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Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

May 29, 2019

Alcohol is one of the most widely abused drugs in the world. Many people understand its dangers, but few understand just what makes it so addictive. Alcohol’s powerful effect on the brain and body are just a few of the reasons this legal drug can be addictive.

Alcohol is seen and used nearly everywhere — at parties, after-work functions, events, and more. And, because of the fact that it’s legal, many people underestimate the dangers of alcohol.

Despite the lax conditions in which alcohol is typically consumed, this substance comes with the risk of abuse and addiction just like any other drug. In fact, an estimated 30 percent of people living in the United States struggle with alcohol abuse.

While many people are aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse and addiction, few people truly understand just what makes alcohol so addictive. Let’s explore a few of the factors that contribute to alcohol’s addictive nature.

How Alcohol Affects The Brain

A primary factor that contributes to alcohol’s addictiveness is how it affects the brain. Alcohol impacts a number of responses in the brain that result in the feel-good sensation this substance is known for.

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To begin, alcohol releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain and is responsible for feelings of pleasure and euphoria. More alcohol means that more dopamine is released, leading some people to consume more of the substance to experience these positive effects.

Alcohol also triggers the release of naturally occurring opioids known as endorphins. Endorphins are also associated with the brain’s reward system. This means that the release of these chemicals can also result in feel-good sensations similar to that of dopamine.

According to a study reported by WebMD, some peoples’ brains may release more endorphins in response to the same amount of alcohol. In cases where individuals release more endorphins, abuse and addiction are more likely to occur.

Mental Changes Caused By Alcohol

Another reason alcohol may be so addictive is the mental changes many people experience while drinking.

Many individuals describe feeling less inhibited and more adventurous or outgoing when under the influence of alcohol. People who are usually shy may feel more open and talkative. In fact, “liquid courage” is a common term used to describe alcohol and the mental effects it can have.

People who drink alcohol may also feel a sense of stress release from the drug. “Happy hour” is a popular pastime among coworkers in which people meet for drinks after work to relieve stress and ease tension. If not careful, someone could become dependent on alcohol as a stress reliever, which could lead to a pattern of regular abuse.

These feelings of relaxation and stress relief are likely due to alcohol being a central nervous system depressant. By slowing down bodily functions, the body can feel more relaxed and at ease. This can be especially attractive to people who work in stressful environments or who do not have healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress.

The Cycle Of Physical And Psychological Dependence On Alcohol

When people regularly drink or participate in binge drinking, a tolerance can be built up to alcohol. This means that more alcohol is needed to experience the same feel-good effects.

By continuing to increase the consumption of alcohol, a person may become physically and psychologically dependent on the drug. Someone who is dependent on alcohol will often feel that they need the substance to function and/or feel “normal.”

Regular abuse as a result of dependence on alcohol can quickly lead to addiction. People who are addicted to alcohol may continue to use the drug despite negative consequences. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not in the system, leading them to continue abusive drinking patterns.

Risk Factors Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

While alcohol is certainly an addictive substance, not everyone who drinks it will become addicted. There are several factors that may contribute to the likelihood of a person developing an addiction to alcohol.

Risk factors of alcohol addiction may include:

  • Genetics — People who have a parent or close relative who suffered from drug or alcohol addiction are much more likely to experience addiction themselves.
  • Chemical Response — As mentioned earlier, the more endorphins and other feel-good chemicals a person’s brain releases in response to alcohol, the more likely he or she is to abuse the drug.
  • Personality Traits — A person’s personality may impact his or her susceptibility to alcohol addiction. For example, a person who is anxious or shy may turn to alcohol to feel more confident. This can result in a cycle of abuse that can eventually lead to addiction.
  • Upbringing — People who are exposed to alcohol abuse and addiction at a young age may be more likely to abuse the drug themselves. Childhood trauma and other unhealthy childhood environments may also contribute to the development of alcohol addiction.

Getting Help For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

If you or a loved one is suffering from an addiction to alcohol, there are several treatment options available. Many people with an alcohol use disorder find success through formal treatment programs.

A formal treatment program will likely include inpatient or residential treatment. This type of treatment provides intensive addiction therapies and daily support to help people overcome alcohol dependence and reclaim their lives in sobriety.

To learn more about what makes alcohol so addictive, contact a treatment specialist today.

WebMD - Why Is Alcohol Addictive? Study Offers Clues

Medical News Today - What causes alcohol addiction? Study investigates

Drinkaware - Alcohol dependence and withdrawal

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