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How Does Alcohol Become Addictive?

Alcohol addiction is a chronic condition, and it’s progressive, worsening over time without treatment. Also known as alcohol use disorder, it’s characterized by not being able to control your drinking even when it’s negatively affecting your physical health, mental well-being, relationships, and quality of life. If you’re struggling with alcohol, you might find that you’re prioritizing drinking over other responsibilities and interests in your life. You could feel like the urge to drink is compulsive. How alcohol becomes addictive relates to its effects on your brain and neural pathways, which is a vital part of why addiction is classified as a chronic disease. Whether you’re personally struggling with your alcohol use or you have a loved one who is, it’s critical to approach the situation with compassion and empathy, as is valid with any health condition.

What Influences the Development of Alcohol Addiction

Developing an alcohol addiction can be influenced by a combination of psychological, social, genetic, and environmental factors. Prolonged drinking can lead to the development of tolerance. You may find that, over time, you are drinking more to get the desired effects. Physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms can also occur when you cut back or stop drinking.

Alcohol’s Physical and Mental Effects

Alcohol initially affects your brain and body by acting on the central nervous system. It can eventually change neurotransmitter activity, disrupting your brain’s normal function. The following is what happens when you drink:
  • Alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing your brain’s activity. Neurotransmitters, including glutamate and GABA, regulate your behavior, mood, and cognition. Alcohol enhances GABA’s effects, creating feelings of relaxation and sedation. Other short-term effects include problems with memory, coordination, and reflexes.
  • Drinking activates your brain’s reward pathway, producing dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reinforcement of behaviors. Activating your reward system will reinforce your desire to drink again, contributing to addiction.
  • When alcohol enters your bloodstream, it affects organs and systems, including your liver, pancreas, and heart. Consuming alcohol can lead to immediate physical effects, including increased heart rate and flushed skin. It also decreases judgment and inhibition.
Broadly, even in the short term, alcohol’s effect can change your mood and cognitive function and decrease coordination. Over the long term, it can lead to addiction, dependence, and tolerance, and health consequences like neurological damage, cardiovascular issues, and liver disease.

How Does Alcohol Addiction Develop?

The process that leads to alcohol addiction can be complex. The stages that often occur in the development of an addiction include:
  • Initial exposure: Developing an alcohol addiction usually starts with experimentation or social drinking. People may drink initially because of curiosity, peer pressure, or feeling more social. Addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction at this stage, and some people drink moderately without developing problematic patterns of use.
  • Positive reinforcement and regular use: Continued alcohol exposure can lead to more regular drinking. This is often when the positive reinforcement elements of alcohol become relevant. The brain’s reward system stimulates, leading to euphoric or pleasurable feelings. The reinforcement then makes a stronger association between alcohol consumption and positive experiences. These effects raise the likelihood of someone again drinking in similar circumstances.
  • Tolerance: As your body adapts to alcohol’s presence, tolerance can develop. Tolerance is when you need to drink more alcohol to get the desired effects. You could find yourself drinking more or more often to experience the same intoxication levels. One of the hallmark addiction characteristics is tolerance. It indicates brain function changes.
  • Dependence and withdrawal: Heavy, prolonged alcohol use contributes to dependence. The body gets used to alcohol, requiring it to function in a way that feels normal. If you stop drinking or suddenly cut back significantly, you might have withdrawal symptoms. These can vary from mild discomfort to severe complications, including seizures. Dependence reinforces the addiction cycle, as someone may keep drinking to avoid the withdrawal symptoms.
  • Loss of control: As an addiction progresses, a person will lose control over how and when they consume alcohol. They might be completely aware of the negative consequences alcohol is having on their finances, relationships, and health, but they can’t stop or control it. There’s a preoccupation with alcohol overriding other priorities and responsibilities.
  • Chronic addiction: The later stages of alcohol addiction are chronic, and the central focus of an affected person’s life is drinking. It overshadows other things entirely. Without effective interventions and support, addiction, once in the chronic stage, leads to severe physical and mental health complications as well as social isolation.
Alcohol is ultimately addictive because it can hijack your brain’s circuits, controlling reward and pleasure. It then changes the activity of neurotransmitters and the brain pathways associated with self-control, reinforcement, and motivation. Genetics, environmental influences, co-occurring mental health disorders and trauma can all contribute to both the development and progression of alcohol addiction.

Recognizing the Signs of Problematic Alcohol Use

Early signs of an alcohol addiction vary depending on the person, but there are often indicators shared among most when there are problematic patterns. Warning signs include:
  • Increased tolerance.
  • Behavior changes, like hiding alcohol consumption or being defensive about your drinking.
  • Having a preoccupation with alcohol, like planning when and where you’ll drink.
  • Being intoxicated frequently.
  • Drinking alone or as a way to cope with anxiety, stress, or negative feelings.
  • Neglecting other responsibilities to drink instead.
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable or important to you.
  • Having physical changes related to alcohol use, like gaining or losing weight or a deterioration in physical appearance.
  • Denying or minimizing the extent of your alcohol consumption.
One or even more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean you have an alcohol addiction, or your loved one does. It could, however, suggest problematic drinking behaviors. Early support and intervention can help avoid an escalation in their alcohol use. Reach out to San Diego Detox to learn how we can help if you see warning signs in yourself or someone you love.