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Is Alcoholism a Disease?

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Have you ever wondered, “is alcoholism a disease?” or just a matter of willpower?

The debate surrounding this issue has persisted for decades, with different perspectives emerging from various fields of study.

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In this blog post, we will delve into the complexities of alcoholism, exploring alcoholism as a disease, the role of genetics and environment, the impact on brain function, and the challenges in treating co-occurring disorders.

As we debunk common myths about alcohol addiction, we hope to shed light on this often misunderstood condition and provide insight into the most effective approaches to alcohol treatment and recovery.

Key Takeaways

The Disease Model of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is generally regarded as a chronic disease due to its persistent nature, genetic predisposition, and environmental influences, necessitating long-term management and treatment.

This perspective aligns with the views of addiction medicine experts who emphasise that alcoholism is not solely about alcohol abuse; it also involves drug addiction, substance abuse, mental health challenges, and other chronic diseases.

Long-term excessive drinking may result in physical complications such as cirrhosis of the liver, chronic brain deterioration, and, the most severe repercussion of all, death.

To find out more about the alcohol disease concept, please make sure to speak to one of our health care professionals.

Genetic Factors

Research indicates that genetic factors play a significant role in alcoholism and substance abuse, with alcohol use disorder (AUD) often observed in families, thereby suggesting a genetic influence.

However, it’s worth noting that genes do not necessarily predispose a person to drug or alcohol addiction.

Despite certain genes increasing the likelihood of alcoholism, addiction medicine can effectively treat and manage the condition, irrespective of genetic factors.

Environmental Factors

Various environmental influences significantly contribute to the onset of alcoholism. These include:

All of these factors heighten the risk of alcoholism and drug dependence.

The presence of alcohol can affect the quantity consumed, potentially resulting in the emergence of alcoholism.

Drinking norms and environmental influences can shape an individual’s attitudes towards alcohol use, potentially leading to the development of alcohol or drug abuse and the need for substance abuse treatment.

The Brain and Alcohol Addiction

It is no secret that alcohol affects the normal functioning of the brain.

Severe alcohol consumption has the potential to cause changes in the brain related to pleasure, judgment, and the capacity to restrain one’s behaviour.

Addiction, whether to alcohol or other substances, alters the areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and controlling behaviour.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation, plays a significant role in addiction, as it encourages the repetition of behaviours that produce a pleasurable response.

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Research has indicated that addiction alters the brain’s functioning, thus leading to a change in willpower and making it more difficult for individuals to abstain from substance use in order to alleviate cravings and discomfort.

You may also find a range of other alcohol-related problems if you are heavy drinking. These health problems include things like heart disease, and liver disease and affect the nerve cells and nervous system in general.

To learn more about a specific health problem relating to alcohol abuse, please get in touch with our addiction experts.

Reward System

Alcohol has a profound effect on the reward system by activating the brain’s reward pathway and augmenting the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and motivation.

Long-term alcohol consumption can cause:

This hijacking of the brain’s system makes it challenging for individuals to differentiate between healthy and harmful rewards, further complicating the process of overcoming addiction.

Cognitive Function

Prolonged alcohol ingestion has been observed to interfere with the brain’s normal functioning, resulting in cognitive deficits.

Furthermore, heavy drinking has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline, impairment, and dementia.

Sustained alcohol consumption can result in cognitive impairments, including:

Abstaining from alcohol can help reverse some of the cognitive impairment caused by alcohol consumption, and in certain instances, low to moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to improved cognitive function.

Mental Health and Alcoholism

When the conditions of mental illness and substance use disorder manifest concurrently, professionals typically refer to this diagnosis as a co-occurring disorder, comorbidity or dual diagnosis, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

It is known that mental illnesses can lead to substance use disorders, and vice versa, substance use disorders can lead to the emergence of mental illnesses.

In fact, the Mental Health Services Administration reports that 50.5 percent of adults with substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness.

Co-occurring Disorders

Alcoholism is associated with certain co-occurring disorders such as:

These co-occurring disorders can render it more arduous to treat alcoholism, as they may elevate the likelihood of relapse and make it more challenging to remain abstinent.

Treatment necessitating specialised care, the potential for relapse, and the complexity of managing multiple disorders concurrently are among the challenges of treating alcohol or drug addiction with co-occurring disorders.

Treatment Challenges

Addressing both mental health and substance use disorders is crucial for successful treatment and recovery. The treatment challenges associated with alcoholism include:

Overcoming these challenges requires a comprehensive, integrated approach to treatment.

This may come from healthcare professionals, mental health specialists, or help from family or a support group (such as alcoholics anonymous), as recommended by the National Institute.

Recognising and Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

Early intervention and treatment greatly benefit from recognising the signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder.

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This term is currently preferred by medical professionals over ‘alcoholism’, ‘alcoholic’, or ‘alcohol abuse’.

The causes of alcohol use disorder are multifaceted, involving genetic, psychological, social, and environmental impacts.

Parents should be cognizant of indications that may suggest difficulty with alcohol in their teenagers, and individuals who feel that their alcohol consumption is excessive or leading to undesirable consequences should discuss the matter with their healthcare provider.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder include problems controlling drinking, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and negative impacts on health and safety.

Physical and behavioural indicators of alcohol use disorder include:

These indicators can all point towards a potential alcohol use disorder.

Treatment Options

Numerous treatment options for alcohol use disorder are available, including:

These treatment methods are often used in combination with each other.

Comprehensive treatments address the physical, psychological, and social aspects of alcohol use disorder, thereby aiding individuals in achieving lasting recovery and an improved quality of life.

Debunking Myths About Alcoholism

Common misconceptions about alcoholism include that it is a moral failing, that it is caused by a lack of willpower, and that it is indicative of weakness.

These myths are untrue because alcoholism is an ongoing, advancing, and potentially deadly illness, caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological elements, and it necessitates professional care.

Dispelling these myths about alcohol dependence can assist in diminishing stigma and furthering comprehension of the chronic disease, thus encouraging more individuals to seek help and support in their recovery journey.

The Role of Willpower

While willpower is a vital factor in overcoming alcoholism, it is not the sole element required.

Addiction, being a chronic disease of the brain, requires more than sheer willpower for successful recovery. Strategies such as avoiding triggers, setting goals, and garnering support from family and peers are equally crucial.

Quality treatment and support can assist individuals addicted to alcohol and drug use to control their cravings and remain committed to their recovery objectives.

Relapse as Part of Recovery

Relapse is a frequent element of the recovery journey from alcoholism.

Rather than viewing relapse as a failure, it can be seen as an opportunity to adjust or modify treatment strategies, offering invaluable insight into the causes and fundamental matters that must be addressed to ensure sustained abstinence.

Identifying the triggers and underlying issues leading to relapse allows individuals to adapt their treatment strategies, thereby addressing these issues more effectively and achieving sustained sobriety.


In conclusion, understanding alcoholism as a complex disease involving genetic, environmental, and psychological factors is vital for effective treatment and recovery.

By debunking myths surrounding alcoholism and recognising the importance of addressing co-occurring mental health disorders, we can reduce stigma and promote a more comprehensive approach to treatment.

The challenges faced by individuals with alcohol use disorder can be overcome through integrated care, support from loved ones, and dedication to recovery.

As we continue to strive for a better understanding of alcohol use disorders and their impact on individuals and society, we can foster a world where those affected by this disease receive the help they need to live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is alcoholism classified as a disease?

Alcoholism is classified as a disease.

It is characterised by compulsive decision-making, impulsive behaviour, an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use, and strong cravings.

What is the definition of alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the body’s physical inability to stop drinking alcohol and the presence of cravings for it.

It is characterised by a dependence on alcohol.

What is the difference between alcoholism and alcohol use disorder?

Alcoholism is no longer a term used in medical settings, having been replaced by the diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder.

It is more broadly defined than its predecessor to encompass a wider range of problematic drinking behaviours.

The new diagnosis is based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It includes 11 criteria that can be used to assess the severity of an individual’s drinking

What factors contribute to the development of alcoholism?

Genetic, psychological, social and environmental situations all contribute to the development of alcoholism.

This makes it a complex issue with multiple causes.

How does alcoholism affect the brain?

Alcoholism can have a damaging effect on the brain, altering its reward system and cognitive functions, and resulting in cravings and compulsive behaviour.

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