Alcoholism: A Progressive Disease

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Alcoholism A Progressive Disease

People do not choose to become addicted to alcohol, regardless of whether or not they choose to take a drink. This lack of control interested American physician E.M. Jellinek, who, in the 1930s, began researching the impact of alcohol on an individual’s body, mind, relationships, and productivity. Jellinek’s research on the disease of alcoholism were groundbreaking and by the 1950s, resulted in the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizing alcoholism as a disease. These changes encouraged better treatment options and improved outcomes for those suffering with alcoholism in the middle of the 21st century.


Later research in the 1960s and 70s revealed a genetic component to alcohol addiction. Twin studies examining the incidence of alcoholism in identical twin pairs compared with a control set of fraternal twin pairs, found double the rate of alcohol addiction in both individuals among identical twins pairs, indicating a genetic factor.

Today, researchers have isolated dozens of genes and gene combinations that appear to play pivotal roles in whether or not someone is vulnerable to alcohol addiction. One such gene dubbed the “alcoholism gene” or CYP2E1 is a variant resulting in greater sensitivity to alcohol.

Alcoholism And Drug Sensitization

Often people wonder what causes that transition from social drinker to alcoholism. Alcoholism is a progressive disease and begins when the body associates the intake of alcohol with the dopamine reward system in the brain. The dopamine reward system is a highly evolved part of the brain, designed to recognize experiences that appear to benefit us, like finding foods high in complex proteins or water.

When primitive man discovered a good food source, for example, his brain captured details of his surroundings to make locating this food source easier in the future. It also released the neurotransmitter dopamine, flooding the man with feelings of contentment. This dopamine release motivated the man to locate this good food source and good feeling again.

When a person ingests alcohol, their body relaxes, they may experience reduced pain or anxiety; all things to which the dopamine reward system responds. With the first few times drinking, the body is taking note of these changes in response to the intake of alcohol. The process of drug sensitization occurs after a few sessions, when the brain responds to even the most minute amount of alcohol with a heightened response; signaling for greater intake.

This means even the smell of alcohol could produce a subtle craving for the substance. Someone who intends to have only a beer after work, may find it hard to resist ordering a second. The brain now associates alcohol with those things that sustain it like food and water. Cravings develop and withdrawal symptoms occur if the person does not seek out alcohol.

Alcoholism And Changes In The Brain

Already the brain is changing based on exposure to alcohol. This can happen in varying degrees depending on a person’s genetic makeup. With continued use, alcohol begins altering the biochemistry and structure of the brain. The severity of cravings increase and withdrawal symptoms occur more rapidly, perpetuating use of the drug.

Alcohol is also damaging vital parts of the brain within the frontal lobe associated with reasoning and decision-making, ravaging these protective control mechanisms in the same way cancer turns healthy cells against us. Black-outs may occur regularly along with lapses in memory and cognitive function.

Using imaging technology, researchers have been able to demonstrate significant brain shrinkage with long-term use of alcohol. This includes damage to the grey and white matter of the brain. Grey and white matter make up the neural network which relays everything from thoughts, impulse control, and behaviors relating to goal creation are negatively impacted. A person’s personality changes significantly as alcoholism progresses. Whereas they might have once been an attentive and kind person, they now choose alcohol over all other areas of responsibility in their lives, regardless of consequence.

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Alcoholism And The Body

As the disease of alcoholism progresses, an individual will begin to experience significant changes to their physical health. Alcohol drastically interferes with the body’s immune system, reducing the effectiveness of both T-cells and NK cells in warding off illness and tumor development, as well as interfering with the production of cytokines, or the control modules of the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to infection and disease. Changes to the immune system begin to occur even in the early stages of alcoholism.

Other major organ systems are affected, including the endocrine, cardiovascular, and the digestive system. Someone with later stage alcoholism may suffer from liver disease, pancreatitis, hormonal changes, and cardiomyopathy, or a weakening of the heart muscle. Cancers associated with the mouth, throat, liver and colon are also reported at greater frequency in those who abuse alcohol long-term.

Compounding the issue is a person’s nutrient intake. As alcoholism progresses, an individual will turn to drink more than nutritious foods, creating vitamin deficiencies. Some of these deficiencies can lead to serious ill-health effects. For example, common among alcohol addicted individuals is a deficiency in thiamine, part of the B complex. This deficiency can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), a disorder affecting the brain and nerve cells. A person suffering with WKS will likely experience confusion, memory loss, and significant cognitive impairment all similar to dementia, as well as psychosis.

End-Stage Alcoholism

Approximately 4 percent of deaths worldwide are linked directly to alcohol. This number does not account for deaths associated with related cancers, disorders, and diseases relating to long-term alcohol use. Death often comes on the heels of these related illnesses, organ failure, or from suicide, motor-vehicle accidents, and head injury relating to falls. At the end stage of alcoholism a person may be unrecognizable from who they were, both physically and emotionally, before the addiction.

Treatment at this stage is critical and must be managed medically to reduce the risk of death associated with sudden alcohol withdrawal. At this stage, a person may never fully recover and may suffer chronic conditions related to long-term alcohol use. These conditions require extra care and support as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Stop The Progression Of Alcoholism

Contact If you or someone you love is affected by alcoholism, there is help. Evidence-based treatment can not only help an individual achieve sobriety, but it can also reverse some of the damage caused by long-term problem drinking. is an online resrouce that can connect you with the treatment professionals and a comprehensive recovery plan to meet your individual needs. Contact us today and stop the progression of alcoholism in your life.


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