Alcoholism is a brain disorder

Alcoholism (aka alcohol dependency) means that a person’s mind and body have become dependent on alcohol. A high tolerance for alcohol, difficulty in noticing when you are intoxicated, and regular alcohol use all increase your risk of developing an addiction to alcohol. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms are almost always a sign of addiction.

Alcoholism means a dependency on alcohol. It is a chronic condition (that is, a long-term or recurrent condition that develops slowly) in which the mind and body become dependent on alcohol.

Alcoholics will drink constantly – and often repeatedly and compulsively – regardless of the harmful effects that their drinking may have on their health or social relations. These may include fights with family and friends, divorce, and either problems or dismissal at work. An alcoholic may drink every day, or their drinking may be periodic and interspaced with long periods of sobriety.

Alcoholism is more common in men than women. About 10–15 per cent of men will suffer from alcoholism at some point in their lives. Alcoholism has also become more common among women in recent years.

The symptoms of alcoholism are difficult to identify

The signs of alcoholism can be challenging to identify, as alcoholism often takes years to develop and the person may not necessarily recognise that their alcohol use is problematic or gradually turning into dependency.

A person suffering from alcoholism may be identifiable by the following signs:

  • Drinking large quantities of alcohol and for longer than intended.
  • Having an increasing tolerance for the effects of alcohol consumption.
  • Being unable to stop drinking alcohol or reduce their consumption.
  • Passing out or suffer from memory blackouts.
  • Being depressed, irritable or have trouble sleeping.
  • Continuing drinking alcohol in spite of its harmful effects.
  • Having e a relapse after quitting alcohol (that is, start drinking again).

Strong alcohol withdrawal symptoms are almost always a sign of alcoholism

When you stop drinking alcohol, it often results in alcohol withdrawal syndrome, aka a hangover. Its symptoms include sweating, a rapid heartbeat (more than 100 beats per minute), hand tremors, nausea and vomiting. Severe symptoms include delusions or epileptic seizures, and medical attention should always be sought as a matter of urgency in such instances.

Hangover symptoms usually begin 4–12 hours after you stop drinking or clearly reduce your alcohol intake, and generally last for 2–7 days. After heavy and long-term alcohol use, symptoms may include anxiety, insomnia and irritability that can last for weeks after you quit drinking.

In rare cases, alcohol withdrawal syndrome may lead to a highly delusional and life-threatening state of intoxication (delirium tremens).

Strong withdrawal symptoms are almost always a sign of incipient or existing alcohol dependence.

Alcoholism puts you at risk of violence, accidents and diseases

Alcoholism increases the risk of violence and the likelihood of accidents. Heavy alcohol consumption also puts you at risk of many diseases, the most common of which are pancreatitis and cirrhosis.

Read more about the harmful effects of alcohol and alcohol-related illnesses.

When should you seek treatment?

Help is at hand if you are unable to stop drinking on your own, or if your attempts to reduce your alcohol consumption repeatedly fail.

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Treating alcoholism – full sobriety is the most effective treatment

Many people who are dependent on alcohol or other intoxicants are unable to quit without professional help. Alcoholism is treated with both therapy and medical care. In order for treatment to succeed, it’s important for the patient to commit to the treatment and rehabilitation plan.

Alcoholism is often triggered by a feeling of helplessness in either your current life situation or in your past. Identifying and understanding this factor plays an important role in recovery.

Habitual binge drinkers often find it almost impossible to adopt a more controlled approach to alcohol consumption without at least 3–6 months of full sobriety. This is because their dependency is being sustained by changes in their central nervous system, and it takes time to correct these functions. Most often, full sobriety is the only effective way to treat alcoholism, and in particular a hereditary susceptibility to alcoholism.

Treatment for alcoholism includes treatment for both health problems and alcohol dependency. When treating alcoholism, it’s a good idea to remember that alcoholism will inevitably have affected not only the alcoholics themselves but also their friends and family.

Recovering from alcoholism – avoid stress and situations associated with alcohol

If you have an alcohol dependency, you should avoid any stimuli or situations that remind you of drinking. In social situations where alcohol is available, it is easier and wiser to remain completely sober or have only one alcoholic beverage. Situations and habits associated with your former alcohol use can be replaced by new hobbies or activities. Stress puts you at a greater risk of drinking alcohol, which is why stress-relieving measures will help you control your alcohol consumption.

If you are dependent on alcohol, you may suffer a relapse even after long periods of sobriety. But if you are committed to making changes and continuing the recovery process, a relapse will not mean going back to the beginning.

Alcoholism is a combination of hereditary and environmental factors

Alcoholism is always a combined result of both genetic and environmental factors.

Hereditary factors increase your risk of alcoholism. That’s why you should be especially careful if your parents suffered from alcoholism, and avoid regular alcohol use or binge drinking. Genes play a particularly important role in alcoholism that begins in adolescence. About half of the risk of developing alcoholism is explained by hereditary factors.

The environmental factors that affect alcoholism include traumatic experiences in early childhood, stress, grief, anxiety or depression.

Many mental disorders increase problem use and the risk of developing alcohol dependency. People may drink alcohol to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, fear and depression, and periodic alcohol use may often be caused by an untreated problem such as severe depression or bipolar disorder. Read more about the alcohol-related symptoms of depression.

How do you prevent alcoholism?

If you are concerned about your own alcohol use, it’s important to avoid drinking on a daily basis. You should also avoid binge drinking or treating anxiety, insomnia, loneliness or depression with alcohol, as alcohol consumption itself increases anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

The earlier you identify an increase in problem use, the more likely it is that you will learn to control your alcohol use and avoid alcoholism.

Duodecim Health Library

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Assess your alcohol dependency

A simple way of assessing your alcohol dependency is to ask yourself four questions:

  • Have you tried to reduce your alcohol consumption and failed to do so?
  • Have your friends and family expressed concern or irritation about your alcohol use?
  • Do you drink alcohol to relieve your hangover?
  • Do you feel guilty about your alcohol use?

If you answered yes to at least two of these questions, you should be concerned.

You can also assess your alcohol dependency using the Short Alcohol Dependence Data (SADD) questionnaire, which will help you determine your level of dependency. Take the test on the AddictionLink website.