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Is Alcoholism a Disease or Choice?

by | Last updated Jun 8, 2021 at 9:53AM | Published on Jun 12, 2020 | Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol Addiction or Choice

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that makes it impossible for the alcoholic to predict how much they’ll drink. For many, alcoholism is a disease, but for others, alcoholism is a choice. Let’s explore both sides of the argument and also the evidence that supports each.

Why Alcoholism is a Disease

An active alcoholic is unable to control their drinking and to stop drinking even when experiencing consequences. Alcoholics, in particular, may struggle with denial over their dependence.

Alcoholics suffer from a mental obsession, which they’re powerless over. Generally, they develop a craving for alcohol stronger than their willpower to resist the urge to drink.

Long-term alcoholism produces physical dependence. So, some alcoholics are physically addicted and, when attempting to quit drinking alcohol, experience withdrawal symptoms.

Some organizations in the United States that recognize alcoholism as a disease include:

  • The American Psychiatric Association
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine
  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse

In the past, people misunderstood addiction as a choice. However, today, we know how alcohol causes changes in the brain, messing with someone’s ability to make rational decisions about their alcohol consumption.

Can Alcoholism Be a Chronic Disease?

Today, alcohol falls under the category of chronic disease. Even though there are many ways to label something a chronic disease or condition, these are the most common parameters:

  • Extended duration
  • Caused by many factors
  • Vaccines don’t exist
  • Medication to cure it doesn’t exist
  • Requires ongoing, long-term medical attention

Based on the criteria, alcoholism is a chronic condition. We know that alcoholism is the result of many environmental and hereditary factors. There’s also no vaccine to prevent alcoholism. Plus, alcoholism medications help with recovery, but they don’t cure it.

Finally, people with alcohol abuse problems need long-term rehab support to ensure recovery.

Close to 25-50% of people with substance use disorders have a chronic illness. To them, addiction is a progressive disease. As a result, it requires intensive treatment and continuing aftercare to manage their recovery.

How is Alcoholism a Brain Disease?

Besides the mental health portion of addiction, alcoholism is considered a brain disease because it affects its operation. Generally, alcoholism causes compulsive behavior and disrupts a person’s ability to think critically.

Brain scans show the impact of chronic alcohol use, confirming cell damage in the brains of alcoholics. Excessive drinking can damage the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for executive function and decision-making.

Effects of Alcoholism

The long-term effects of alcoholism can be devastating and even fatal. Many people struggling with alcohol abuse find themselves facing legal issues and financial problems. Additionally, addicts experience strained relationships with their families, which can take years of recovery to rebuild.

The Reward System 

Alcohol produces a surge of dopamine and over-stimulates the brain’s basal ganglia, responsible for controlling our reward system. With alcohol abuse, the nerves in this area reduce their sensitivity to dopamine, which eventually develops someone’s tolerance for alcohol. Ultimately, drinkers consume more substantial amounts of alcohol, hoping to feel the same euphoria they once did.

Poorer Quality of Life

The same dopamine neurotransmitters that manage pleasure are also responsible for eating food, engaging in social interaction, and having sex. When our reward system suffers from substance abuse, it often results in people experiencing less and less enjoyment from other areas of their lives when they’re not under the influence.

Painful Withdrawal Symptoms & Dangerous Health Effects

Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening for someone who has been drinking for an extended time. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and health risks factors include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Hypertension
  • Seizures
  • Tachycardia
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and Bone Aches
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney damage
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach, liver, or kidneys

Why Do People say Alcoholism is a Choice?

Even with all the evidence and research behind alcoholism, some people still believe it’s a choice. Truthfully, the first use or the early-stage use of alcohol may be by choice. However, once someone’s drinking patterns become chronic, addiction changes their brain makeup, eventually causing them to lose control of their behavior.

Choice doesn’t determine whether something is a chronic disease. For example, consider conditions such as diabetes and cancer, which can often offset one’s personal preferences for exercise, sun exposure, or diet.

Additionally, some people argue someone can overcome alcoholism without treatment. While this might be true for early abusers, those with a chronic alcohol addiction need intensive treatment. Without treatment, most people can experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can be fatal.

Am I an Alcoholic? [Quiz]

Unlike drugs, society accepts alcohol use. From office parties to family events, alcohol isn’t a substance people frown upon. Day drinking, binge drinking, and having a couple of drinks during dinner are all socially accepted behaviors.

So, how can you know if you’re struggling with alcoholism? Let’s start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you avoid friends and family members drinking?
  • Has your doctor told you to quit drinking due to health issues?
  • Do you often wake up after being drunk without memories of what happened?
  • Have you tried to stop drinking and failed?
  • Do you hide or lie about your alcohol consumption?
  • Do you feel guilty about your alcohol use?
  • Have you struggled with law enforcement due to your alcohol use?
  • Do you often think you should seek treatment for your alcohol use?
  • Have any of your friends or family members suggested you’re an alcoholic?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable when there’s no alcohol at parties?

If you answered yes to more than five of these questions, you might have an alcohol problem. It might be helpful to speak with an addiction specialist to understand your relationship with alcohol better. You can also take our “Am I an Alcoholic” quiz below for a more comprehensive evaluation. Keep in mind; this quiz is not meant to diagnose or treat. It’s best to use as an educational tool.

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

While there’s no cure for alcoholism that comes in pill form, there are ways to manage alcohol addiction. Treatment options range from group therapy to 12-Step programs and attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

Treatment Options

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our alcoholism treatment options offer a comprehensive and holistic look at the disease. Beyond medical detox and group and family therapy, we also look at mental health repercussions. Most people struggling with alcohol use disorder might benefit from a dual diagnosis treatment plan that focuses on their addiction and mental health struggles. Addicts generally tend to suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses that make it challenging to fight addiction and stay in recovery in the long term.

The Importance of Aftercare

Finally, alcohol addiction treatment is a long-term process. After leaving a treatment center, recovering alcoholics are encouraged to continue their treatment by following the 12-Steps programs and seeking aftercare treatments. Both programs can help those in recovery build long-term coping mechanisms and lifestyle skills that help them recover and maintain sobriety.

Start Your Journey Today

If you or someone you love struggles with alcoholism, the sooner you seek treatment, the better. Start today by contacting our admissions specialists to learn more about our treatment programs. Alcoholism can be a dangerous disease that affects your health, family, relationships, and even work environment. Don’t let alcohol take away the best years of your life.

Jessica

Jessica

Jessica is Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s Clinical Director. She has a Master’s Level Certified Addiction Professional, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and has a Masters in Behavioral Science. Jessica’s education allows her to elaborate in-depth on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Narrative Therapy approaches to addiction treatment.
Medical Disclaimer:

Lighthouse Recovery Institute aims to improve the quality of life for anyone struggling with substance use or mental health disorder. We provide fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their outcomes. The material we publish is researched, cited, edited, and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide in our posts is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.

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