Since Alcohol Is Legal, Why Is It Addictive?

Since Alcohol Is Legal, Why Is It Addictive?

It’s an interesting conundrum to be honest. With alcohol being the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States and about 88,000 dying from alcohol-related deaths every year, what gives? 

Why alcohol is legal is perhaps a story for another day but it’s largely because it’s been around for millennia and easy to produce so its usage has been incredibly normalized over time. It’s even part of some religious ceremonies and traditions around the world. Add to that the fact it’s a 200+ billion dollar industry in the US (and of course even larger globally) and you can understand its staying power in our culture.

Nonetheless, despite its origins and money-making power, alcohol remains one of the most commonly used addictive substances with about 86% of people 18 or older reporting they drank it at some point in life.

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol doesn’t necessarily carry the same stigma of other addictive agents but it is very much an addictive substance with over 14 million adults struggling with an alcohol use disorder.

Why is alcohol addictive though? What gives it that hold over us?

First of all, alcohol makes people feel good and that feeling is itself addictive. Drinking alcohol releases dopamine and endorphins, otherwise known as feel-good chemicals. Repeated use is motivated by the brain craving more of those chemicals. The more you drink, the higher your tolerance becomes which in turn means you need to drink more to get that same hit of dopamine and endorphins. Ultimately that can slip you right into addiction.

The Difference Between Casual Drinking and an Addiction

The addictive nature and legality aside, this is a big distinction. The one between casual and alcoholism. While no set in stone number of drinks make someone an addict, there are significant differentiators in consumption habits.

The casual or social drinker isn’t relying on alcohol. It’s not their reason for going to an event or the reason they’re doing anything at all. It’s a compliment. If a casual drinker were invited to a dry barbeque or told a party wouldn’t have an open bar, it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker because their motivation isn’t the alcohol.

Put another way, casual drinkers have control.

As per the CDC, moderate drinking is defined as 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 for men. But again, it’s less about the numbers and more about the ability to control and moderate intake.

On the flip side, there is addiction. Alcoholism. Whatever you want to call it, when drinking becomes severe it’s given the medical diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder, which is defined as, “a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

As you’ll note in the definition, it boils down to control.

For the person struggling with alcohol use disorder, the tables are turned. Where they at one point controlled their consumption, now their consumption is in the driver’s seat. You can see how this would change their relationship with alcohol and how something like being told an event is dry would drive them to skip it entirely.

Alcohol becomes the reason to do something. People that are addicted will prioritize drinking and find excuses to do it. They’ll have difficulty stopping once they start. You’ll find them drinking alone. Missing obligations at work, school or in their home life. They develop a high tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t drink.

They’re dependent on the drink and it controls them. That’s the difference.

Star Recovery Center Is Here to Help

If you or someone you know has that relationship with alcohol and can’t pull away from it despite the best efforts, get in touch with us at Star Recovery Center where a stay at our men’s only southern California treatment center can be just what you need to break the habit.