Alcohol is a drug. It is classified as a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant, which means that drinking alcohol slows down brain functioning, neural activity, and further reduces the functioning of various vital functions in the body. This is due to the increased production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. When someone consumes large quantities of alcohol, specifically more than the body is equipped to process, the result is depressant effects. Some of the many depressant effects from alcohol include:
Delayed reaction time
Poor coordination or lack of motor skills
Although alcohol is clinically classified as a depressant, it also is proven to have stimulant effects depending on the amount and rate at which the alcohol is consumed. In small quantities, alcohol is more likely to result in stimulatory effects. These stimulatory effects are often the effects many people seek when they drink alcohol. Some of the stimulatory effects of alcohol include:
Improvements in mood
Increased blood pressure
Increased heart rate
When a person consumes larger quantities of alcohol, specifically more than the body is equipped to process, the drinker is more likely to experience the depressant effects of alcohol. Whether drinking beer, wine, or liquor, the amount used can drastically impact whether the user experiences depressant or stimulant effects.
According to a study conducted by Behavioral Neurobiology of Alcohol Addiction, there is a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, also referred to as alcoholism, in people who experience a greater stimulant response after consuming alcohol. Those who do not have a risk for alcohol dependence are more likely to experience a greater sedative response. There are other genetic, environmental and familial factors that influence whether an individual will develop an alcohol use disorder, however, all of these factors may play a role in the development of alcoholism.
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Why Is Alcohol Addictive?
Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease characterized by uncontrollable seeking of alcohol, as well as drinking that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful personal or professional consequences. Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), there are approximately 17.6 million people who suffer from alcohol use disorders or chronic alcohol abuse in the United States.
Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive. In regard to the physically addictive aspect, drinking alcohol stimulates the release of endorphins and dopamine, both of which produce euphoric sensations, such as feelings of pleasure. Studies conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggest that genetic factors also influence how the brain reacts for different people when they consume alcohol. This study suggests that some people’s brains release more euphoric chemicals in response to alcohol than others, making them more susceptible to developing an alcohol use disorder.
Many individuals who consume alcohol are not aware that alcohol can actually cause physical changes in the brain’s chemistry and functioning, which also plays a major role in the development of alcohol dependence. The brains reward and pleasure centers become overloaded when an individual consumes alcohol regularly, resulting in cravings to repeat their drinking habits and behaviors.
Despite one’s desire to cut down or quit drinking, alcohol can compromise one’s ability to make decisions, as well as impact one’s impulse control resulting in a compulsion to drink. This also makes relapse more likely when one attempts to quit drinking. What may begin as recreational alcohol use can quickly become abuse and can easily transition into an alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence.
Alcohol is psychologically addictive because it becomes a learned behavior that affects one’s thoughts and beliefs. Alcohol is also commonly used as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or other discomforting emotions and feelings. This coping mechanism can become a habit that may seem impossible to break. Fortunately, there are many alcohol treatment centers available that offer psychotherapy to help individuals find the motivation and hope to begin their recovery process.
When someone has an alcohol use disorder and suddenly quit drinking, or rapidly reduce the amount they consume, they will experience what is called alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), also known as withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol vary from psychological to physical and may include but are not limited to:
Hand tremors, or “the shakes”
Attempting to quit using alcohol on your own, or “cold-turkey,” is strongly not advised due to the severity of discomfort and health risks. It is always best to enter a medically assisted, inpatient detox facility to detox as there is 24/7 medical support, along with clinical support, followed by inpatient treatment.
The Dangers of Alcohol
When used recreationally and in low doses, alcohol has less risk for problematic effects; however, in large quantities, especially when consumed in short periods of time, there are many risks to be aware of. An alcohol overdose, also called alcohol poisoning, causes severe depressant effects on the Central Nervous System (CNS) which may result in various side-effects, including:
Inability to feel pain
Slow or irregular breathing
Cold or clammy skin
These responses are reactions caused by regular, overconsumption of alcohol, usually in a short period of time. Chronic, long-term use of alcohol can also have health risks, such as:
High blood pressure
Throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal, or esophageal cancer.
Thiamine or vitamin B deficiency
Despite being aware of the consequences of alcoholism and long-term alcohol use, many individuals continue to drink, which is the nature of addiction.
Alcohol Is a Drug, but Help Is Available
If you have struggled with an alcohol use disorder, or witnessed someone you love struggle with alcohol dependence, you know how powerful alcohol is as a drug. It may seem like reaching out for help can be challenging; however, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are many inpatient and outpatient treatment centers available to help you or your loved one overcome their addiction to alcohol and begin the road to recovery.
Trying to quit on your own is dangerous and has a high-risk of relapse due to the various discomforting symptoms. Ultimately, both physical and psychological addictive factors come into play when overcoming addiction, making it ever so important to reach out for professional help. Contact a treatment provider today for treatment options that can lead to a life without addiction.
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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