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Alcoholism – Is it a Disease?

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Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV.

doctor determining whether alcohol is a disease

You will often see addiction referred to as a disease, but is it really a disease? There are some people who believe that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such, while others think it is a pattern of learned behaviour which, with the right treatment, can be unlearned.

The definition of a disease is “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.” So, let’s explore whether alcoholism is really a disease.

 

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is characterised by the lack of control over alcohol consumption despite the negative consequences.

AUD includes both alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Alcohol abuse refers to excessive drinking that can lead to problems in various aspects of your life. Alcoholism, however, involves a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. If you are dependent on alcohol, you may:

  • Struggle to control your alcohol consumption
  • Want to quit drinking but feel unable to do so
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit
  • Experience alcohol cravings
  • Neglect your responsibilities and prioritise alcohol

 

The Role of Genetics and Environment

There are several factors that can contribute to the development of alcohol addiction. Alcoholism rarely has one single cause - instead, in most cases, it is a combination of several factors that leads to addiction.

Much like with many diseases, genetics plays a significant role in the development of alcoholism - those with a family history of alcoholism are at a higher risk. There are several genes associated with alcoholism - variants of ADH1B and ALDH2 that are known to help protect against alcoholism, with odds ratios in the range of 0.2 to 0.4. Other genes such as GABRA2 and CHRM2 have been linked with alcohol dependence too.

Environmental factors can also play a huge part. For example, peer influence, stress and early exposure to alcohol can all contribute to the development of AUD.

 

Behavioural Patterns and Health Risks

Alcohol addiction goes hand in hand with heavy drinking - consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period.

This includes binge drinking, a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL or above.

Continued heavy drinking can lead to a range of health problems, including liver disease, cardiovascular issues, neurological damage, and mental health disorders. It can also increase the risk of alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal without medical support.

 

Withdrawal Symptoms and Long-Term Effects

One of the key hallmarks of alcohol addiction is withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit or cut back on your drinking.

These symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include tremors, anxiety, nausea, and seizures. Symptoms can vary in severity and longevity from person to person, depending on factors such as height, weight, and addiction history.

Over time, alcohol abuse can have a long list of long-term effects, such as impairment, memory loss, and an increased risk of certain cancers. It can also lead to alcohol-related brain damage.

 

So, Is Alcoholism a Disease?

There is much debate as to whether alcoholism is a disease. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcoholism as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder characterised by compulsive alcohol use despite adverse consequences.

This perspective aligns with the disease model of addiction, which suggests that addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder with genetic, neurological, and environmental factors.

Healthcare professionals also treat alcoholism as a medical condition, utilising evidence-based approaches, including medication, therapy, and support groups.

It is important to recognise the impact of alcohol addiction on physical, mental, and social well-being. Whichever side of the argument you are drawn to, if you suffer from alcohol addiction, it does not matter if it is a disease or not. The good news is that if it is a disease, it is treatable, and if it is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned.

If you accept you have a problem, disease or not, you can take responsibility for seeking treatment and your recovery.

 

How is Alcoholism Treated?

Alcohol addiction can be treated by detoxing, receiving therapy or support, and by continued treatment.

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon provide helpful resources for those struggling with alcohol addiction and their families. These groups offer a supportive environment where members can share their experiences, receive guidance, and work towards recovery.

Therapy is key when it comes to overcoming addiction. It can help you to address underlying issues and teach you effective coping strategies. It can help you to understand any potential triggers, emotions and behaviours linked to alcohol abuse.

Through therapy, you can learn healthier ways to manage stress, cravings, and difficult situations, reducing the urge to drink.

Addiction therapists can offer you support, guidance, and encouragement throughout your recovery. Group therapy allows you to connect with others facing similar challenges, providing a sense of belonging and understanding. Overall, therapy can equip you with the tools and skills you need for long-term sobriety.

When it comes to addiction recovery, a comprehensive treatment plan works best - a plan that includes detoxification, therapy, and aftercare. This is something we can help with at Help4Addiction.

 

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