Understanding alcohol addiction

Jul 05, 2019

For many people, having a drink or 2 with friends or family is an enjoyable experience. But like other drugs, if you drink too much alcohol – whether in the short-term or on a long-term basis – it can seriously harm your health.

If you feel drinking is an important, or maybe the most important thing in your life, you could be one of the estimated 7% in Ireland who show signs of alcohol dependence or addiction (alcoholism).

Alcohol dependence doesn’t have to involve drinking excessively every night. There are in fact varying degrees of alcohol dependence. You may for instance feel the need to have a drink when you get home from work each night to unwind, or perhaps you feel you can’t relax or enjoy yourself in a social situation without alcohol. Either way, you may be becoming dependent on alcohol both psychologically and physically, and may already be drinking enough to affect your health. 

What causes alcohol addiction?

There are several things that can contribute to alcohol dependence. You may be drinking more because you’ve been made redundant or suffered a bereavement, for instance, or you could be in the middle of a relationship break-up. In fact, anything that causes extra stress could make you drink more than usual.

Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are also linked with heavier alcohol use, since many mistakenly believe drinking will help them with their problems. Often referred to as self-medication, this usually makes things worse if you’re a long-term drinker, since alcohol can affect your brain chemistry.

You may also have grown up in a family where drinking lots of alcohol was the norm. Experts know that alcohol dependence can be genetic, but the attitudes of those around you towards alcohol when you were growing up can have a significant impact on your own alcohol habits when you’re older.

Are you addicted?

The following are signs that you could be drinking too much alcohol:

  • You regularly exceed the recommended weekly alcohol limit
  • You feel you should cut down on your drinking
  • You’ve been criticised by others about your drinking
  • You feel guilty about how much you drink
  • You find it difficult to stop drinking once you start
  • You constantly think about when you’ll be able to have your next drink
  • You wake up needing a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to help you get over a hangover
  • You often can’t remember what happened the night before the morning after you’ve been drinking
  • Your home or work life is affected by your drinking (you may miss events or appointments because you’re drunk or hung over)
  • You only attend social events that involve drinking alcohol
  • You feel nauseated, sweaty or shaky if you don’t have a drink, but these symptoms disappear as soon as you have some alcohol

If you’re dependent on alcohol, your risk of developing health problems may be higher than it should be. Drinking heavily in the short term (binge drinking) can make you more likely to have an accident, and you’re also more likely to have unprotected sex. Your behaviour may become more violent or more reckless (or you may become a victim of violence). Your risk of getting alcohol poisoning will also be higher than normal.

Meanwhile, misusing alcohol on a long-term basis can increase your risk of having a serious health problem, such as liver disease, heart disease, stroke, liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer or pancreatitis. Health problems aside, long-term alcohol misuse can affect your relationships and your quality of life too, and may lead to things such as unemployment, financial difficulties, divorce, domestic abuse and homelessness.

What can you do?

If you’re dependent on alcohol and you suddenly stop drinking or cut down significantly, you’ll usually experience one or more withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking hands, hallucinations, depression, insomnia, sweating and anxiety.

Instead of trying to manage by yourself, it’s a good idea to see your GP to find out what services and treatments are available. Depending on your needs you may be offered medication that causes nausea, vomiting or dizziness when you have alcohol (this aims to deter you from drinking) or a course of medicine that reduces your cravings for alcohol.

You may also get the opportunity to take part in a detox programme, where one or more health professionals supervise you while you stop drinking. Other help may include counselling or going to self-help groups.

How to stay safe

If your drinking hasn’t reached a harmful level, there are things you can do to avoid it.

First, stick to the government’s alcohol intake guidelines, which advise not regularly drinking more than 17 units of alcohol a week for a man and 11 units for a woman (spread your units evenly over 3 or more days rather than all at the same time). A single unit of alcohol is the equivalent of a pub measure (35.5ml) of spirits or a half pint of normal strength beer or lager. A 150ml glass of wine contains around 1.5 units of alcohol.

Not sure whether you’re drinking too much? Try using the online self assessment from Drinkaware. The charity has also developed an app to help people track how much alcohol they drink.

Meanwhile, there are several charities and support groups if you need support and advice about alcohol dependence, including Alcohol IrelandAl-Anon, Alcohol Forum and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of CABA, the organisation providing lifelong support to ICAEW members, ACA students and their close family around the world.