Alcoholism is the original addiction. In fact, much of what we know about addiction today—including the underlying causes and mechanisms and even the treatments—is derived from our extensive study of alcoholism. As a disease like other addictions, alcoholism is attributed to functional and structural changes in the brain and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it affects as many as 208 million people worldwide, which constitutes 4.1 percent of the population over the age of 15.
Despite our extensive study of alcoholism and other addictions, we continue to learn more and more about it. As substance abuse has become more widespread today than it’s ever been, it’s important for individuals to have a thorough understanding of alcoholism as well as what puts a person at increased risk of developing alcoholism, how the disease of alcoholism affects various parts of the body, and how alcoholism can be treated. This knowledge is also important because it helps people to determine whether they have a drinking problem, are social drinkers, or who are toeing the line of alcoholism and, consequently, must amend their behaviors in order to prevent the disease.
What is Alcoholism?
Also sometimes referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD) and alcohol dependence syndrome, alcoholism is the broad term used to describe when an individual’s drinking behavior results in a number of problems. According to the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism, an individual is considered an alcoholic when he or she suffers from two or more of the following symptoms, behaviors, and effects:
- Drinks a large amount of alcohol over an extended period of time
- Struggles to control or reduce one’s alcohol consumption
- Spends much of one’s time acquiring and drinking alcohol
- Strongly desires alcohol consistently
- Consumption of alcohol results in not fulfilling responsibilities or obligations
- Alcohol causes problems in one’s social life
- Consumption of alcohol results in health problems
- Alcohol typically leads to risky behavior
- Experiences withdrawal symptoms when consumption of alcohol stops
- Tolerance to alcohol has increased significantly over a period of time.
The Causes of Alcoholism
There are a number of factors that underlie the disease of alcoholism, causing some individuals to become alcoholics while others don’t. It’s important to remember that those who don’t become alcoholics aren’t immune to alcoholism, but rather they must not possess certain predispositions to alcoholism that make some individuals especially susceptible to becoming alcoholics. The main causes or
The main causes or factors of alcoholism are genetic or biological, physiological, and social. Genes are considered an important trigger for alcoholism as studied have repeatedly indicated that individuals in whose family alcoholism has previously occurred become more likely to develop alcoholism themselves though this might simultaneously reinforce social cues as well.
Studies on the children of alcoholics have determined that the children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics than are the children of nonalcoholic parents. Unfortunately, we’ve not yet been able to isolate the specific genes responsible for alcoholism, but research is ongoing and hopes to eventually identify those genes that are likely to be the cause of alcoholism.
Due to the effects that alcohol has on the brain, there are strong indicators that alcoholism also has physiological causes in addition to genetic. In particular, alcohol affects the brain’s reward center, causing surges of dopamine and initiating feelings of pleasure that become reinforced with repetition, or additional drinking, over time.
At a point, the body begins to crave and depend on alcohol as a source of pleasure and a means of avoiding negative feelings. Additionally, social factors can encourage individuals to become alcoholics, especially in instances where peer groups consist of many individuals who drink to excess frequently. Social factors also include any environments in which individuals feel encouraged or pressured to drink alcohol.
Social Drinkers, Alcoholics and Hard Partiers
When it comes to the consumption of alcohol, you might say there are different tiers, or levels, of drinking. Most have heard the expression “social drinker” to refer to a low-risk drinker who consumes alcohol in social settings, but who rarely, if ever, experience the negative consequences that are common of excessive alcohol consumption. Essentially, these individuals needn’t worry about developing alcoholism unless they begin to increase the amount and frequency of their drinking. When a social drinker begins drinking more and more, they soon become a hard partier.
Hard partiers are individuals who may not yet be alcoholics, but who will soon develop alcoholism if they do not curb their consumption. Social drinkers, hard partiers, and alcoholics all lie on the same spectrum of alcohol consumption with social drinkers become on the safe end and alcoholics being on the other end.
Hard partiers lie somewhere in the middle. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a hard partier tends to “binge drink” four or more alcoholic beverages on a single occasion if female, and five or more alcoholic beverages in a sitting if male. Although hard partiers are not addicted themselves, it’s understood that the hard partier is on their way to alcoholism, which is considered to be an inevitability of this type of behavior.
An alcoholic, on the other hand, tends to be more physically, psychologically, and physiologically dependent on alcohol. They tend to see alcohol as a needed escape, either due to depressing or perhaps anger or stress from a workday and feel the need to drink as a means of coping with day-to-day life.
Consequently, alcoholics will often experience withdrawal symptoms during periods in which they go a length of time without drinking, which is something that hard partiers do not yet experience. The behavior of an alcoholic and the outcome of excessive drinking is far more unpredictable than that of hard partiers. However, it’s important to remember that hard partiers will eventually reach the point of alcoholism if they do not control or curb their drinking.
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