Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol use is common in America, with a little more than half the population reporting use. Unfortunately problem drinking is also common. Of people who report drinking, around 25 percent drink too much at one sitting and 7 percent drink too much five or more days in a month.1

Unchecked drinking is a serious issue. Dangerous drinking patterns quickly develop into alcoholism, characterized by compulsive drinking that includes a person’s inability to stop drinking once he starts.

Alcohol and Modern Life

Alcohol is one of the few addictive substances legal within the United States. That legality persists partly because of the positive health effects attributed to moderate alcohol consumption. Unlike other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, alcohol triggers some positive changes within the human body, when consumed at low levels.

For example, in a study of 51,529 health professionals followed for two years, researchers found alcohol intake was protective against heart disease, even when researchers adjusted the results to account for dietary and lifestyle changes. Other studies suggest alcohol use protects against specific types of memory loss.2

Alcohol Use and Abuse

Silhouette of man drinking from bottleModerate consumption of alcohol is commonly defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. People who limit drinking in this way, without feeling compelled to drink more alcohol, aren’t considered problem drinkers. However, some people drink large amounts of alcohol each and every time they drink. These binge drinkers may drink in order to get drunk, and by drinking large amounts in a hurry, they flood their bodies with alcohol and stop drinking only when they’re physically unable to drink more. People who binge drink, however, might not be considered alcoholics. It’s a fine line, but it’s also an important distinction. People who binge drink may not have a physical dependence on alcohol, and they may not drink every day.3

People who have an addiction to alcohol have an identifiable disease with four major symptoms, including:

  • A craving for alcohol
  • An inability to stop drinking, once drinking begins
  • A tolerance for the effects of alcohol
  • Physical discomfort, or withdrawal, when not drinking

There is no laboratory test that can help medical professionals diagnose alcoholism. People with the disease may not fail blood-screening tests, and they might not even have poor physical exams. Instead, doctors rely on questionnaires to help them identify people who need addiction care. Physicians often use a CAGE questionnaire, which asks patients if they’ve tried to cut down on alcohol intake, feel annoyed by criticism, feel guilty about alcohol and need an eye-opener drink in the morning. Those who answer yes to the questions need further screening for alcoholism.4

Additionally, people with alcoholism often respond positively to the question, “Have you ever had a drinking problem?” This indicates people with alcoholism know, deep down inside, they have a problem with drinking. They may be unable to solve the problem on their own, but they do know that the problem exists. When alcoholics admit they have a problem, it’s easier to begin healing.5

Developing Addictions

Not everyone who drinks alcohol develops alcoholism, but those who do might share common risk factors. For example, people with alcoholic parents are at a high risk of developing their own alcohol-addiction issues. In fact, about 50 percent to 60 percent of people who have alcoholic parents will develop alcoholism as well. Research suggests there are some specific genes involved in processing alcohol, and those with a specific type of gene experience more pleasure from alcohol and develop addictions as a result.6

Similarly, research suggests people with mental illnesses are at a higher risk for developing alcoholism. This link is particularly strong in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder; up to three-quarters of people who survive abuse or trauma develop drinking problems. Similarly, people who have depression, insomnia, anxiety or other underlying mental disorders might rely on alcohol.7

Dealing With Alcoholism

Around 70 percent of people who develop alcoholism have one episode that lasts, on average, about three or four years. Some of these people are able to stop drinking on their own, through certain self-management techniques, but others need to access formal addiction treatment to move forward with their lives. Alcoholism is typically treated with the following therapies:

  • Medication management
  • Support group assistance

This care is available on an outpatient basis, for people who have stable homes and strong support groups, or in inpatient facilities that provide around-the-clock care.8

Looking for Alcoholism Treatment?

The Oaks at La Paloma offers evidence-based addiction treatment services. We personalize care, ensuring that you’ll get the right treatments at the right time to treat your alcohol addiction. If you or someone you know is in need of treatment, contact The Oaks at La Paloma at our toll-free number. Our admissions coordinators take calls 24 hours a day and answer any questions you have about the treatment process, financing and logistics.

1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51. 2016. Accessed 26 June 2017.

2 Rimm, E.B., et.al. “Prospective study of alcohol consumption and risk of coronary disease in men.” Lancet.  Vol. 338, No. 8765, pp. 464-468, 1 Aug. 1991. Accessed 26 June 2017.

3Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed 26 June 2017.

4 O’Brien, C.P. “The CAGE Questionnaire for Detection of Alcoholism.” JAMA. Vol. 300, No. 17, pp. 2054-2056, 2008. Accessed 26 June 2017.

5 Cyr, M.G. and Wartman, S.A. “The Effectiveness of Routine Screening Questions in the Detection of Alcoholism.” JAMA. Vol. 259, No. 1, pp. 51-54, 1 Jan. 1988. Accessed 26 June 2017.

6 Dick, Danielle M. and Bierut, Laura J. “The genetics of alcohol dependence.” Current Psychiatry Reports. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 151-157, March 2006. Accessed 26 June 2017.

7PTSD and Problems with Alcohol Use.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 13 Aug. 2015. Accessed 26 June 2017.

8Alcohol Use Disorder.” NIAAA. Accessed 26 June 2017.