What Does it Mean to be Physically Dependent on Alcohol?

Physical Dependence on Alcohol: Signs & Solutions

Learn about symptoms, risks and treatment options for alcohol dependence to support your recovery

Physical dependence on alcohol occurs when the body adapts to its presence, resulting in increased tolerance and potentially severe withdrawal symptoms.1 This dependence can significantly impact various aspects of a person’s life, including health, relationships, and daily functioning. Understanding the tools and strategies for recovery, as well as recognising warning signs and triggers, is crucial for anyone dealing with alcohol dependence. Acknowledging that you or someone you know might have a problem with alcohol is the first important step toward seeking help.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol dependence, we advise you to take action as soon as possible. CATCH Recovery offers the comprehensive support and effective strategies needed to overcome alcohol dependence, including referral to inpatient rehab if necessary. Our experienced team provides personalised treatment plans to address your unique needs and guide you through every step of the recovery process.

Don’t wait until the effects of alcohol take a further toll on your life. Contact CATCH Recovery today and take the first step towards a healthier, alcohol-free future.

What is Physical Alcohol Dependence?

Physical alcohol dependence, often referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a medical condition characterised by an inability to stop or reduce alcohol consumption despite experiencing negative consequences in social, work, or health domains. This condition includes various terms such as alcohol abuse, dependence, addiction, and alcoholism.

When someone is physically dependent on alcohol, they feel they cannot function or survive without it. They might experience strong cravings for alcohol and find that their ability to perform daily tasks is significantly impaired without it.

Recognising the early warning signs of physical dependence is crucial for receiving prompt treatment. If your drinking pattern consistently causes significant distress and impairs your ability to function in daily life, you likely have an alcohol use disorder.

Signs of Physical Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe, with physical dependence being a critical component. Physical dependence on alcohol means that the body has adapted to the presence of alcohol and requires it to function normally. Here are some common signs of physical alcohol dependence:

  1. Increased Tolerance: Needing more alcohol to achieve the same effects, as the body becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol.
  2. Withdrawal Symptoms: Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, tremors, nausea, sweating, and irritability when not drinking.
  3. Loss of Control: Inability to limit alcohol intake or stop drinking despite attempts to do so, due to the body’s dependence on alcohol.
  4. Preoccupation with Alcohol: Spending a significant amount of time thinking about, obtaining, or recovering from alcohol consumption.
  5. Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences: Persisting with drinking despite it causing physical health problems, such as liver damage, digestive issues, or cardiovascular problems.

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Physical Alcohol Dependence and the Central Nervous System

Physical alcohol dependence significantly affects the central nervous system (CNS), leading to various physiological and psychological changes. The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord, which control most functions of the body and mind. Alcohol has a profound impact on this system, influencing everything from mood and behaviour to motor skills and vital bodily functions.

Impact on the Central Nervous System

1. Neurotransmitter Imbalance:

  • Alcohol disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for transmitting signals in the brain.
  • It enhances the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, leading to sedative and calming effects.
  • Simultaneously, it inhibits the action of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, which can impair cognitive functions and memory.

2. Tolerance Development:

  • With prolonged alcohol use, the CNS adapts to the presence of alcohol, leading to tolerance.
  • More alcohol is needed to achieve the same effects, as the brain becomes less responsive to its presence.

3. Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • When alcohol intake is reduced or stopped, the CNS, which has adjusted to its presence, becomes hyperactive.
  • Withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, and severe agitation.
  • In severe cases, this can lead to delirium tremens (DTs), a potentially life-threatening condition.

4. Cognitive and Motor Impairment:

  • Chronic alcohol use can lead to cognitive deficits, including memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and impaired decision-making.
  • Motor skills can also be affected, resulting in unsteady gait, poor coordination, and slowed reaction times.

5. Long-term Damage:

  • Prolonged alcohol dependence can result in permanent damage to the CNS.
  • Conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe memory disorder caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, are common among chronic alcohol users.
  • There can also be extensive damage to the brain’s structure and function, leading to irreversible cognitive and motor impairments.

Who is at Risk of Alcohol Dependence?

Understanding the risk factors for alcohol dependence is important when identifying those who may be more vulnerable to developing this condition. These factors encompass a range of behavioural, genetic, psychological, and social elements that collectively contribute to the likelihood of alcohol use disorder. Long-term or binge drinking habits significantly elevate the risk, particularly when such patterns start at a young age, potentially setting the stage for chronic misuse.

Genetic predispositions, often highlighted by a family history of alcohol problems, play a substantial role in increasing susceptibility. Additionally, individuals with underlying mental health disorders, such as depression or a history of trauma, are at a heightened risk, as alcohol can be used as a coping mechanism.

Social influences, including peer pressure and media portrayals that glamorise drinking, further exacerbate the risk, shaping attitudes and behaviours toward alcohol consumption.

  1. Long-term or binge drinking can lead to alcohol-related issues or alcohol use disorder.
  2. Drinking from a young age increases the risk of alcohol use disorder.
  3. A family history of alcohol problems or genetics can contribute to the risk.
  4. Mental disorders like depression or trauma history also increase susceptibility.
  5. Social influences, including peers and media portrayal, can also impact alcohol use disorder risk. 2

Alcohol dependence can profoundly impact someone’s life in various ways, affecting their physical health, relationships, and overall stability. This condition is not just about the immediate effects of drinking but also encompasses a range of long-term consequences that permeate multiple facets of an individual’s life.

The health ramifications are severe and often irreversible, manifesting in chronic conditions that can diminish the quality of life and reduce lifespan. Beyond the physical toll, alcohol dependence wreaks havoc on personal relationships, eroding trust and creating emotional turmoil that can lead to isolation and the breakdown of social support systems.

Moreover, the impact on one’s professional life and financial health can be devastating, with decreased productivity and frequent absenteeism jeopardising employment and leading to significant economic hardships.

Health Effects: Long-term alcohol dependence can lead to serious health issues such as liver disease, heart problems, digestive problems, and neurological disorders.

Relationships: Excessive alcohol use can strain relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, leading to conflicts, isolation, and breakdowns in communication.

Work and Finances: Alcohol dependence can lead to decreased productivity, absenteeism from work, job loss, and financial difficulties due to spending money on alcohol.

Health Risks

Despite potential health risks, individuals may be motivated to repeatedly consume alcohol. For instance, using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress might provide temporary relief, but over time, it can exacerbate negative emotional states between drinking episodes. This cycle can reinforce unhealthy patterns of alcohol consumption.

Health risks associated with alcohol dependence include:

  1. High blood pressure
  2. Liver disease
  3. Cancer
  4. Dementia
  5. Digestive Problems: Such as gastritis, pancreatitis, and gastrointestinal bleeding.
  6. Neurological Disorders: Including cognitive impairment, memory problems, and neuropathy.
  7. Mental Health Issues: Such as depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of suicide. 3
  8. Weakened Immune System: Making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses 4

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How to Tell if You or Someone You Know is Alcohol Dependent

The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) is a screening tool developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to identify individuals with harmful alcohol consumption patterns. It consists of ten questions that assess alcohol intake, drinking behaviours, and alcohol-related problems. The AUDIT helps to detect early signs of hazardous and harmful drinking as well as possible alcohol dependence. It is widely used in clinical settings to guide interventions and support individuals in managing their alcohol use. 5

Am I Drinking Too Much?

The NHS recommends that both men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. It’s best to spread these units evenly over three or more days to reduce the risk of harm to your health. Additionally, having several alcohol-free days each week is advised to give your body a break from alcohol. 6

Alcohol Change UK’s unit calculator can help you check how much you are drinking.7

Seeking Help

If you find that you are drinking too much alcohol, experiencing problems because of it, or if your family is concerned about your drinking, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider. Other options for help include speaking with a mental health professional or joining a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous.

What are the Social Effects of Alcohol Dependence?

As well as causing serious long-term health problems, alcohol use disorder can have significant social impacts. It can affect someone’s quality of life and can lead to conflicts with family and friends, causing strained and broken relationships. Additionally, alcohol dependence can lead to:

  • Social Isolation: People may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves to hide their drinking habits.
  • Work Issues: Dependence can decrease productivity, absenteeism, and job loss, affecting professional relationships and career stability.
  • Financial Problems: The cost of alcohol, combined with potential job loss, can lead to financial difficulties and stress.
  • Domestic Violence: There is an increased risk of domestic violence and abuse in households where alcohol dependence is present.
  • Negative Role Modelling: Alcohol dependence can negatively influence children and other family members, increasing their risk of developing similar issues.

 How CATCH Recovery Can Help

At CATCH Recovery, we offer a range of therapies designed to support you at every stage of your recovery journey, whether you have an alcohol or substance use disorder. For those in early recovery, CATCH provides tailored therapeutic interventions that address the underlying causes of addiction, equip patients with coping mechanisms, and create a strong support network.

Patients can also book supplementary therapies even after their initial treatment programme. These ongoing therapies can help prevent relapse by reinforcing healthy habits, providing continuous emotional support, and maintaining a focus on long-term recovery goals. By integrating these resources, we encourage patients to overcome setbacks and build a resilient foundation for lasting sobriety.

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