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What Makes Alcohol So Addictive?

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People with a substance use disorder, like alcoholism, will likely always be tempted to consume more and, if left unchecked, way too much of it. In 2015, 66.7 million people in the United States reported binge drinking in the past month.

However, despite the potential disasters and embarrassing consequences they face, most alcoholics tend to fight the thought that they can’t control alcohol consumption on their own. They think they can keep it from being harmful to themselves and others.1

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But How Does Your Child Get Addicted To Alcohol?

Perhaps learning more about societal expectations and why alcohol is so addictive can help shed light on why professional resources are, in most cases, absolutely necessary for recovery. Quality treatment can guide those who are caught in social traps and the cycle of addiction find their way back to their “authentic self” and out of harm’s way.

Social Influences

Most adult parties offer some alcoholic beverage options. Wedding receptions typically involve raising a glass of champagne to toast to the new couple’s future. Many people ring in the new year with alcohol. Even dinner parties and dining out oftentimes involve a glass or two, if not a bottle.

Over time, due to the relentless push to drink, people may become convinced that social occasions simply must include drinking. As a result, the cues to drink can become overpowering. And, unfortunately, drinking to excess often follows.2

In addition to being the “perfect accompaniment” for many occasions, alcohol carries with it some specific attributes that serve other purposes at parties. Research suggests that alcohol can numb the mind in such a way that people forget about their usual inhibitions and concerns. A report in Addictive Behavior refers to this phenomenon as “alcohol myopia.” In this state, people are temporarily relieved of anxiety and depression. They may be more social and pleasant to converse with. Alcohol can also make them feel more important or confident. People who have underlying depression issues or social phobias may develop addictions to alcohol as a result of their attempt to self-medicate their undesirable conditions.3

Alcohol Effects on Young People

Chemical Influences

Besides the behavioral changes that alcohol can bring about, alcohol can also cause changes at a chemical level within the body. These internal alterations can also be addictive.

Research suggests that alcohol increases the production of endorphins. These are the brain’s natural painkillers. They are also associated with pleasure and reward. They tend to accumulate within the portions of the brain linked to addictive behaviors.

In essence, alcohol can make the brain tell lies. The brain says there’s an intense amount of pleasure going on when alcohol is consumed. In reality, however, there is no external cause for this response. At the same time, alcohol is turning off portions of the brain that handle other important functions, like impulse control and decision making. Together, this chemical activity can lead to even more drinking.4

An interesting study published in Science Translational Medicine found that people who drink heavily have higher spikes in endorphins compared to people who are not heavy drinkers. This means that alcohol promotes more drinking (and other strange behavior) when consumption is high. The concept of “reinforcement” is important in addiction medicine. High levels of a drug can cause severe damage to various organs in the body. Compulsive use oftentimes ramps up and, with it, more physical harm.5

However, alcohol does have some attributes that can help people stop overuse. This includes:

  • Nausea
  • Lack of muscle control
  • Sedation
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate

So, people may find themselves physically unable to keep drinking. If they can keep from throwing up or nodding off, an extreme chemical reward cue triggered by the alcohol might allow them to keep on drinking. This might lead to a horrific end.6

It should also be noted that alcohol can impact men and women in different ways. Some research suggests that chemical changes may happen easier in women. The addictive effects of alcohol may hit them harder than men.7

Heavy Drinkers’ Response to Alcohol

The release of endorphins in the brain and the compulsion to drink more to recreate that feeling is even more pronounced in those who drink heavily. The more they drink, the more endorphins are released, the happier they feel and the more likely they are to crave alcohol.

When cravings meet physical dependence, binge drinking or alcohol abuse turns into alcohol addiction.

But it may not just be the endorphins.

A study reported by BBC News says that drinking alcohol causes a release of dopamine, another happy chemical, as well. Again, the issue is that drinkers feel good when they drink – the more they drink, the better they feel – and they want to replicate that feeling when they can.

This makes binge drinking especially attractive to those who are functional (e.g., maintain a job, have a family, etc.), but binge drinking can quickly turn into alcohol addiction – or be the cause of an accident that can be dangerous or deadly to the drinker or someone they care about.

Helping Your Child Find Their Way Back

Michael's House Men's Center EntranceEven with all the research related to substance use disorders, finding a way out of alcoholism comes down to making hard choices. But the future can be bright for those who choose wisely.

If your loved one is addicted to alcohol, we’d like to apply our knowledge and skills to help them get better. At Michael’s House, our world-class facility applies evidence-based therapies to develop new and innovative treatment programs to help our patients.

But that doesn’t mean that tried-and-true techniques, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, are thrown out the window. No, we are too pragmatic for that. Anything that can help our patients is up for consideration. And we consider the whole person when customizing a treatment program for each unique individual. We invite you to contact us at 760.548.4032 to speak to an admissions coordinator and find out how your child can receive the help that they need.

"Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2016. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

2Building Your Drink Refusal Skills.” Rethinking Drinking, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

3Alcohol, Violence, and the Alcohol Myopia Model: Preliminary Findings and Implications for Prevention.” Addictive Behavior, Volume 36, Number 10, Pages 1019-1022. October 2011. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

4Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

5Clue as to Why Alcohol Is Addicting: Scientists Show that Drinking Releases Brain Endorphins.” Science News. 12 January 2012. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

6 Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

7Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, September 2016. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.

8Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Web. Accessed 25 July 2017.