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Is Alcohol Classified as a Drug?

Yes, alcohol is a drug. It’s classified as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Although drinking alcohol can feel good, take the emotional “edge” off, and help you feel confident in social situations, it works as a depressant.

Alcohol increases the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. 

Depressing the CNS causes:

  • Slowed brain functioning
  • Reduce neural activity
  • Inhibited function of various vital bodily functions

Why is Alcohol so Addictive?

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol is the most commonly used substance in the United States. Approximately 17.6 million people have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).1

People can be both physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol. Despite it being a depressant, drinking alcohol triggers endorphins and dopamine, creating pleasurable feelings. This causes people to turn to alcohol when they are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, and more.

Additionally, genetic factors influence a person’s likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder. People with parents and/or other relatives who are addicted to alcohol have a higher risk of addiction.

Alcohol is legal for adults to consume. When done in moderation, it’s safe for most people to consume. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s safe for everyone to drink every amount. 

People assume that because it is legal and easy to acquire that alcohol does not damage the brain, but this is not true. When the brain’s pleasure centers are overloaded from regular alcohol consumption, cravings develop and it becomes more and more difficult to resist.

Ongoing consumption of higher-than-recommended amounts of alcohol ruins a person’s ability to make responsible decisions about drinking. It impacts their impulse control and makes it so their bodies need more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects.

Additionally, drinking alcohol becomes a learned behavior. People use it as a coping mechanism to ease difficult emotions. Drinking can quickly develop into a habit.

The risk of physical and psychological dependence makes alcohol highly addictive.

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Does Alcohol Use Lead to Addiction?

Yes. Misusing alcohol increases a person’s risk of developing alcohol addiction. 

The brain releases dopamine, a chemical that triggers positive feelings when someone drinks. Alcohol consumption also affects serotonin levels, which impacts mood and quality of sleep. As time goes on, you’ll need to keep drinking more and more to achieve the same positive feelings. 

Heavy drinkers also tend to drink more frequently to prevent withdrawal symptoms. 

Alcohol misuse creates a cycle of drinking more often in greater and greater amounts to achieve the same effect. Over time, a heavy drinker’s mood, energy, interests, social life, sleep patterns, and overall health are all affected by their drinking.

Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse & Addiction 

Common symptoms of alcohol misuse and addiction include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Impaired thinking
  • Failing to quit drinking even with a desire to do so
  • Impaired memory
  • Neglecting work, school, and social responsibilities
  • Engaging in risky behavior while drinking
  • Keeping secrets from loved ones about alcohol use
  • Denying the extent of alcohol use
  • Feeling stressed or frantic when alcohol is inaccessible
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Developing tolerance for alcohol so more is needed to achieve the same effect
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol when not drinking 

Who is More Susceptible to Alcohol Addiction?

Some people are more susceptible to developing alcohol addiction. This includes:

  • People with a family history of alcohol use. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about half of a person’s risk of developing alcoholism is linked to genetics.2
  • People who drink early in life
  • People who drink frequently and/or binge drink
  • People with mental health problems. Some turn to alcohol to self-medicate diagnosed and undiagnosed medical issues.
  • People with a history of trauma
  • People who have had social exposure to drinking. This includes being part of a family that embraces alcohol consumption, growing up in a home with someone who has a drinking addiction, and peer pressure.
  • Males are more likely to develop an addiction than women

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How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Consuming alcohol affects the body in short- and long-term ways.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol include:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Balance issues
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Distorted perception
  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Sedation
  • Lack of judgment
  • Talkativeness
  • Overconfidence
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Mood improvement
  • Euphoria

Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of alcohol include damage to the:

  • Liver, including fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis
  • Pancreas, including inflammation that eventually develops into pancreatitis, as well hypo- and hyperglycemia
  • Immune system, increasing someone’s risk of developing pneumonia and other health problems
  • Cardiovascular system, including cardiomyopathy, high blood pressure, and increased stroke risk
  • Digestive system, including GI damage that makes it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. Heavy alcohol users also have a higher risk of ulcers and hemorrhoids.

Mental Health Disorders Associated With Alcohol 

According to a study conducted at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine, Cincinnati Veterans' Affairs Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, alcohol use causes signs and symptoms of:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Antisocial behavior

These symptoms arise during intoxication and during withdrawal. At times, these symptoms and signs cluster, last for weeks, and mimic frank psychiatric disorders (i.e., are alcohol–induced syndromes).

However, researchers warn that prematurely labeling these conditions can lead to misdiagnosis and inattention to the patient's primary problem related to alcohol use or dependence. There are many diagnostic difficulties associated with alcoholism’s comorbidities and other psychiatric disorders.3

Risks & Dangers of Heavy Alcohol Use

Risks and dangers of heavy drinking include:

Alcohol Intoxication 

Symptoms include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Toxicity
  • Irregular breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Respiratory depression
  • Clammy skin
  • Blue-tinged skin
  • Death

Chronic, long-term heavy drinking puts people at risk of:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty learning
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Liver disease, fatty liver, and liver fibrosis
  • High blood pressure and stroke
  • Throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal, or esophageal cancer
  • Nutrient deficiencies

Deadly Overdose

It is possible to overdose on alcohol. An overdose occurs when too much alcohol accumulates in the bloodstream and affects life-supporting bodily functions. 

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include:

  • Difficulty maintaining consciousness
  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Seizure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Dulled response
  • Lack of gag reflex
  • Low body temperature

Alcohol overdose puts a person at risk of coma and death. 

Alcohol Withdrawal

Chronic, heavy use of alcohol leads to someone experiencing alcohol withdrawal. This is a potentially fatal condition that requires medical attention. 

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Shaking
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)

DTs are the most serious withdrawal symptom. The condition occurs when the brain is unable to rebalance its chemistry when someone stops drinking. In addition to shaking, DTs cause heart rate and blood pressure changes that put someone at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

How to Get Help for an Alcohol Problem

If you or a loved one needs help with an alcohol problem, it’s best to consult a primary care doctor. He or she is a good source of information about treatment options and medication. They can evaluate your drinking patterns, help you create an initial treatment plan, and evaluate your overall health.

After this initial evaluation, you can seek treatment from a program that offers specifically what you need. 

Treatment programs should be tailored to your specific needs and expectations. Additionally, treatment should include an aftercare program to help you reduce your risk of relapse and deal with relapse if and when it occurs. 

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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