Alcohol might be the most commonly used/abused addictive substance in the US. The good news is that a condition that is so prevalent also receives a lot of attention and research funding. Here at Fairwinds Treatment Center, we’re always learning more about alcohol addiction and new treatments for alcoholism. Today, we’ll explore alcohol use disorder to understand how addiction to alcohol works and what drinking does to the human brain. We’ll begin by clarifying some industry terms (alcoholism, addiction, AUD, dependence) and then dive into the science.
As always, if you have questions beyond this article’s scope, or you’d like to find out more about treatments for alcoholism, contact us. We are here to help.
Forget the Old-School Terms (Alcoholism, Alcohol Dependence & Alcohol Addiction)
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) says dependence is a state in which the brain functions normally when a specific drug is present. Family members recognize alcohol dependency in a loved one when they see apparent withdrawal symptoms like hand tremors, sweating, and nausea a few hours or days after their last drink.
- Alcohol addiction is usually classified as a disease. It’s characterized by a compulsion to drink and the inability to control one’s alcohol intake.
- There was a time when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) separated alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, and alcohol dependence as distinct disorders.
- But psychology is a science, and we’re always learning!
Currently, psychologists lump all these alcohol-related issues together into a single diagnosis: alcohol use disorder.
The New Term: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), symptoms of AUD can range from mild problem drinking to hardcore alcoholism, depending on a person’s behaviors.
- AUD is a medical condition.
- Impaired ability to control/stop alcohol use, despite the consequences.
- As a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe.
- Permanent changes to the brain caused by alcohol perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.
- The good news is that treatment with behavioral therapies, support groups, and medications can help.
Now, let’s think about the changes that happen in the human brain that make alcohol so addictive for some.
What Makes Alcohol Addictive?
Why do people become “alcoholics?” What is it about alcohol that makes some people damage themselves, their lives, and the lives of their families? The short answer is that alcohol changes our brains. Those changes happen both acutely (immediately when we’re drinking) and overtime. The longer and more often someone drinks, the more likely they will suffer from AUD.
While we are under the influence, our frontal lobes — the part of our brain in charge of making decisions and checking our moral compass — go dark. We start making bad choices, or at least very bold ones. We behave in ways our sober selves would not.
Over time, repeat alcohol use causes physical changes in brain chemistry. Our reward and pleasure centers are overloaded when we “get a buzz.” Later, we crave that feeling. In the long run, AUD causes more problems with impulse control and decision-making. So it becomes a downward spiral, and relapse is extremely common.
Let’s not forget there are psychological triggers associated with AUD, too. Stress and grief make relapse more likely. That’s why group / talking treatments are so helpful for people with AUD.
Treatments for Alcoholism/AUD
No matter how severe the disorder or how much chaos alcoholism has wreaked onto you or your family member, treatments almost always help. Per NIAAA, about a third of people who enter treatment programs for alcoholism are symptom-free one year later. Of the remaining people with AUD, while they may relapse, they go on to better lives: drinking less, relapsing less, and making better choices every day.
Common treatments for alcoholism include:
- Behavioral treatments
- Mutual-support groups
- Professional care and specialists
If you’d like to learn more about the various treatments for alcoholism/AUD, get in touch with the team at Fairwinds Treatment Center today. We stay on top of the latest research on alcoholism addiction and treatments, and we are here to help.