Every year, millions of Americans develop serious, diagnosable problems with alcohol. Widespread use of this socially acceptable substance is a key factor in the existence of such large numbers of affected people. However, the true underlying source of the issue is alcohol’s potential to trigger addictive changes in the human brain. Today, researchers, doctors and public health officials have developed a thorough understanding of how excessive alcohol use can lead to addiction.

Alcohol’s Basic Brain Effects

Any understanding of how alcohol triggers addiction begins with an understanding of how this substance alters basic brain function. Along with the spinal cord, the brain forms the body’s central nervous system. For its ongoing activity, this system depends on the constant back-and-forth transfer of signals between individual nerve cells known as neurons.

In turn, neurons depend on a large group of chemicals — called neurotransmitters — to relay their signals and maintain ongoing communication.[i] One key neurotransmitter, glutamate, increases the amount of communication between neurons. A second chemical, known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA, has the opposite effect and slows down the rate of brain activity.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Even when present in small amounts, alcohol increases the brain’s supply of GABA. As a consequence of this increase, the rate of neuron-to-neuron communication drops. Changes in GABA levels also have another important impact on brain function. Inside an area called the pleasure center, they lead to rising levels of a third neurotransmitter called dopamine.[ii] When dopamine levels rise in this area, the affected person typically experiences an increase in pleasurable feelings.

How Does Addiction Occur?

In a person who drinks in relatively small amounts, alcohol-related changes in brain function are limited in scope and only last for a short time. However, the situation changes for a person who consumes large amounts of alcohol, especially when consumption occurs on a regular basis. In this scenario, the brain can undergo profound alterations in its normal function.

These alterations occur because the brain must adapt to its “new normal” environment to keep going. The key adaptations include an adjustment to the increased presence of GABA, as well as a diminishing response to the elevated levels of dopamine inside the pleasure center.

No matter the type of substance consumed, addiction is marked by certain typical symptoms. These symptoms include rising tolerance to the effects of that substance and the onset of unpleasant (and potentially dangerous) withdrawal symptoms when substance intake falls below accustomed levels.

Alcohol addiction follows this general pattern. Once the brain grows used to a certain level of dopamine in the pleasure center, an addicted person will need to drink more to generate pleasurable feelings. This pattern of increasing intake can easily lead to a complete loss of control over alcohol consumption.

In addition, once the brain grows used to a certain level of GABA, substantial decreases in that level will trigger withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is particularly dangerous for heavy drinkers, who can develop a life-threatening condition called delirium tremens (i.e., the DTs).

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What Level of Alcohol Intake Increases Addiction Risks?

A federal agency called the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) maintains public health guidelines that help drinkers identify patterns of intake that could lead to alcohol addiction[iii] (or harmful, non-addicted alcohol abuse). The average man enters high-risk territory when he regularly or frequently consumes over four standard drinks a day or 14 standard drinks a week. The average woman enters this territory when she regularly or frequently consumes over three standard drinks daily or seven drinks weekly.

The NIAAA reports that roughly 25 percent of all people who qualify as high-risk drinkers currently have diagnosable symptoms of alcohol addiction (i.e., alcoholism) or alcohol abuse. In addition, the agency notes that some drinkers can develop these symptoms even when they consume smaller quantities of alcohol.

The number of times a person drinks heavily has a direct impact on alcoholism and alcohol abuse risks. At the lower end of the scale, roughly 20 percent of all people who imbibe excessively once a month have a real chance of qualifying for an alcohol-related diagnosis. At the high end, roughly half of all people who imbibe excessively twice a week (or more) run the risk of qualifying for such a diagnosis.

How Many People Are Addicted to Alcohol?

Under guidelines established in the early 2010s, alcoholism and alcohol abuse are viewed as aspects of a single diagnosable condition, alcohol use disorder. A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) keeps track of how many Americans suffer from this disorder every year.

The most recent SAMHSA statistics (covering the year 2016) show that roughly 15,000,000 people over the age of 11 are affected.[iv] The highest rate of alcohol use disorder occurs in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. However, the highest overall number of affected people is found among adults over the age of 25.

Alcohol Addiction Is Treatable

Medical science views alcohol addiction as a chronic brain illness. However, this illness is treatable. In fact, doctors can use both medication-based and behavior-based methods to provide relief. Medications currently approved for alcoholism treatment[v] can help affected people do things such as:

  • Deal with the effects of alcohol withdrawal
  • Reduce their alcohol intake (or halt it altogether), and
  • Increase their odds of maintaining abstinence after achieving initial sobriety

Behavioral therapy can help people in treatment:

  • Gain an understanding of their motivations for drinking
  • Recognize the psychological and social triggers that lead to alcohol consumption, and
  • Learn how to develop effective coping mechanisms that limit the impact of psychological and social stresses[vi]

Get Started on the Road to Recovery Today

Whether you’re affected by alcohol addiction or any other substance-related problem, the certified professionals at Transformations Treatment Center can assist you with expert advice and treatment in a supportive environment. Our comprehensive programs help you recover sobriety and establish an enduring pattern of abstinence in the future.

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Alert – Neuroscience: Pathways to Alcohol Dependence
  2. The HAMS Harm Reduction Network: Alcohol and Dopamine
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Rethinking Drinking – What’s “At-Risk” or “Heavy” Drinking
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States – Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment – A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): Alcohol Addiction
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment – A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): Behavioral Therapies
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