With the media portraying drinking alcohol as a necessity for adding fun to the party, it’s not surprising to know that many people don’t realize just how addictive it is. However, the reality is that alcohol is very addictive. With over 17.5 million Americans addicted to alcohol, and nearly ten people every hour dying from alcohol-related causes, you can safely assume that extremely addictive substance. Some may wonder why it’s addictive at all, or just how addictive it can be.
Addiction to alcohol can happen for any number of reasons, and we’ll discuss of few of those here in this article. Many people are aware of psychological factors and how the brain plays a part. However, sometimes biology has a hand in how addictive alcohol can be for people.
We’ll also touch on the rates of addiction in people who try or use alcohol, and alcohol compared to other drugs in terms of addiction rates and usage.
Biological Aspects And How Addiction Occurs
Although the use of alcohol in moderation may not be an issue, overusing it puts you at risk of developing an addiction or life-threatening issues. No one is exempt—anyone can become addicted to alcohol under the right circumstances. Depression, anxiety, trauma, etc., are all factors that can lead the most responsible person to pick up a bottle to try to reduce stress or numb the pain.
But what about biological factors? Is it possible that a person can be genetically predisposed to addiction? In 2008, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducted a study on how genetics play a role in alcohol addiction. It found that genetic factors account for about 40 to 60 percent of people’s vulnerability to addiction. Since then, specific genes have been identified that contribute to alcohol abuse. These genes directly correlate with the development of the reward centers of the brain.
Certain signs of biological influences on alcohol abuse include:
- Smaller amygdala: Some studies have shown that families with a history of alcoholism tend to have a smaller than average amygdala, which controls a person’s emotions.
- Fewer warning signs: Those genetically predisposed tend to experience fewer warning signals from the brain when it’s time to stop drinking.
- Abnormal serotonin levels: Serotonin is an extremely important neurotransmitter in that it helps to regulate a person’s mood. Low levels are commonly associated with depression, but they have also been found a common occurrence in people who have a family history of alcohol abuse.
When a person drinks too much, the excess alcohol causes the brain’s neurotransmitters to go into overdrive, producing more hormones than needed. Extended use actually causes the brain to become tolerant, and the neurotransmitters eventually shut down. This is how addiction occurs.
The brain has now become dependent on the effects that alcohol has on the neurotransmitters. It needs alcohol to function properly. This is also why teen drinking, even without a genetic history, can lead to addiction. The teen’s brain is still developing, and the excess use of alcohol prohibits certain neurotransmitters from forming properly.
Rates of Addiction in Users
Now that we’ve discussed some of the biological aspects that can affect someone’s ability to become addicted to alcohol, let’s review the rates of addiction in people who’ve used or tried alcohol.
All statistics come from a study the NIAAA did in 2015.
In the study, for those who were age 18 and over, 86 percent of them said they drank alcohol before. About 70 percent said they drank within the past 12 months, and 56 percent said that within the past four weeks, they drank. The percentage of those who reported they drank heavily in the past month was 7 percent.
In the study, about 15 million people over 18 years old reported that they were addicted to alcohol. For those ages 12-17, around 623,000 stated they were addicted to alcohol. Roughly 6.7 percent of adults with alcoholism in the past year received treatment.
How Does Alcohol Compare to Other Drugs?
Given the factors that can lead someone to an alcohol addiction, let’s consider how alcohol rates against other drugs in terms of addiction and usage.
Is Alcohol More or Less Addictive Than Drugs?
The same risk factors that lead someone to become addicted to alcohol can also lead someone to become addicted to other drugs. People who start using drugs like heroin, meth, cocaine, painkillers, etc., often do so for the same reasons they start drinking: depression, anxiety, easy access, and family history.
In fact, sometimes addiction to one substance can lead to becoming addicted to another. As a result, both can be equally as dangerous.
Furthermore, those who abuse both drugs and alcohol are in more danger than those who only use one or the other. The two substances interact with each other, and the effects on the human body are multiplied. The effects vary depending on the type of drug that is mixed with alcohol.
Drugs most commonly taken with alcohol are:
- Sleeping pills (sedatives)
This strong reaction that mixing alcohol and drugs has may be very pleasurable but is extremely dangerous. The more you mix substances, the more your body learns to tolerate it. This can cause you to use more and more, which can lead to life-threatening complications such as:
- Damage to internal organs
- Breakdown of muscles and bones
- Long-term memory impairment
- Lack of coordination skills
- Problems coping at work or school
Alcohol should be used in moderation and never mixed with illegal or legal prescription drugs. It becomes dangerous when the moderation limit is exceeded, and usage goes above and beyond what is recommended. This is when the brain starts to crave more and more, gradually allowing the person to become dependent.
“Thus, alcohol is a very addictive substance, leading to roughly 88,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. Just how addictive it is depends on certain psychological and biological factors, including a family history of abuse. ”