Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Roughly one out of 12 adults suffer from alcohol dependence and just about 10 people die every hour from alcohol-related causes. There are something like 17.5 million adult alcoholics worldwide.  By learning about why some people become alcoholics, what causes addiction and why people become addicted, this number can be made smaller.  Firstly, an alcoholic is someone who suffers from alcoholism.  Alcoholism is the addiction and loss of control regarding alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is classified as a drug, but why is it addictive?  It actually has to do with the chemical reactions in the brain that alcohol causes.  The release of gamma aminobutyric acid, otherwise known as GABA, causes a calming feeling that is often associated with difficulty walking, talking and remembering things.  As a response to the release of GABA, the body creates glutamate, an excitatory transmitter, to counter balance it. This cycle causes built-up alcohol tolerance, whereupon once regular drinkers then start to consume more alcohol for the calming effect they are seeking.

Additionally, alcohol causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.  Over time alcohol abuse degrades dopamine transmitters and receptors, causing a decrease in the dopamine released.  One may drink more to try to get the same effects as before the alcohol abuse began.  Some people are more susceptible to alcoholism, after all not everybody that tastes alcohol becomes addicted to it, but there are some potential risk factors that make addiction more likely.

Although alcohol causes the release of endorphins, hormones that elevate mood, it has been shown that heavy drinkers generally release more endorphins than lighter drinkers, causing some scientists to believe that people who naturally release more endorphins may find more pleasure in drinking and become addicted to it.  There is also evidence to prove that damage to the lateral habenula, a part of the brain that processes negative events and disappointment, can cause someone to keep drinking alcohol despite bad hangovers or negative events that arise out of drinking.  Psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, increase the likelihood of addiction, as many as 20 percent of people living with depression are also alcoholics

It has long been debated whether or not genetic factors play a role in addiction, but environmental factors are also likely to foster addiction.  If it is common to drink in a household, then it is more likely that people in the household will become dependent on alcohol.  A high-stress career field can make one vulnerable to alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism. Age has to do with the likelihood of addiction as well. Those in their early to mid-20s are the most likely to abuse alcohol while those who drink as adolescents, specifically those under 15 years old, are significantly more likely to develop alcoholism.

While certain factors can cause alcohol addiction, it is important to look at why people drink in the first place. One significant reason is the sensation alcohol can cause in the brain and body. Some begin to drink out of curiosity to see what it is like, while others find themselves giving in to peer pressure.  People drink seeking a feeling of freedom or for self-exploration, and this may be linked to underage drinking during puberty. Some start to drink as a form of stress relief.  There are some personality traits associated with drinkers and possible alcoholics such as aggression, anxiety, rebelliousness, and hyperactivity.

Most of all, compared to other drugs, alcohol is accessible and has been normalized through media and culture.  While drinking may represent a form of escape, there are certainly better ways to cope with situations or have fun that do not potentially cause a lifetime of addiction and damage.  Remaining aware to the fact that alcohol is indeed a drug which can be abused and lead to dependence or addiction is a step to living a higher quality, more healthy lifestyle.