Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is a disease of the brain. There is a major difference between alcohol addiction and alcohol use or alcohol abuse. People who drink alcohol too much can still exert control over their behavior. When someone becomes addicted to alcohol, they lose the ability to say "No" because their brains change in ways that make it impossible for them to live without alcohol.View Larger Image

Because the disease of addiction changes the brain in complex ways, individuals lose the ability to totally control their addictive behavior. The structure and function of the brain can be affected by addictive drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, and cocaine. Similar to an electrical system, drugs can change the circuits in the brain that control emotions and motivation, thereby impairing an addicted person's power of choice. The structure and shape of brain cells and the connections between them change radically with repeated use of the addictive substance. The brains of non-addicts are very different than those of addicts. View a brain image comparison.

90% of adults in the United States have had some experience with alcohol at some time in their lives. Use of alcohol varies widely from total abstinence to alcohol dependence (alcoholism).

8% to 10%, or 17 million adult Americans, either abuse alcohol or are dependent on alcohol. The diagnostic criteria for these alcohol use disorders are described below.

Alcohol Dependence

Defined as three or more of the following in the past year:
    • Spending a lot of time drinking or getting over the bad effects of drinking
    • Continuing to drink despite recurrent psychological or physical symptoms
    • Drinking more or longer than intended
    • Tolerance (need more alcohol to achieve the same effect)
    • Impaired control (try to cut down but not successful)
    • Withdrawal syndrome or drinking to relieve withdrawal
    • Neglecting activities
In addition, one or more of the following may have occurred in the past year:
    • Continued use despite recurrent interpersonal or social problems
    • Failure to fulfill major role obligations at home, school or work because of recurrent drinking
    • Recurrent drinking in hazardous situations (such as while driving)
    • Recurrent legal problems related to alcohol
Alcohol: Relationship between Stress and Drinking (mp3)

Substance Abuse: Stress and Alcohol Addiction (mp3)

Alcohol and Health
    • Alcohol misuse can have devastating consequences on health
    • Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver
    • Heavy drinking can damage the body's immune system
    • Heavy drinking can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (harm the fetus during pregnancy)
Excessive alcohol use increases the risk for:
    • Hypertension
    • Stroke
    • Diabetes
    • Cardiomyopathy
    • Cardiac arrhythmias
    • Pancreatitis
    • Gastric reflux
    • Oral cancer
    • Breast cancer

Drinking increases the risk of on-the-job injuries and automobile accidents. Alcohol related problems cost society approximately 185 billion dollars a year. The cost to individual and family well-being and happiness cannot be measured.

Alcohol: Damaging Effect on the Liver and Blood Cells (mp3)

Alcohol: How does it Affect the Heart and Brain? (mp3)

Alcohol: Links to Insomnia (mp3)

Alcoholism: Hypertensive Effects of Heavy Drinking (mp3)

Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence Treatment

Treatment for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence usually includes a combination of 12-step, self-help groups (Alcoholics Anonymous), medications and psychosocial therapies. Motivational enhancement therapy, couples therapy, brief interventions, and cognitive behavior therapy are specific psychosocial therapies that can be effective in treating alcohol abuse and dependence.

In the past few years, clinical research has focused on the development of medications that act on brain chemicals to reduce cravings and aid in preventing relapse. Naltrexone was approved by the FDA in 1995 and is used in conjunction with psychosocial therapies to treat alcoholics. Other medications are currently under investigation at CDAP and other research centers.

Alcohol: Genetic Variance and Different Treatment Outcomes (mp3)

Alcohol: Medications for Alcoholism (mp3)

Alcohol: Types of Psychotherapy to Treat Alcoholism (mp3)

Alcohol: Use of Naltrexone (mp3)


Center for Drug & Alcohol Programs
67 President Street
MSC 861
Charleston, SC
(843) 792-2727