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Alcohol & Health
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Updated on September 14, 2023
7 min read

How is Alcohol Addictive & How Does it Affect the Brain?

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol (ethyl alcohol) is a simple chemical that can cause significant changes in the complex functions of the human brain and body. Because of that, it is a highly addictive substance. 

Drinking alcohol increases the production of several chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and endorphins. These chemicals produce pleasurable feelings and act as natural painkillers. The pleasurable sensations often lead individuals to continue drinking once they’ve started.

Alcohol can compromise impulse control and decision-making, leading to alcohol misuse and dependence.1 Many people also consume alcohol despite the negative consequences, increasing the risk for addiction. 


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How Does the Body Become Dependent on Alcohol? 

Consistent use of an addictive substance can change a person’s brain and body chemistry.

When you drink alcohol, the body releases “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. It then suppresses the normal release of these chemicals, making you crave the substance.

The feeling of needing to consume a substance is called dependency, which can quickly develop into addiction.

Addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. A person with an addiction has a compulsion to perform a behavior that they know is harmful. They feel unable to stop themselves.

Over time, heavy drinking can make the body dependent on alcohol. If someone addicted to alcohol attempts to stop suddenly, they may experience uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. They can even go into shock and die.2

How Does Alcoholism Affect the Brain?

Alcohol negatively impacts the brain areas that control balance, memory, speech, and judgment. This results in a higher likelihood of injuries and other adverse outcomes.

Alcoholism also affects the brain’s “reward center” and produces pleasurable sensations (such as anxiety reduction) when consumed.

Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in brain neurons (such as reductions in size) and permanently damages brain processes and functions.

A developing brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Misuse of alcohol— when a fetus is still in utero or during someone’s adolescence and early adulthood—can alter the brain's development. It can result in long-lasting changes in brain structure and function.3


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8 Reasons Why Alcohol is Very Addictive

Here are some of the main reasons why alcohol is highly addictive:

1. Physiological Changes

Alcohol changes brain chemistry, which makes it addictive. 

It suppresses the central nervous system (CNS), slowing normal brain function. It does this by slowing the release and response to normal brain neurotransmitters. At the same time, alcohol stimulates the release of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and endorphins, which create pleasurable sensations. 

As these changes occur, people tend to require increasingly more significant amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated. As a result, they often increase the amount they drink.

Over time, these changes to the brain create a vicious cycle of dependence that keeps the person dependent on alcohol.

2. Genetics 

Some people have a predisposition to alcoholism due to genetic factors. Expressly, some people’s brains release more pleasure chemicals in response to alcohol. This makes them more susceptible to physical dependency.

3. Social Pressure

Alcohol consumption is often a social activity. People drink because their friends, coworkers, and family are too.

Alcohol consumption is prevalent around the world. In 2019, 70% of U.S. adults 18 and older reported drinking in the past year.4

In one study, a third of adult drinkers admitted to drinking more than they intended because others encouraged them. Similarly, two-fifths of adult drinkers felt too much pressure to drink when socializing with work colleagues.5

4. Withdrawal Symptoms

Many people remain addicted to alcohol because they don’t want to face the withdrawal symptoms of drinking cessation.

When a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) suddenly stops drinking, they will likely experience intense cravings for alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can cause distressing physical symptoms, like:

  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • An elevated heart rate
  • Insomnia

Alcohol-addicted people may continue or resume drinking after short pauses to avoid these symptoms.

5. Alcohol-Positive Advertising

Alcohol manufacturers bombard the public with video, digital, and print advertisements. They show drinking as a socially acceptable, fun, and relaxing pastime. 

From 1971 to 2011, alcohol advertising increased by more than 400% in the United States.12

6. Availability of and Proximity to Alcohol

Alcohol is legal in the United States and more accessible than other drugs. It can be found in homes and at family gatherings, barbecues, restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters, and resorts, among many other places. 

7. Positive associations with alcohol

Alcohol is often linked to positive associations, such as celebrations. It’s often featured at events or used to celebrate (“toastings,” for example).

Many people treat alcohol as a reward at the end of the day or after an achievement. This may build a positive association with alcohol.

8. Easing of mental health symptoms

There is a strong link between alcohol dependence or addiction and mental health disorders. 40% of people with AUDs have a concurrent mental health diagnosis. This is known as dual diagnosis.

People with untreated depression, anxiety, or PTSD have a higher risk for alcoholism because they may self-medicate with the drug. Self-medicating with alcohol can make a person want to drink more and more, leading to alcohol addiction.


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Who is More at Risk of Developing Alcohol Use Disorder?

Although there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances, the health effects are the same, especially long-term.

Certain factors, like age, family history, and genetics, can make a person more at risk of developing AUD. The presence of any of the below factors can increase the risk of developing alcohol addiction:

  • Drinking earlier: One study found that, among people ages 26 and older, those who began drinking before age 15 were more than five times as likely to report having AUD compared to those who waited until they were of legal age to start drinking.9 
  • Genetics: Heritability has an impact on approximately 60% of alcohol-addicted persons.8 
  • Mental health conditions: A wide range of psychiatric conditions (including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder) are comorbid with AUD and are associated with an increased risk of AUD. People with a history of childhood trauma are also more vulnerable to AUD.
  • Family history of alcoholism: People with a family history of alcoholism or those who grew up around an alcoholic family member are likelier to develop alcoholism later in life.6

Is Binge Drinking Considered Heavy Alcohol Use? 

Binge drinking is alcohol consumption in which a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds 0.08%. For men, this means drinking more than five drinks in 2 hours. For women, this means drinking more than four drinks in 2 hours.11

Not everyone who binges drinks has an AUD but is at a higher risk of developing one.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

In the United States, 29.5 million adults have an AUD.10 

You may have an AUD if you have experienced two or more of the following in the past year:

  • Drinking more or for longer than planned
  • Being unable to cut back on the amount you drink or stop drinking altogether when you were trying to do so
  • Spending excessive time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Feeling a strong need to drink
  • Drinking or being sick from drinking that interfered with life or responsibilities
  • Drinking, despite it causing relationship problems
  • Giving up or cutting back on activities in favor of drinking
  • Getting into dangerous situations while or after drinking 
  • Drinking, even though it causes health problems
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol's effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms7

Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

Alcohol addiction can lead to several devastating consequences. People who are physically dependent on alcohol will need the support of a healthcare professional to stop drinking.

Treatment options for alcohol misuse and addiction include:

  • Inpatient care: Inpatient care is the most intensive type of alcohol treatment. Inpatient care offers 24-hour medical and psychiatric care.
  • Outpatient care: Outpatient programs provide many of the same services offered in inpatient settings but with more flexibility.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): MAT involves counseling and medications to reduce cravings and help people stay sober.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps patients recognize triggers for drinking and teaches them how to cope with cravings without alcohol.
  • Support groups: Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide peer support, accountability, and guidance in maintaining sobriety. 

If you are struggling with alcohol use and addiction, see your healthcare provider for an evaluation. Your doctor can provide medical advice, plan treatment, and refer you to addiction treatment facilities.


Alcohol is addictive because it changes the way our brains work. People prone to alcoholism may have a genetic predisposition, mental health issues, or be in an environment that encourages drinking.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), treatment options are available. This will help to reduce cravings and improve your quality of life.

Updated on September 14, 2023
12 sources cited
Updated on September 14, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. "What is Addiction?"
  2. "Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse" U.S. National Library of Medicine
  3. "Alcohol and the Brain" National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  4. "Alcohol Facts and Statistics" National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  5. New research lifts lid on peer pressure culture around alcohol” Drinkaware
  6. ”Alcohol's damaging effects on the brain” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  7. "Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)" U.S. National Library of Medicine
  8. "The Genetics of Alcohol and Other Drug Dependence." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  9. “Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  10. “Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023.
  11. "Alcohol Use and Your Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  12. "Alcohol Advertising Has Little Effect on Overall Consumption, Study Finds." UT News, 2015.
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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.
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