Why is Alcohol So Addictive?

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse defines alcoholism as, “…a chronic, progressive, incurable disease characterized by a loss of control over alcohol and other sedatives.” Under this definition, people who develop problems with alcohol will always have an underlying issue with the substance, and that issue can be kept under control, but one slip can bring the disease roaring right back to life. It can be a frightening idea to contemplate, and some people who have alcoholism may resist the idea that they’ll never be free of the urge to use alcohol in a destructive manner. Learning a little bit more about why alcohol is so very addictive can help these people to understand exactly why they’ll need to be careful when they’re dealing with alcohol in the future, and why people who don’t feel as though they have a problem with alcohol now could develop a problem in the months and years to come.

Social Changes


Most adult-themed parties provide guests with alcoholic beverages. Attending a wedding reception involves holding a glass of champagne aloft in order to toast the couple’s good fortune. Accepting a New Year’s Eve invitation also means downing champagne at the appointed hour, ringing in the new year with a bit of an alcohol bang. Even going to a dinner party involves an alcohol commitment, as hosts often expect their guests to bring along booze to help cut the costs of holding a party. In time, due to the relentless push to drink alcohol, people can become convinced that social occasions simply must include alcohol, and the cues to drink can become overwhelming when parties are about to take place.

Providing alcohol at parties might be a traditional task, but alcohol also has some specific attributes that can make the drinks seem helpful in a party situation. For example, some researchers suggest that alcohol can numb the mind to such a degree that a user finds forgetting about common concerns and momentary crises relatively easy. A researcher writing in the journal American Psychologist refers to this phenomenon as “alcohol myopia,” suggesting that people who drink alcohol experience a temporary sensation of relief from anxiety and depression, and they may also feel more important and valuable. In a party situation, this can make some people seem more social and more pleasant to spend time with. People who have underlying depression issues or social phobias may develop addictions to alcohol as they attempt to self-medicate their conditions.

Alcohol can also reduce inhibitions, making people feel a bit more relaxed and able to share their innermost thoughts with people they meet at parties. People who have been drinking might feel more comfortable striking up conversations and maintaining the attention and interest of people they don’t know very well. People who have extreme social phobias or other social dysfunctions may find that alcohol is one of the only substances they know of that can help them to attend a party without feeling awkward and shy. This crutch usage can quickly become addictive.

Chemical Underpinnings

While it’s true that alcohol can be addictive due to the changes it can bring about in behavior, and the reinforcement people receive from others who observe this behavior, alcohol can also cause changes on a chemical level within the body, and these chemical changes can also be addictive.

Research suggests that alcohol increases the production of endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers. These same chemicals are also associated with pleasure and reward, and they tend to accumulate within the portions of the brain that have long been linked with addictive behaviors. An interesting study published in Science Translational Medicine found that people who drink heavily have higher spikes in endorphins when compared to people who do not drink heavily, meaning that alcohol seems to be reinforcing at extremely high levels.

The concept of reinforcement is important in addiction medicine, as using extremely large levels of a drug often causes severe damage that can lead to even more compulsive use. Alcohol does have some attributes that can stop people from using large amounts of the substance, including:

  • Nausea
  • Lack of muscle control
  • Sedation
  • Slow breathing and heart rate

Some people who drink heavily experience so many of these symptoms that they’re physically unable to keep drinking. They’re apt to be sleeping somewhere, instead of asking for another round. But those people who can drink heavily and who are able to do so while fighting off the intoxication cues the body might be pulling together are apt to feel an extreme chemical reward cue, and this could allow them to keep on drinking even when they simply should stop.

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The science that lies beneath a chemical addiction can be difficult to understand without an advanced degree in chemistry, but in essence, addictive drugs like alcohol are able to hijack the brain’s reward system, allowing the brain to feel an intense amount of pleasure when there is really no external signal that should provide this amount of pleasure. Alcohol, in essence, is telling the brain that something wonderful is happening, all while alcohol is turning off portions of the brain that handle impulse control and decision making, allowing the brain to feel overwhelmed with pleasure and unable to see why it might not be accurate. The more alcohol the person drinks, the more damage like this is done and the harder it might be for the person to control behavior in the future. Alcohol can impact the sexes differently, and some research suggests that women experience chemical changes that could increase the addictive effects of alcohol. In this research, quoted by BBC News, women who drink alcohol experience a 50-percent increase in testosterone, allowing them to feel more powerful and aggressive while drunk. This can lead women to get into fights and physical altercations while they’re drunk, but the feelings of aggression could also keep a woman drinking when she should stop. Bartenders and friends who tell her to stop drinking could see this firsthand, when a drunken and aggressive woman defiantly takes another drink when she knows that she should stop. Once again, damage done during a night of heavy drinking could lead to compulsive use of alcohol down the line.

Force of Habit

Some types of alcoholic drinks take a significant amount of time to make. In order to take the drink, the person must:

  • Place ice in a shaker
  • Add alcohol
  • Add a mixer
  • Shake the mixture
  • Pour the fluid in a glass
  • Garnish the drink

Some people develop addictions to the process of preparing the substances they take in. People who have heroin addictions, for example, may feel intense cues for drugs when they see needles or belts.

People who have nicotine addictions may feel cravings when they see matches or ashtrays. The physical process of preparing the substance or taking it in becomes part of the addictive path. Overcoming a process addiction like this isn’t easy, as alcohol-related cues might be found simply everywhere, but counseling can be incredibly helpful in this fight.

alcohol and habit

Recovering from Damage

It can be disheartening to read about addiction studies on alcoholism, especially as they seem to indicate that the substance is so very dangerous and hard to overcome without help. However, the more that researchers understand how alcohol works on the human body, they more they’re able to help people who are impacted by alcoholism. Knowing that alcohol hijacks the brain’s reward center, for example, could allow experts to develop new medications that could ease the physical pain people feel when they attempt to stop using powerful drugs like this. When it comes to alcohol, knowledge really is power.

If you’re addicted, we’d like to use our knowledge of addiction medicine to help you get better. At Michael’s House, we use cutting-edge science to help us develop new and innovative treatment programs to help our clients improve. We also use tried-and-true techniques such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to help our clients develop a new way of living. Please call our toll-free line to speak to an admissions counselor and start on your path to wellness.

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