Alcohol addiction occurs when the body becomes addicted to—and dependent on—alcohol. In this sense, it is a physical disease: People who are addicted to alcohol experience many different physical symptoms.
However, alcohol addiction is also a mental disease that can impact people both cognitively and emotionally. Read on for a closer look at the mind-body effects of alcoholism.
Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism
When most people hear the words “withdrawal,” they think of the physical symptoms. Specifically, these include cravings for alcohol; shaking, nausea, and vomiting; tremors; memory lapses (blacking out); and illnesses, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and alcoholic ketoacidosis.
Over longer periods of time, alcohol addiction can lead to even more severe health complications, including gastrointestinal (GI) tract bleeding; high blood pressure; inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis); and nerve damage.
Alcohol and the Brain
While the effect of alcohol on the brain may not be as easy to see or feel, this doesn’t negate their impact. For starters, alcohol damages brain cells and has been linked with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disease with symptoms including confusion, vision changes, and memory loss. Addiction to alcohol can also lead to a number of other life-changing cognitive, emotional, and social consequences—including everything from dementia to depression.
One of the most insidious things about alcohol is not that it impacts the brain, but how it impacts the brain. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco’s Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, published in Science Translational Medicine, drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins—AKA “happy chemicals”—in the brain. Unfortunately, this occurs in the part of the brain associated with decision making and addictive behavior. For many people, this results in the misleading perception that feeling good is a “reward” for the decision of taking a drink—a cycle that, when repeated, leads to addiction.
And it’s not just endorphins, either. A BBC News report also reveals that alcohol triggers the production of dopamine, a chemical that elicits feelings of satisfaction. Not only is alcohol particularly addictive because it’s the most socially acceptable drug, but all of these chemicals complicate the issue by obscuring—at least temporarily—its detrimental impacts. Again, this is one of the things that makes alcoholism so difficult to manage on your own. As a psychological coping mechanism, the problem and “solution” are also found in the same bottle.
Alcohol Addiction: A Cocktail of Causes
Scientists are also quick to point out that chemicals are only part of the addiction equation. A person’s psychological traits—anything from having a nervous disposition to being sensation-seeking—can increase the risk of addiction.
And then there’s genetics. Says BBC News,
“Someone whose parents had a problem with alcohol has a 10-fold chance of having a problem themselves compared to someone whose parents did not have a problem.”
Concludes Raymond F. Anton, MD, director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs at the Medical University of South Carolina in a WebMD Magazine article,
“It is also likely that alcohol dependence is not one disease, but many, with many systems involved. People drink for different reasons, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another.”
In other words, while we are aware of many of the factors that lead to alcohol addiction, there’s no single formula for determining who will become an addict. Nor is there a clear-cut formula for treating alcohol addiction when it occurs, which is what makes treating the individual such a critical part of supporting recovery.
We’re Here to Help
Contact us at Harris House today to learn more about our intensive inpatient, outpatient, and transitional programs, which are designed to help individuals take control of their treatment and recovery by addressing all of the body-mind factors that have resulted in dependency.