Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a serious issue that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s a chronic characterized by an inability to control or stop drinking despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. But is it a mental illness? Let’s explore deeper into this question.
The American Psychiatric Association’s latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) defines the disorder as a recurrent use and reliance on alcohol to the degree that it interferes with everyday living. Alcoholism or AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe, based on the number of symptoms individuals exhibit.
Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder According to DSM-5
- Inability to control or stop drinking.
- The desire to drink interferes with your ability to perform activities of daily living.
- Cutting down friends, hobbies, and other meaningful or fulfilling activities to accommodate drinking.
- Drinking interferes with your work, family, or school responsibilities.
- Taking alcohol despite its negative outcome on your health, safety, and relationships
The active ingredient in alcohol, ethanol, is psychoactive. It rewires the brain’s reward pathway, which is responsible for pleasure, rest, motivation, and satisfaction. The primary brain chemical or neurotransmitter that activates this neural circuit is dopamine.
Naturally, your body stimulates dopamine release by activating the pathway in response to various pleasurable experiences and behaviors like eating, exercising, or interacting with friends and loved ones. Dopamine binds to receptors in the reward circuit to stimulate pleasure. However, the levels of this happiness hormone never exceed a certain threshold. Its effect is also short-lived.
It all starts with your initial alcoholic drink. Ethanol stimulates dopamine production and the release of other feel-good molecules like glutamate, endorphins, and serotonin. Unfortunately, an ethanol-induced activation is far more potent and long-lasting than the natural pathway. It dulls the natural dopamine release pathway while curating a circuit dependent on alcohol.
As you continue to consume alcohol, the brain learns, adapts, and perfects the new pathway through a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is responsible for learning and memory processes. The adaptation begins the new normal.
Developing Tolerance to Alcohol
The brain increases your alcohol craving tenfold because it prefers the new ethanol-induced reward pathway. Things that once achieved a ‘high’ for you, leaving you satisfied, and motivated, like hobbies, relationships, or exercising, cannot get the pathway to release this new-found euphoria. The reward they achieve pales in comparison to alcohol.
Meanwhile, this prolonged exposure to alcohol makes you develop tolerance. The brain achieves tolerance by downregulating dopamine receptors. As the receptor numbers decrease, their sensitivity to ethanol plummets. In such cases, only more alcohol consumption can achieve the desired effect, leading to tolerance.
Additionally, the brain reduces dopamine receptor sensitivity, leading to diminished pleasurable effects and a need for higher alcohol doses to achieve the desired reward. At this point, your affinity for alcohol is at a staggering high.
Ethanol does not stop with dopamine. It also affects serotonin, a brain hormone that controls mood, behavior, and addiction-related processes. Alcohol affects serotonin production, operation, and levels in the brain. It also alerts serotonin receptor sensitivity and function. In turn, the hormone
- Reinforces the brain’s new ethanol-induced pathway.
- Enhances addiction by increasing and sustaining your alcohol craving.
- Heightens your impulsivity toward alcohol by making people go to extensive lengths to get alcohol, including stealing, selling things, engaging in prostitution, or using all their money to drink their substance of choice.
- Produces awful withdrawal symptoms, including severe depression and anxiety, when the ethanol effect wears off, keeping you dependent on the alcohol-induced high.
Take The First Step Towards Recovery
Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder is not just a bad habit or lack of discipline; it’s a serious mental illness that requires professional help. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, remember, you are not alone, and help is available.
At Crest View Recovery, a dual diagnosis treatment center in Asheville, NC, we understand the complex nature of alcoholism and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our talented and compassionate team of addiction treatment providers is trained in dual-diagnosis treatment programs, offering a comprehensive and integrated approach to recovery.
Don’t let alcohol control your life or the life of your loved ones. Reach out to us today to learn more about our program and how we can assist you on your journey toward recovery. Click here for more information or give us a call at (866) 327-2505.
Remember, there’s no shame in seeking help. In fact, it’s the bravest thing you can do. Take the first step towards a healthier, happier future with Crest View Recovery. We’re here for you every step of the way.