Why Alcohol is Addictive

by Johanna Griffin on June 19, 2017

By Caroline Ryan BBC News Online health staff



  • Absorption of information restricted; memory impaired; inhibitions lowered
  • Tunnel vision; difficulty in distinguishing light intensity
  • Central nervous system impaired; intestinal irritation can lead to ulcers; high levels can lead to coma or death
  • Change in fat metabolism, eventually leading to scarring of the liver
  • Sexual performance inhibited, possibly leading to impotence
  • Co-ordination and motor skills impaired; increased swaying

Source: Johns Hopkins University

It’s a familiar feeling. A few too many the night before and the morning brings headaches, nausea – and the pledge that you’ll never drink again.

But then you do.

Given that experience tells us drinking will ultimately lead to such symptoms, why do people still do it and what makes alcohol addictive?

The answer is a complex jigsaw of brain chemicals, personality and genetics.


Many of the clues lie deep within the brain.

Alcohol triggers the release of dopamine – a chemical which produces feelings of satisfaction.

It also increases the production of the brain’s natural painkiller – endorphin – which scientists think could be the means by which the brain becomes trained to crave.

In addition, drinking affects the glutamate and GABA, chemicals which control how essential messages are sent between nerve cells in the brain.

Scientists believe this effect is part of the development of tolerance to, and dependence on, alcohol. But Dr Jonathon Chick, a consultant psychiatrist at Edinburgh University said: “Chemicals are only part of the picture, They do not explain it fully.

“For example, there are people who have a nervous, anxious disposition. “If they start to use alcohol as a tranquiliser, that can become addictive.”

Genetic link

” The way to stop people drinking and prevent addiction is simply to put up the price of alcohol ” Dr Jonathan Chick, Edinburgh University

Dr David Ball, a researcher for the charity Action on Addiction. added: “There are psychological traits, such as sensation seeking, which are linked to illicit drug use – though there is not a specific addictive personality.” Another part of the explanation lies in a person’s genes. Someone whose parents had a problem with alcohol have a 10-fold chance of having a problem themselves compared to someone whose parents did not have a problem.

Researchers are currently investigating which genes are responsible.

Doctors say the increased availability of alcohol means genetic predispositions to addiction – and the biological effects of drinking too much are triggered more often.

Dr Ball said: “People can have a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction, but it can’t be triggered if people aren’t exposed to alcohol in the first place.”

Dr Crick added: “More people are drinking more often, and so more of the at-risk people end up in difficulties compared to 30 years ago when fewer people drank.”

Both doctors welcomed the recent recommendation from the Academy of Medical Sciences which said the cost of alcohol should increase by 10% to encourage people to drink less.

Dr Crick concluded: “The only way to stop people drinking and prevent addiction is to put up the price of alcohol.”

If you would like to talk, feel free to reach out to us. An LifeWorks therapist would be able to help.

Corina Saramet
Corina Saramet
Psychologist - English,Romanian,Spanish
Master Degree in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Bucharest, Romania
Nashwa Tantawy
Nashwa Tantawy
Psychologist - Arabic, English
M.A. in Counseling Psychology from The American University in Cairo
Jyotika Aggarwal
Jyotika Aggarwal
Clinical Psychologist - English
M.A.(Clinical Psychology), RE-CBT - Experience: 7 Years
Sailaja Menon
Sailaja Menon
Counseling Psychologist - English
CAGS (Multicultural Counseling), Johns Hopkins University, USA - Experience: 25 Years
Salma Mahmoud
Salma Mahmoud
Psychologist - Arabic and English
Master's in Psychology, BA Psychology - Experience: 12 Years
Iva Vukusic
Iva Vukusic
Clinical Psychologist - English, Croatian and German
Master of Psychology, Training of Trainers (ToT) Community
Dr.Marwa Abd El Hamid
Dr.Marwa Abd El Hamid
Clinical Psychologist - Arabic and English
Ph.D. in Psychology Ain-Shams University - Experience: 16 Years
Dr. Sravani Behara
Dr. Sravani Behara
Specialist Psychiatrist - English, Hindi and Telugu
MBBS, MD - Experience: 12 Years
Dr.Bassem Badr
Dr.Bassem Badr
Consultant Psychiatrist,Holistic Approach - Arabic and English
Master of Science in Neuropsychiatry - Experience: 25 Years

Need Help ?
Emotional Health Support in

4 Simple steps

Form is not available. Please visit our contact page.
HAYAT Program