Alcoholism is also known as alcohol dependence syndrome and refers to those who have a loss of control over drinking alcohol. It is a disease that is characterised by the following:
- Craving alcohol - a strong, overwhelming compulsion to drink.
- Loss of control - the inability to stop drinking alcohol once a person has started.
- Tolerance build-up - the need to consume increasing quantities of alcohol in order to reach the same "high”.
- Physical dependence - experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption is stopped. These symptoms may include shaking (tremors), nausea, insomnia anxiety and sweating, and are usually alleviated by drinking more alcohol.
- Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is the most severe form of problem drinking. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite the negative consequences to health and life.
Is Alcoholism an Illness?
Yes. Alcoholism is a chronic disease that gets progressively worse unless the individual gets help. Alcoholism operates in the brain by over-stimulating the reward pathways. This means that the individual initially experiences feelings of pleasure and avoids negative emotions like depression, anxiety and anger. However, alcoholics are unable to self-regulate, and lose control of their drinking. Tolerance builds and the alcoholic has to drink larger quantities in order to get the same effect.
Signs of alcoholism
If you're worried that you're suffering from alcoholism, ask yourself some questions:
- Do you often drink more than you intended to?
- Have you tried to top drinking without success?
- Have you given up activities such as socialising with friends or your hobbies because of your alcohol use?
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about alcohol or recovering from the effects of alcohol use?
- Do you drink alcohol even though you know it causing problems (e.g. to your health, relationships, job, etc.)?
- Do you hide how much you drink from friends and family?
If you've answered yes to any of these, you may be in the grip of alcoholism or alcohol dependence.
Is alcoholism inherited?
Evidence shows that alcoholism tends to run in families. Research is currently being undertaken to identify the genes that put people at risk of alcoholism. But just because a parent is suffering from alcoholism, it doesn't mean their children will necessarily become alcoholics.
It is also important to realise that even though alcoholism may not run in your family, you can still become at risk of becoming alcohol dependent. There are other risk factors such as peer influences and lifestyle. If your social life is centred around drinking alcohol, you are at risk of becoming physically dependent as alcohol is extremely addicted. If your lifestyle is stressful, you may turn to alcohol in order to relax. This can easily and quickly lead to alcoholism.
Can alcoholism be cured?
Alcoholism cannot be cured. Even if an alcoholic has stopped drinking for a period of time, they will always be at risk of relapse. An alcoholic must avoid alcohol completely in order to lead a healthy life.
Can alcoholism be treated?
The good news is alcoholics can be treated. The earlier alcohol dependence is treated, the better the chances of a full recovery. Alcoholics are unable to simply "stop drinking” through willpower alone as they are in the strong grip of uncontrollable cravings for alcohol. Most alcoholics require professional treatment.
Treatment for alcoholism usually starts with a period of detoxification - a process which safely removes the alcohol toxins from the body and should be carried out under medical supervision with the prescription of medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. However, detox alone will not result in a prolonged recovery. Detox should be accompanied by rehabilitative treatments, either in a residential alcohol rehab clinic or as part of a community-based programme. The type and length of treatment depends on the severity of the drink problem but will typically include a combination of individual and group counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, life skills workshops and alternative therapies. These help the alcoholic understand the nature of their addiction and what triggers their drinking, and gives them coping strategies to live a life free from alcoholism.