What is alcohol dependency/addiction?

Alcohol dependency and/or addiction, also known as alcohol-use disorder, is a disease that affects people from all walks of life. Although the consumption of alcohol is legal over a certain age, it is one of the greatest substance misuse issues in the UK.

Alcohol is a highly addictive, mind-impairing substance, especially when consumed in large amounts in a short space of time. Unlike other drugs, alcohol is socially acceptable; most people like to have an alcoholic drink and, therefore, it can be difficult to tell the difference between someone who likes to have a few drinks and someone with a real problem. People falsely believe that there is very little chance of becoming dependent or addicted to alcohol without choosing to do so i.e. it cannot just happen.

How much is too much?

Men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units per week on a regular basis. If you want to cut down, try having some alcohol free days each week.

  • 14 units of alcohol equates to 6 pints of average strength beer (4%ABV) or 7 medium sized glasses of wine (175ml at 12% ABV).
  • A single shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%) is 1 unit.

Not everyone becomes dependent/addicted. Genetic disposition or psychological, environmental or behavioural factors can put you at risk of becoming dependent/addicted; some people with mental or emotional issues use alcohol to ‘self-medicate’ to help them cope.

Someone typically has an alcohol dependency and/or addiction if they rely heavily on the effects of having a drink and can’t stay sober for an extended period of time.

Signs that you have an alcohol use disorder include:

  • Increased quantity or frequency and need to drink
  • Tried to cut back or stop and couldn’t
  • High tolerance or lack of hangover symptoms

Increased or continued use can also lead to:

  • Spending a lot of time drinking, being sick or hungover
  • Drinking at inappropriate times e.g. first thing in the morning, during a working day
  • Choosing friends who like a drink and only attending social events where drink is involved
  • Avoiding contact with loved ones
  • Having relationship problems as a result of your drinking
  • Hiding alcohol or hiding whilst drinking
  • Becoming dependent on alcohol to function in everyday life
  • Suffering withdrawal symptoms e.g. trouble sleeping, restlessness, a racing heartbeat, sweating, shakiness, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
  • Increased lethargy, depression or other mental or emotional health issues
  • Risk taking whilst under the influence
  • Memory blackouts

If you think that two or more of these symptoms have applied to you during the past year then you are mildly dependent/addicted. If you have had four or five of these symptoms apply to you during the last year then you are moderately dependent/addicted. If you have had six or more symptoms apply to you then you have a severe dependency and/or addiction.

There are many health risks which can occur due to excessive alcohol use, dependency and/or addiction, these can include:

  • Heart disease and liver disease – both can be fatal
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis
  • Kidney failure and kidney disease
  • Ulcers
  • Bone Loss
  • Diabetes complications
  • Vision problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Depression
  • Mental and emotional health problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Birth defects
  • Malnutrition

One common reason why people drink is to change their mood. Many people use alcohol to numb their emotions and thereby think that alcohol makes them feel better which it will for a time as regular consumption of alcohol can change the chemistry of the brain.

Alcohol is a powerful substance/drug. Like other substance use disorders, once the brain senses that a certain activity gives it pleasure, it will rewire the brain chemistry to make you want to have more of that activity. Over a period of time, you will crave more alcohol to achieve the same kind of high as before. If you continue to drink more and more alcohol, there will come a point where the brain chemistry simply cannot function without it. The brain neurobiology has then been changed.

In many cases of dual diagnosis (problems where alcohol, other drugs and mental health disorders are all evident), it is often difficult to tell which problem came first; perhaps the mental health disorder led the person to substance use or maybe the substance use disorder started before the mental health disorder. A sort of ‘chicken or egg’ hypothesis. Research suggests that people who experience dual diagnosis respond well to integrated programs that address both substance use and mental health disorders.

If YOU have an alcohol-use disorder and are ready to admit to your dependency and/or addiction and want to be free from it, use this link ‘Help For Dependency Steps to Recovery’ as a starting point. Try to get help and support from your family and friends. Don’t lie or make excuses for your drinking. Try to be honest with them. Life can get better and you can be happy. It just takes time and effort.

If someone that you know or love has an alcohol-use disorder, encourage them to use this webpage as a starting point to try and get them to the right kind of help, Help for Family and Friends.

  • Try not to use labels like alcoholic when talking over the problem
  • Don’t preach or lecture
  • Don’t expect your loved one to get better without help – they won’t
  • Don’t drink with your loved one
  • Don’t argue or try to reason when your loved one has been drinking
  • Don’t lie or make excuses for your loved one’s drinking

Another way of looking at things

Studies are finding that addressing nutritional deficiencies and gut bacteria health can be extremely helpful in treating alcohol use disorder. It has been noted that people entering alcohol treatment programs often have deficiencies of some nutrients, such as zinc and B vitamins.

The combination of zinc deficiency and heavy drinking can cause the gut to become leaky thereby allowing toxins, such as harmful bacteria, to travel to the liver and into the bloodstream which in turn leads to many health issues and allergies. In a study of heavy alcohol drinkers going through withdrawal, it proved that people with ‘leaky gut’ had a more difficult time with withdrawal symptoms and had worse depression, anxiety and alcohol cravings. For more information see the page.