Is Alcoholism Considered a Disease?

In the United States, it is common to find many individuals drinking alcohol in the form of beer, wine, and spirits. 

In a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 55% of Americans aged 18 or older stated having drunk alcohol during the past month. 

Moderate alcohol use among adults can be defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 for women and older people. A “drink” is equivalent to 1.5 oz. of spirits, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer. 

However, like any other substance, alcohol has addictive properties and when abused, can lead to serious health problems like alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD).  

Taking into account the impact of alcohol on both the body and mind, many health authority bodies apply a disease concept to the definition of alcoholism. These health institutions include:

  • American Medical Association (AMA) 
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
  • American Psychiatric Association (APA)
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine 
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

In general, the more common definition of alcoholism held is:

Alcoholism otherwise referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a leading, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Development and manifestations of alcoholism will vary according to these factors. In many cases, alcoholism is progressive and deadly. Symptoms of the disease may be continuous or periodic but those suffering from alcoholism will present with four primary characteristics:

  • Inability to stop drinking or loss of control
  • Preoccupation with the substance alcohol 
  • Substance use despite negative repercussions
  • Distorted thoughts, including denial 

Similar to other diseases like heart disease or asthma, alcoholism does not have to debilitate an individual. With proper medical treatment and a strong support group, individuals suffering from alcoholism can discover a path of recovery and relief. 

The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction

In 2016, the US Surgeon General issued a breakthrough report, with a chapter on "The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction”. One of the leading findings was the amount of evidence available to suggest that substance use disorders, commonly referred to as drug addictions, are chronic brain diseases that function in a 3-phase cycle. 

Each phase corresponds to one of three regions of the brain—basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—as well as to different brain circuits and neurotransmitters. 

To understand addiction, it is important to consider how each of these phases connects and feeds off of one another. Those living with alcoholism or a substance use disorder may experience the cycle in weeks or months or even several times in one day. While these individuals may progress through the cycle differently, with varying degrees of intensity, one fact remains. 

The cycle of alcohol addiction grows in intensity with time and can result in more extensive psychological and bodily harm, if not treated adequately.  

Reward System of Repeated Use

Consuming alcohol, although a depressant, can produce sensations of pleasure at the beginning. These positive or rewarding effects occur as a result of more dopamine and opioid neurotransmitters being activated in the basal ganglia. 

This brain region is critical in this phase because it does not only serve as the brain’s reward system. The basal ganglia also trigger changes in how an individual responds to stimuli related to the use of alcohol. Stimuli examples can include:

  • People
  • Places
  • Drug paraphernalia 
  • Moods

This means that the stimuli can activate the dopamine system and stir up powerful, lasting urges. So strong are these stimuli that by themselves, they can even cause drug-like effects on the brain and increase the risk of relapse for those with a prior addiction. 

Drinking to Avoid Problems

There is a relationship between the brain’s dopamine system and stress neurotransmitters located in the extended amygdala region of the brain. Whereas the former pushes individuals to seek pleasure, the latter directs individuals to avoid pain and dreadful experiences. Both though, are essential to how people act. 

However, substance abuse like that of alcohol can upset this balance and cause individuals to continue drinking. 

Avoiding Withdrawal Symptoms

When an individual decides to stop drinking, different alcohol withdrawal symptoms may arise, including:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Hallucinations that can be tactile, auditory, or visual
  • Intense cravings 

Alcohol addiction shares characteristics found in opioid addictions that include the risk of binge or heavy drinking followed by withdrawal. Individuals may return to drinking alcohol to avoid the negative effects of this phase of the cycle. As cravings are strong, it can be difficult for these individuals to maintain abstinence. 

For the average male, binge drinking represents five drinks or more within two hours. For the average female, it represents four drinks or more within the same time frame.  

Is Alcoholism “Curable?”

Alcoholism does not have any known cure. 

Fortunately, while alcohol addiction is a challenging medical condition to overcome, scientific evidence and advanced developments in therapies and medications have demonstrated that individuals who want to seek treatment can recover. 

Professional Treatment for Alcoholism

Those living with alcoholism do have health care options, including:

treatment

Rehab treatment program — inpatient or outpatient treatment facilities are available and can help individuals through detox. It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout.

interactions

Medicationscurrent drugs available for alcohol treatment are naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate. Some of these drugs help to reduce cravings or the effects caused by withdrawal. 

pshycotherapy

Interventions from health professionals it is important to consult a medical practitioner before quitting alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms may be severe and result in relapse or overdose. A medical practitioner can also explain the different therapies available to address underlying problems that may be affecting the addiction. 

If you or your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, please seek medical attention to design a treatment plan that can accompany you to a path of recovery and relief. 

Resources

“Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - Full Report.” Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - Full Report | Publications and Digital Products, Nov. 2016, store.samhsa.gov/product/Facing-Addiction-in-America-The-Surgeon-General-s-Report-on-Alcohol-Drugs-and-Health-Full-Report/SMA16-4991?referer=from_search_result.

Morse, Robert M, and Daniel K Flavin. “The Definition of Alcoholism.” JAMA, American Medical Association, 26 Aug. 1992, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/399449.

NIDA. "Treatment and Recovery." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 10 Jul. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Understanding Alcohol and Alcoholism. ncaddms.org/?page_id=2388.

Updated on: September 22, 2020
Author
Anthony Armenta
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Medically Reviewed: August 21, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice. For more information read out about us.
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