Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also called substance use disorder (SUD) or alcoholism, is defined by the National Institute on Health as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired inability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” 

Although AUD has noticeable behavioral and psychological components, it’s considered a brain disorder and is treated as such in all age groups. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 29.5 million people 12 years and older had AUD in 2021. Over 800,000 children (ages 18 or under) were impacted by the disease, and over 28 million adults, so it’s clear it isn’t specific to any age group. 

We know that alcohol is addictive, but why? What makes alcohol one of the most addictive substances a person can access? In this blog, we’ll explore why alcohol is addictive and why treating addiction is important. 

Biological and Chemical Components   

When you consume alcohol, it enters the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier – which helps determine what substances get to the brain – and reaches the central nervous system. Then, the alcohol starts to alter the neurotransmitters in the brain, which are chemicals responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. 

However, most of the neurotransmitters affected by alcohol consumption are related to satisfaction, pleasure, and pain management. Dopamine and serotonin levels are increased after a single occurrence of drinking. Over time, these chemicals’ levels can decrease if you regularly over consume alcohol – a process known as “building tolerance.” The more you drink regularly, the higher your tolerance becomes. This is a significant factor in addiction because it often leads individuals to increase their alcohol consumption in pursuit of the initial pleasurable sensations. 

Another crucial aspect of alcohol addiction in relation to neurotransmitters lies in the brain’s reward system. As we know, when alcohol is consumed, it triggers dopamine release. Dopamine creates a reinforcing effect, making the individual more likely to repeat the behavior that led to its release. This reward mechanism plays a crucial role in the development of addiction. With continued alcohol use, the brain relies on alcohol to release dopamine, creating a craving and compulsive behavior cycle.

Alcohol also enhances the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which limits your brain’s activity and makes you feel relaxed and sedated. Simultaneously, glutamate, a neurotransmitter responsible for stimulating brain activity, is affected. This dual effect of alcohol on GABA and glutamate creates a sense of calmness and euphoria.

Lastly, genetics can predispose a person to a higher risk for AUD or other substance abuse. Specific genes involved in neurotransmitter function, how the body metabolizes alcohol, and the reward system can influence the way alcohol affects the brain, making some individuals more prone to developing addictive behaviors. A strong family history of alcoholism also increases your chances of developing an alcohol addiction. 

Psychological and Behavioral Components 

Alcohol addiction doesn’t develop overnight; it happens over time and is usually triggered by psychological factors and behaviors associated with drinking. Stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and more can drive a person to use alcohol as a coping mechanism to escape or numb their emotional pain temporarily. 

When alcohol calms a person down and temporarily relieves psychological distress, it reinforces the association between drinking and improving emotional well-being. The ritualistic nature of drinking, the social context in which it occurs, and the cues and triggers associated with alcohol use can create powerful associations and habits that are difficult to break. When put together, each of these contributes to the development and continuation of alcohol misuse. 

Also, mental health disorders are often comorbid or diagnosed alongside AUD. Here are some of the most common: 

  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Social Components  

Social factors also contribute to why alcohol is so addictive. Because many social gatherings and celebrations feature alcohol as a central component (or have it around in some capacity), people may feel pressured to drink to fit in. It’s also considered more socially acceptable to drink than recreational drugs or smoking cigarettes. The glamorization of alcohol in media, advertising, and general society is another factor that can contribute to the normalization of heavy drinking and the misconception that excessive alcohol consumption is a sign of status or success. 

What You Drink Doesn’t Matter 

You might think that some types of alcohol are more addictive than others, but that’s not necessarily true. Although hard liquors like tequila or vodka have a higher alcohol content, they’re no less addictive than beer or wine. Between beer, wine, and hard liquor, beer and wine coolers typically have the least alcohol content, so they can be consumed at a much higher volume. The same goes for wine, although it has a slightly higher alcohol content. 

Getting Alcohol Addiction Help  

Because alcohol is such an addictive substance, it’s essential to seek help if you start noticing the signs and symptoms of AUD, binge drinking, or any other type of alcohol misuse. American Treatment Network focuses on creating a personalized intervention and treatment plan that meets you where you are – not where you should be. With a combination of counseling, intervention, and prevention programs, we strive to help you decrease your dependence and live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. Schedule a consultation with us today at one of our 4 locations in Havertown, PA, Newark, DE, Dover, DE, and Upland, PA. 


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