Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Exploring Addiction: Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Excessive alcohol consumption continues to be a serious threat to a person’s health. It's just as addictive as drug substances, and its use causes various physical, psychological, social, and financial problems. 

This article explores how drinking alcohol can become problematic, focusing on understanding how physical and psychological addiction to alcohol develops.

The Role of Brain Chemistry in Alcohol Dependency 

Drinking alcohol can trigger a "feel-good" loop in your brain by boosting the release of endorphins—neurotransmitters linked to pleasure and reward. This reaction can create an addictive urge to drink more.1

The brain's reward and stress circuits are responsible for this effect, relying on neurons and neurotransmitters to regulate electrochemical signals. Alcohol interacts with these circuits and can cause long-term changes to brain function that contribute to the development of alcohol addiction.2

Psychological Factors Contributing to Alcohol Addiction

In addition to its physiological effects, a few psychological factors can contribute to alcohol dependency. Stress relief and emotional regulation are the most common factors that make alcohol addictive.

The temporary “high” resulting from alcohol use can provide a sense of relaxation and pleasure, which helps people cope with stressful situations. It can also help them temporarily escape from negative emotions and feelings of low self-worth.

The “habituation” of drinking is also a critical factor in developing alcohol addiction. Repeating the same action until it becomes an automatic response forms habitual behaviors. The more a person drinks, the likelier they are to become dependent on alcohol to manage stress and emotions.

How Does Your Body Get Addicted to Alcohol?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) divides alcohol use disorder into three stages:2

  • Binge/intoxication
  • Negative affect/withdrawal stage
  • Preoccupation/anticipation stage

People experience pleasure upon drinking in the first stage. Their brain registers the sensation, creating a craving for more. Gradually, this craving becomes habitual, resulting in automatic, unthinking repetition.

An increase in tolerance marks the second stage—people drink larger doses of alcohol to experience the same effects. This leads to decreased pleasurable effects and alcohol dependence, as the person needs alcohol to feel normal.

Preoccupation and anticipation of drinking characterize the last stage. It's where psychological alcohol dependence becomes the primary driver of a person's behavior. 

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How Does Alcohol Addiction Impact the Brain?

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol can impede the brain's ability to control the following a few minutes after consumption:3

  • Speech
  • Balance
  • Judgment
  • Memory

On the other hand, chronic alcohol abuse can cause:

  • Neuronal alterations, such as size reduction
  • Severe and lingering brain damage or abnormalities 
  • Nutritional deficiencies, a lack in thiamine (vitamin B1) for example, which is essential for brain health

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Why Is Alcohol So Addictive and How Can We Understand It?
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What is an Alcoholic Brain?

The term “alcoholic brain” describes a group of syndromes that arise from both acute and chronic alcohol use. These syndromes, which include alcohol withdrawal syndrome, have a profound impact on normal brain functioning and include:4,5

  • Acute intoxication
  • Amnesic syndrome
  • Delirium tremens (a fatal form of alcohol withdrawal involving sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes)
  • Dementia
  • Hallucinosis
  • Pathological intoxication
  • Psychotic disorder

What Makes Alcohol Addictive? 

Alcohol has multiple effects on the body and mind that can become addictive.

It activates reward circuits in the brain, leading to a feeling of euphoria, which can be habit-forming. It also interacts with neurotransmitter systems in stress and reward circuits, which can lead to brain function changes over time and contribute to alcoholism. 

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Common Questions on Alcohol Addiction

What Does It Mean to be Physically Addicted to Alcohol?

Physical alcohol addiction occurs when the body becomes dependent on it and requires more alcoholic substances to experience its effects. Alcohol tolerance, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms are all signs of physical addiction.

What are the Types of drinkers? 

The four types of drinkers are as follows:

  1. Social Drinkers – Only drink on social occasions and in moderation
  2. Conformity Drinkers – Drink to fit in with others
  3. Enhancement Drinkers – Drink to increase pleasure from other activities
  4. Coping Drinkers – Drink to relieve stress or emotions7

Is Alcohol More Addictive than Food? 

This question has no definitive answer since both can be addictive depending on the person. Some people may have difficulty controlling their alcohol consumption, while others may emotionally rely on certain types of food.  

Is Alcohol Addiction Genetic? 

Alcohol addiction is 50% heritable, meaning genetics can play a role in the development of alcohol addiction.8 However, other factors, like social environment, mental health, and family history, also contribute to alcohol addiction.

How Bad is Alcohol for Your Body? 

Too much alcohol can cause various physical health problems, including liver and heart disease, cancer, brain damage, and high blood pressure. It can also impair judgment, which increases the risk of injury and death. 

Why is Alcohol Bad for You?

Alcohol can damage the organs, disrupt communication between brain cells, and weaken your immune system. It affects mental health, increases the risk for certain cancers, and can cause addiction. It also increases the risk of injury and death due to impaired judgment.

Does Alcohol Lower IQ? 

Long-term heavy drinking can damage the brain and lead to cognitive decline. It can also interfere with the development of young people's brains, resulting in lowered IQ scores.

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol Every Day? 

Those who drink regularly may develop physical dependence, increased tolerance, and adverse side effects. They can also experience the conditions mentioned above.

Health Risks Associated with Alcohol Addiction

The health risks associated with alcohol abuse are as follows:6

  • Alcohol-induced pseudo-Cushing’s syndrome
  • Mental and behavioral disorders
  • Dependence syndrome
  • Withdrawal state
  • Withdrawal state with delirium
  • Psychotic disorder
  • Amnesic syndrome
  • Residual and late-onset psychotic disorder
  • Other mental and behavioral disorders
  • Unspecified mental and behavioral disorder
  • Degeneration of the nervous system attributed to alcohol
  • Alcoholic polyneuropathy (general degeneration of the peripheral nerves)
  • Alcoholic myopathy (a group of diseases affecting skeletal muscles, metabolism, or channel function)
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (chronic disease of the heart muscle)
  • Alcoholic gastritis (inflammation of the lining of the stomach)
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Alcoholic fatty liver
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Alcoholic fibrosis and sclerosis of the liver
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver
  • Alcoholic hepatic failure
  • Alcoholic liver disease, unspecified
  • Alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis
  • Alcohol-induced chronic pancreatitis
  • Suspected damage to a fetus or newborn from maternal use of alcohol
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (dysmorphic)
  • Accidental poisoning by exposure
  • Intentional self-poisoning by exposure

Alcohol-related conditions, where alcohol consumption is a contributing factor, impact global health more than alcohol-specific conditions. Alcohol consumption mainly affects the following categories of disease and injury:6

  • Cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colorectum, and female breast
  • Cardiovascular diseases like hypertension, atrial fibrillation, reduced and blood supply to the heart
  • Diabetes
  • Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and pneumonia
  • Liver and pancreas diseases like alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic liver cirrhosis, and alcohol-induced acute or chronic pancreatitis
  • Neuropsychiatric disease, including epilepsy
  • Unintentional and intentional injury

Recognizing these health risks can encourage people to take the steps necessary to stop excessive drinking.

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Summary

Alcohol addiction is a serious problem that can have lasting health effects. Knowing why alcohol is addictive, the types of drinkers, and how it affects the body can help people recognize when they may have an issue and take steps to address it.

Alcohol addiction can be genetic, and watching for the signs of abuse is vital. If you think you or someone else may have an issue with alcohol abuse, seek professional help. Knowing the cause and associated risks can help prevent a person from developing physical or mental dependence.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
8 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION.” Office of the Surgeon General, 2016.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022.
  4. Ashkanazi, G. “Alcoholic Brain Syndrome.” Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology, 2011.
  5. Lexicon of alcohol and drug terms.” World Health Organization, n.d.
  6. Rehm, J. “The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2011.
  7. Kuntsche et al. “There are four types of drinker – which one are you?” Nest, 2019.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008. 

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