Alcohol Addiction: How To Recognise It, Causes and What To Do About It

Alcohol addiction is a relatively common medical condition

Alcohol addiction or alcoholism are not words that we like to be labelled with, especially if that label is being put upon us by someone else.  Over the last 10 years, younger people have been experiencing addictive thinking and behaviour as a result of alcohol abuse.  It used to be the case that it was more often people in their 50s and 60s who sought help; now it is not uncommon for people in their 20s and 30s to be admitted for alcohol rehab treatment.

interior pub cafe bar illustration

Alcohol addiction is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control the drinking of alcohol despite worsening social, occupational or health consequences.  It is classed as a medical condition and like all medical conditions some people will be affected by how they drink  alcohol and some people will not.  Alcohol addiction is just another way of referring to alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence and alcoholism. In very basic terms any individual whose drinking is causing a problem with one or more life areas will probably need help.

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

  • More than once wanting to cut back on drinking or even stop but being unable to
  • When not drinking, thinking about the next drink
  • Drinking more or for longer periods than intended and this happening more frequently
  • Continuing to drink even though it is causing trouble with family and friends
  • Creating excuses as to why we are drinking
  • Denying there is a problem with our drinking
  • Experiencing an alcohol related blackout where we cannot remember the events of the previous evening.
  • Finding that when the effects of alcohol are wearing off there are the effects of withdrawal (even if at low level) such as racing heart, sweats, hallucinations, low depressive mood, physically shaking and particularly tremors in the hands, nausea and dry mouth. Withdrawal can even be dangerous, leading to seizures when we have stopped drinking for up to three days.
  • Having to drink more to get the same effect and in time finding that even drinking more is not producing the effect we wanted.
  • Stopping social activities with family or friends or activities we used to enjoy, in order to drink alcohol
  • Hiding bottles
  • Denying to others we have had a drink when challenged

It is important, in gauging the extent and changing nature of the alcohol problem, that we honestly assess how many of the above statements are now relevant to us personally. We also should compare this with how our drinking was a year ago and recognise and acknowledge any changes.  The problem will move from mild, when we can relate to 2 or 3 of the above statements, to moderate (4 or 5 statements applying), to severe when we have to admit that 6 or more statements are relevant to our own drinking.  We need to be aware that the symptoms will not plateau out but continue to spiral downwards the longer we continue without help. 

Two common beliefs around denying alcohol addiction are “I can’t have a drink problem because I don’t drink spirits” or “I can’t have a drink problem because I don’t drink in the morning.”  It is totally irrelevant what we drink or when we drink alcohol, it is the simple fact that our drinking alcohol is causing a worsening problem due to our denial that needs to be acknowledged.

Effects of alcohol on the brain

Problems with alcohol may well start in the teenage years. It is a medical fact that the brain does not fully develop until around the age of 25 years old. What is less well known is the total long term detrimental impact that alcohol has medically on each individual’s development. Overtime, drinking too much alcohol will change the normal function of the areas of the brain associated with the experience of pleasure, judgement, and the ability to exercise control over our behaviour. Whilst the body will absorb alcohol through the lining of the stomach into the bloodstream, it really makes a major impact on the brain, reaching it in 5 minutes and starting to affect it in 10 minutes. 

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and will affect how it processes information.  After 20 minutes of drinking alcohol, the liver will start to process it and, on average, the liver will only metabolise about 1 ounce of alcohol every hour. To put this into perspective, alcohol takes on average around five and a half hours to leave your system through urine though this varies according to weight, age, sex and metabolism rate. So, alcohol takes a long time to leave our system but usually 1 unit takes I hour to be processed.  Intoxication occurs when alcohol intake exceeds our body’s ability to metabolise and break it down.

Causes of alcohol addiction

Genetics / family history

  • Medical research has shown that there is potential for significant genetic influences or a family history of drinking as the result of addiction

Environmental issues

  • Witnessing heavy drinking in the home environment from a young age which has then normalised this behaviour.
  • Working from home and drinking at home thus pouring out significantly larger measures or drinking larger quantities.
  • Mixing with other heavy drinkers and using the excuse we are all drinking the same amount

Body tolerance to alcohol

This can result in the need to drink more to try and get a “high”. The brain will recognise that we are producing more Dopamine and, as a result, will restrict the amount that is produced. Eventually, however much we drink, we will never get the effect from alcohol that we used to and this will then result in mental health issues such as depression .

For someone who is aged between 20 and 30, it is a very difficult mental concept that they have to consider totally stopping all alcohol consumption. After all, their social life will revolve around alcohol and having a “good time”. This is when there needs to be a hard look at how much fun we are really having, the secret drinking, constant rows with family and friends and how we are feeling every morning.  This is when someone who does not like the word alcoholic or alcohol addiction should just simply break it down: how is alcohol now a problem in my life and how can I get help to solve that problem?

Seeking help for alcohol addiction

We need to speak to someone who understands addiction and really for that there is only one choice and that would be a qualified addictions therapist.  There is very little that your GP can do to help except to refer you to your local underfunded Drug and Alcohol team. 

Turning up at the A and E department of your hospital may result in being admitted for 24 hours to hydrate you but it would be highly unusual for them to offer a medicated detox and give a bed to someone with an addiction (unless they are in a very poor physical state). 

The  option that could be considered is to book a free assessment at a residential alcohol treatment centre such as The Haynes Clinic where all your questions can be answered in confidence. Usually this will be with someone who is in Recovery from alcohol addiction and understands your needs and what is available to you.

As with any addiction, in order to get well we need the help of others. To be receptive to that, we need to accept that we have a problem. We then have to find the humility to ask for that help.