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What Is Alcoholism?

For many, beer, wine, and spirits conjure up thoughts of social gatherings and tipsy fun. But alcohol is a nervous system depressant and is associated with damaging behavior, as well as the emotional pain and physical disintegration of alcohol addiction, colloquially known as alcoholism. Experts continue to debate the benefits and risks of drinking and passionately argue over whether moderation or complete abstinence is the best option for those who struggle with alcoholism.

Alcohol Use Disorder is a pattern of disordered drinking that leads to significant distress. It can involve withdrawal symptoms, disruption of daily tasks, discord in relationships, and risky decisions that place oneself or others in harm's way. More than 16 million American adults struggle with overconsumption of alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Like all addictions, alcohol use disorder is inextricably linked to a complex matrix of biological, social, and psychological factors. Research highlights a genetic component to the disorder, as about half of one's predisposition to alcoholism can be attributed to genetic makeup. People may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with trauma or other, often unrecognized psychological disorders. Socially, alcoholism may be tied to family dysfunction or a culture of binge drinking.

Excessive alcohol consumption is correlated with increased risk of stroke, liver disease, and decreased life expectancy. In fact, binge drinking during only the weekends can provide enough of an assault to damage the liver, studies show. Moderate drinking can interfere with sleep quality by interrupting circadian rhythms and REM sleep.

For more information on symptoms, causes, and treatment, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

How to Treat Alcoholism

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In some cases, the first step in treating alcohol use disorder is detoxification—experiencing withdrawal in a safe setting with medical professionals. Following withdrawal, there are many paths to recovery.

Some people are able to stop drinking on their own. There are many organized programs that provide the support of peers, usually through frequent meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous is one such program; It offers a structured 12-step path toward recovery with a community of support from those who have dealt with similar challenges.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is another path, available in person or online. Non-abstinence-based recovery models—such as Moderation Management—advocate for reducing one's alcohol consumption rather than abstaining completely.

The biggest barrier to therapy of any kind that patients may face is the shame and stigma associated with the condition; most programs address such concerns directly.

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