt them to begin using alcohol again after months or years of sobriety.
Am I Addicted to Alcohol?
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 disorder (AUD).
AUD is diagnosed by asking 11 different questions listed in a medical resource called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V)10. Answering “yes” to two to three questions indicates mild symptoms, four to five questions indicates moderate symptoms and six 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.
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.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Since alcohol is so addictive, misuse and 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.
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Drinkaware. “Alcohol withdrawal.” January 6, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed August 2, 2023.
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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 August 2, 2023.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.