Is Alcohol Addiction Mental or Physical?

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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.

Alcohol dependence, abuse and addiction affect millions of people around the world - in 2019, over 14 million adults had a form of alcohol use disorder.
It can affect you in many ways - from your physical and mental health to your relationships and finances. But is alcohol addiction a mental or physical disease? That’s what we’ll be exploring today. In 2024, alcohol dependence is widely accepted as a medical illness. It is known as a chronic and relapsing brain disease due to the way that addiction impacts your brain chemistry. Read on to learn more about alcohol use disorder and whether it is a physical or mental illness.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a form of alcohol use disorder - with dependence being the more severe form of AUD, and alcohol abuse being the milder form. It is referred to as both a physical and mental illness that is ultimately characterised by the lack of control over drinking and the urge to drink alcohol. This means that people with an addiction to alcohol may drink alcohol despite the negative effects it may have. They may also abuse alcohol, and drink more than the recommended alcohol units per week. People with AUD may drink at inappropriate times or may struggle to stop drinking once they start, despite being intoxicated. Alcohol use disorder can vary in severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. It is a chronic and relapsing disease that can be difficult to overcome without the right support.

Physical Addiction vs Psychological Addiction

Alcohol dependence is widely known as a medical illness and can affect you in many ways - alcoholism can have both physical and psychological effects on you. However, certain drugs can be psychologically addictive but not physically addictive. Ultimately, it depends on how your body reacts when you withdraw from the substance. Alcohol is physically addictive, so if you are alcohol dependent, you will experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. Any addiction can have negative consequences on your life - whether you are addicted to heroin or addicted to gambling, addiction can impact your relationships, family, career, and finances. But what makes alcohol different? Why do you feel physical effects when you are addicted to alcohol?

What is a Physical Addiction?

A physical addiction refers to the physical dependence on a substance. Alcohol can be physically addictive due to the effects it has on your brain. In terms of alcohol, alcohol dependence refers to a physical addiction to alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your tolerance may become. This is the first step to developing a physical addiction - tolerance can quickly turn into dependence. Alcohol consumption impacts your central nervous system and has a suppressing effect on your brain. This impacts your brain functioning over time if you drink excessively. Alcohol consumption affects GABA - a neurotransmitter - in your body, which results in feelings of calmness and euphoria. It also lowers glutamate, which decreases feelings of excitability. The more alcohol you drink over time, the more your body will get used to these changes. This means that your body may find it difficult to decrease glutamate and increase GABA. Drinking alcohol raises the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter, in your body. This can lead to feelings of calmness and sometimes even euphoria. As well as raising glutamate levels, alcohol lowers your glutamate levels - essentially decreasing excitability levels. This can make it difficult to stop drinking alcohol and is what can cause withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop drinking. Ultimately, a physical addiction to alcohol is when your body reacts physically when you undergo an alcohol detox. Withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity - the general rule of thumb is that the more severe the addiction, the more severe the withdrawal process will be. Some physical symptoms of withdrawal may include hand tremors, a high pulse, nausea and vomiting, headaches, restlessness, and loss of appetite. When undergoing an alcohol detox, there is always a risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms or delirium tremens, which can be dangerous. This is why we recommend that you seek professional support and complete a medical detox. Contact us today to learn more about our alcohol detox options and how we can help you.

What is a Psychological Addiction?

A psychological addiction refers to the mental desire for a substance as opposed to the physical need. Psychological addictions are common in those who use drugs such as cannabis or ketamine - this is because cannabis does not contain physically addictive ingredients. Psychological addiction can occur with pretty much any substance, including alcohol. This is due to the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is a central link in the reward circuit. This is part of the brain that controls pleasure - and plays a key role in the development of psychological addictions as well as physical dependence.

Can Alcoholism Be Categorised as a Mental Health Disorder?

In short, yes - alcoholism is widely referred to as a mental disorder due to the way it affects a person’s behaviour and brain, including a person’s mental health. When you go through alcohol withdrawal, you will likely experience a range of physical symptoms, mental symptoms and behavioural symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal may worsen existing mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, and impact your general well-being. Much like other mental illnesses, addiction is a real, diagnosable and treatable medical disorder. If you are addicted to alcohol, you will likely experience mental and emotional symptoms before you begin to experience physical symptoms.

The Links Between Alcohol and Mental Health Disorders

Heavy drinking has been linked to several mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more. There were close to 6,000 suicides among mental health patients that had a history of alcohol misuse in the decade from 2007 to 2019. This is roughly the same as 10% of all deaths by suicide in England. A study in Sweden explored the links between alcohol use and treatment for depression. The study compared drinking habits in those with a depression diagnosis in primary care. The results showed that alcohol use disorder and alcohol abuse are much more common among patients undergoing treatment for depression in comparison to the primary population.

Get Help For Your Addiction Today

At Help4Addiction, we understand that detoxing from alcohol can be difficult. This is why we work to source the best alcohol detox for you and your addiction. Whether you’re looking for an at-home detox or an inpatient medical detox, we can find the right treatment plan for you. Treatment for alcoholism addresses both the physical addiction and the mental addiction. Detoxification addresses the physical aspects of addiction whereas rehab treatment addresses the social, behavioural and psychological aspects of addiction. Therapy is an important part of rehab - not only does it treat mental health issues, but improves your confidence and general well-being. It can also teach you effective coping strategies that can help to prevent and manage relapse. You don’t have to deal with addiction alone - our team at Help4Addiction can ensure you get the support you need for your drug or alcohol addictions.

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