Alcohol Abuse, and Addiction

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Alcohol misuse and dependence are dangerous substance use disorders that wreak havoc on the lives of individuals and their families. Both short and long-term effects can be severe and potentially life-threatening. For this reason, it is important to seek professional treatment if you or a loved one are struggling to control your alcohol consumption—and you are not alone. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 29.5 million individuals aged 12 and older (10.6%) had a past-year AUD. (1)

At Guardian Recovery, our team of licensed alcohol use disorder professionals is dedicated to providing individuals with the tools they need to overcome alcohol addiction and reclaim healthy, substance-free lives. If you are ready to begin your recovery journey, we are available to help you on your way to sobriety.

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How Does Alcohol Interact With the Brain & Body?

When a person consumes alcohol, the chemical substance interacts with their system in a variety of ways. Once it reaches the bloodstream, it affects chemical messengers involved in feelings of reward. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows activity in the brain and body. It achieves this by enhancing GABA and diminishing glutamate, leading to an overall inhibitory effect in the CNS. (2) (3) This leads to sedation, relaxation, and a decrease in cognitive and motor functions.

Alcohol use increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, reinforcing the desire to continue drinking. (4) Excessive consumption can also cause dependence, which is characterized by cravings and withdrawal symptoms that develop when a person tries to quit. Interactions with the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus can further impair judgment, decision-making, impulse control, learning, and memory.

What Is Considered Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder is a medical and mental health condition marked by an unhealthy pattern of alcohol use that results in significant impairment and distress. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) outlines certain criteria that an individual must meet to be diagnosed with an AUD—a person must meet at least two criteria within 12 months. (5) These include a loss of control over alcohol use, continued use despite adverse consequences, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.

Can Casual Alcohol Consumption Create Dependence?

Moderate alcohol use can result in dependence because each person’s body and tolerance to alcohol vary, and this can occur regardless of the amount or intensity with which alcohol is consumed.

Risk Factors Include:

  1. Genetic and personality traits
  2. Co-occurring mental health conditions
  3. Misuse of other substances, such as illicit drugs
  4. Environmental influences such as peer pressure
  5. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism
  6. Early initial use of alcohol

When moderate alcohol use has led to dependence, its important to seek professional help before this condition worsens. Contact Guardian Recovery today for more information about our comprehensive treatment programs.

The Addictive Potential of Alcohol

Alcohol has a high potential for physical dependence when used chronically or excessively. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is considered one of the most widely misused substances worldwide and is associated with 3 million deaths every year, or 5.3% of all fatalities. (6)

Alcohol’s addictive potential primarily stems from its ability to cause tolerance and dependence among drinkers. These conditions arise from alcohol’s effects on the brain, which are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.

What Is the Main Cause of Alcohol Misuse & How Does it Develop?

The primary reason for alcohol misuse is due to its mind-altering and perceived pleasurable effects, which can be habit-forming. Many other factors contribute to alcohol misuse.

Primary Causes of Alcohol Misuse Include:

  • Genetics—Genetic factors will affect how the body metabolizes alcohol and increase susceptibility to misuse and addiction.
  • Environment—Factors such as early alcohol exposure and availability, family influence, and cultural norms.
  • Psychology—Individuals with psychological disorders may be more likely to misuse alcohol. For example, those who experience co-occurring conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem, may turn to alcohol use as a way to self-medicate.
  • Social Influences—Social factors and peer pressure may affect alcohol misuse, as environments that normalize or encourage drinking, social isolation, or exposure to traumatic events may compel users to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
  • Individual Characteristics—Personal traits such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking behavior will also increase the likelihood of alcohol misuse.

The causes of alcohol misuse are complex, and there is no single factor that causes an individual to develop a drinking problem. It is more likely that multiple factors interact and impact a person’s relationship with alcohol.

States of Alcoholism

The number of criteria present determines how severe an alcohol use disorder is, according to the DSM-V. (7) Mild AUD is characterized by 2–3 diagnostic criteria. In this state, a person may desire to reduce or control their drinking but may not have developed a significant tolerance.

Moderate AUD is characterized by 4–5 criteria. The person has found it more difficult to control their alcohol use at this point, which is characterized by more severe impairment and distress. This leads to interference with various aspects of life, such as work, relationships, and responsibilities.

Severe AUD is marked by the presence of six or more criteria, and the individual has experienced serious impairments and has lost control over their drinking entirely. They will have high levels of tolerance and dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and profound adverse effects on their health and social functioning.

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Alcohol Dependence Common Symptoms & Side Effects

The symptoms and side effects of alcohol dependence vary between individuals, but there are common adverse effects associated with this condition.

Physical Symptoms Include:

  • Impaired motor skills and reaction time.
  • Tolerance, or the need to use increasing amounts to achieve the desired effects.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when use is significantly reduced or stopped, such as tremors, restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and, in severe cases, delirium tremens.
  • Need to consume alcohol upon waking or early in the day, also known as having a “hair of the dog”.
  • Health issues such as liver disease, pancreatitis, cardiovascular conditions, and an increased risk of several forms of cancer.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and dehydration.
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure.

Psychological Symptoms Include:

  • Strong cravings for alcohol.
  • Loss of control of alcohol use even after attempts to cut back or quit.
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making.
  • Slurred speech and poor coordination.
  • Altered perception.
  • Mood changes.
  • Impaired motor skills and reaction time.
  • Reduced inhibitions and risk-taking.
  • Impairment in cognition and memory.

Social Effects Include:

  • Continued use despite adverse consequences on aspects of life, such as work and family.
  • Neglect of social, familial, and financial responsibilities.
  • Interpersonal issues, such as strained relationships with family, friends, and co-workers due to behavioral problems and conflicts.
  • Neglect of formerly enjoyed hobbies and recreational activities to engage in alcohol use.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction Development

Several common risk factors have been associated with alcohol misuse and the development of addiction. However, the presence of one or more of these factors does not mean that an individual who drinks alcohol in moderation will develop an AUD.

Risk Factors Include:

  • Family history of alcoholism or substance use.
  • Environmental influences and early initiation of alcohol use.
  • Peer pressure and social norms.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders and exposure to trauma.
  • Personal characteristics and behaviors
  • Gender and ethnicity.

Alcohol Use & Its Effects on Mental Health

Alcohol misuse has been associated with adverse effects on mental health. Individuals experiencing psychiatric conditions may be more likely to use substances to self-medicate and cope with stress. (8) Additionally, alcohol use often exacerbates existing psychological issues.

Mental Health Conditions Caused or Worsened by Alcohol Include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety and panic disorders.
  • Mood swings and emotional dysregulation.
  • Impaired cognition.
  • Disruptions in the normal sleep cycle.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Alcohol-induced psychosis.

Fortunately, most of the conditions are temporary, and with the proper treatment, they can be improved and controlled by abstaining from alcohol. 

Can Long-Term Alcohol Use Cause Permanent Physical & Mental Damage?

Irreversible physical and mental health effects have been associated with chronic alcoholism. Adverse health effects include liver disease, heart problems, neurological damage, gastrointestinal disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and the development of certain cancers. Psychological effects include impaired cognition, memory, and information processing, potentially impacting daily function and quality of life. 

The majority of side effects caused by long-term alcohol use can be reversed with the right treatment plan in place. At Guardian Recovery, we take a holistic approach to AUD treatment, focusing on the restoration of physical and mental health. 

Recognizing the Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

If you believe you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol dependence, there are many signs to look for.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholism Include:

  • Cravings and preoccupation with alcohol use.
  • Loss of control over alcohol use.
  • Tolerance.
  • Withdrawal symptoms.
  • Neglect of responsibilities.
  • Continued alcohol use despite adverse consequences.
  • Failed attempts to cut back or quit.
  • Considerable time spent on alcohol-related activities.
  • Social and interpersonal problems due to drinking.
  • Reduced participation in activities.
  • Deceptive behavior and hiding the extent of alcohol use.
  • Physical and psychological symptoms.

What Should You Do if Someone Overdoses on Alcohol?

An alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning, requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect someone is overdosing due to alcohol use, contact emergency medical help immediately. 

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning Include:  

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or labored breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Pale or bluish skin and nails
  • Seizures
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Hypothermia
  • Coma

According to research published in 2022, from 2018-2020 there were approximately 2.9 million visits to the ER related to alcohol poisoning. (9)

Statistics for Alcohol Misuse & Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol misuse is characterized by binge drinking or heavy drinking. Binge drinking is defined as having more than 4–5 drinks within a single occasion for women and men, respectively. (10) One in six U.S. adults binge drinks, with approximately one-quarter doing so at least weekly. Heavy drinking is defined as having more than 8 drinks per week for women, and more than 15 drinks for men.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDA), 28.6 million adults 18 and older (11.3%) had a past-year AUD. (11) These included 16.3 million men ages 18 and older (13.2%), and 12.4 million women aged 18 and older (9.5%). Furthermore, 29.5 million people aged 12 and older (10.6%) had a past-year AUD. These included 16.6 million males aged 12 and older (12.1%) and 13.0 million females aged 12 and older (9.1%).

Alcohol misuse and use disorders are costly According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of excessive alcohol use in the United States is $249 billion. (12) This includes $179 billion in workplace productivity, $28 billion in healthcare, $25 billion in criminal justice, and $13 billion in car collisions.

Alcohol misuse affects individuals and families across all demographics. Fortunately, effective treatment options are available to those in need. At Guardian Recovery, we offer a range of behavioral health services for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorders of all severities. To learn more, contact us today. 

Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Dependence

The appropriate treatment options for alcohol dependence depend on the person’s unique needs and circumstances.

Common Treatment Options Include:

  • Medical detox, which consists of supervised withdrawal in a controlled clinical setting.
  • Administration of medications such as naloxone, acamprosate, and disulfiram to reduce cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Behavioral therapies, such as CBT, to help individuals alter their attitudes and behaviors related to alcohol use.
  • Support group participation for peer support, guidance, and to promote accountability.
  • Inpatient programs, which provide individuals with 24/7 medical and mental health care and support.
  • Outpatient programs, which offer flexibility and meet regularly.
  • Holistic practices, such as meditation and yoga, to address a person’s overall well-being and to complement formal treatment approaches.

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Guardian Recovery Offers Alcohol Addiction Treatment 

Guardian Recovery offers a variety of clinically proven treatments and services to ensure each individual receives the personalized care needed to overcome alcohol dependence and addiction. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check. You will be connected with a treatment advisor who will explain our streamlined admissions process and multiple levels of care. We look forward to speaking with you soon and answering any additional questions you might have. 


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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