Is alcoholism a disease?

In exploring whether there is a ‘cure’ for alcoholism, it is important to fully understand what it involves – and who!

Particularly if you are wondering ‘Is alcoholism an illness?”, as you may hold the misconception that you have limited control over it. Or, that you are somehow ‘immune’.

Also, to answer the question, ‘what is alcoholism?’ and whether it is a disease, we first need to look at dependency compared to alcohol abuse.

These terms are subtly different. Understanding them may help thousands more people find ways to improve their health and well-being with alcohol reduction or cessation.

Most people have too much to drink at some point in their lives, and for some getting drunk regularly becomes part of their social life. There are good reasons for them to cut down, or make sure to abstain for a few weeks, to give their health a ‘reboot’.

However, for some people, alcohol becomes an overpowering compulsion. They feel a physical, emotional or mental need for the stimulation, confidence and escape that it provides.

This level of dependency – and being an alcoholic – is often characterized by the need to drink upon waking or all through the day. It can also bring serious health complications if the individual tries to stop consuming alcohol abruptly – often referred to as going ‘cold turkey’. (The irony is that you can actually put your health at serious risk if you try to end severe alcohol dependency without professional supervision. More on this later.)

However, you need to know that this description of what an alcoholic is can differ greatly from the reality of this type of addiction.

The myth of alcohol dependency

So, what is alcohol abuse, and can you be dependent, without being ‘addicted’?

This is a very important area of discussion on alcoholism and its treatment. That is because countless people don’t acknowledge they need help. They associate alcoholism with drinking non-stop and being in certain demographic groups – such as rough sleepers.

In fact, some people’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is spasmodic. They feel they have everything under control. For example, they may be able to go days without drinking.

However, there may be situations – especially social ones – when they feel compelled to have a drink. Or they self-medicate for depression, anxiety, work stress or loneliness by consuming alcohol.

Do you feel that you can’t cope with gatherings or certain occasions unless you have drunk some alcohol? Does a hard day at work inevitably end with a few drinks at home or in your local pub or bar?

Alcohol abuse – or less obvious dependency – can also involve binge drinking. This is consuming excessive and dangerous amounts in a small period of time. You may be able to go weeks before you feel compelled to go and drink a lot of alcohol on what is commonly known as a ‘bender’.

Admitting you have alcohol dependency

Clearly, a compulsion to drink alcohol can take many forms.

The important thing to realise is that all of these scenarios suggest a relationship with alcohol that is unhealthy and that carries serious health risks.

If you are severely dependent, total cessation may be the only way to address your addiction to the effects of alcohol.

I could give up any time I want

Despite the best of intentions and the view you are in control, any kind of risky relationship with alcohol is not something you can turn off like a tap. No matter how many reasons you have to quit, and no matter how many times your loved ones ask you to stop or reduce your intake.

That’s because when you are alcohol dependent – in all its forms – you are physically, emotionally and mentally compelled to get the psychoactive effects it creates.

Psychoactive substances like alcohol and drugs have a biological effect on your nervous system and alter your behaviour, mood, perception, consciousness level and decision making.

How can it be a disease?

It is easy to think of disease as something you catch. In fact, a disease is “a disorder of structure or function”.

A compulsion to drink alcohol and experience its psychoactive effects is, therefore, a disease.

This is crucial to understand, as drinking to excess regularly or over a long period is not necessarily due to being ‘weak-willed’ or oppositional. In fact, hiding a compulsion to drink – and staying in control of your life – can take a huge amount of effort!

When you are alcohol dependent, you have a disorder that is very hard to end without professional help and treatment for alcoholism.

That’s not to say alcohol detox at home is not possible. As we describe below, it can be highly effective, but you will still need expert help and guidance to make it both successful, and risk-free.

Can alcohol addiction be cured?

Whether you choose to detox from alcohol at home – or stay in detox or rehab facilities – the good news is that even the worst addictions to alcohol can be controlled and managed.

There are important things to explain though.

First, if you are an alcoholic – with a severe compulsion to drink – you can not be cured. That will always be with you. You will always need coping strategies to help you stay on the road to recovery.

That last term is highly significant – as managing your relationship with alcoholism is a journey, not a destination. That includes all levels of dependency.

You can get the help you need to achieve sustainable recovery, and a significant improvement in your health, well-being and ability to live every day alcohol-free. However, your relationship with alcohol has changed forever. In many cases, even one drink can re-ignite the physical cravings and dependency.

Why is giving up alcohol hard?

There is a view that alcohol is harder to give up than drugs. Primarily as alcohol is everywhere in daily life and recovering alcoholics will be offered it very regularly. Admitting to people you can’t have alcohol and dealing with any sense of embarrassment can be tough.

It could be that abstaining from alcohol makes you or your friends feel awkward too, and you start to have less social life. A sense of isolation and judgement can bring depression or low mood, making it harder to resist ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol.

The core truth is though, that often the only long-term solution for alcoholism is complete abstinence.
How you get to that point of being in control of your addiction depends entirely on you. Including how strong your compulsion and dependency are, the support services you choose, and the alcohol treatment option that suits your personality and lifestyle.

When is it time for treatment?

This is a really important consideration for anyone seeking alcoholism treatment, or for loved ones urging someone to get help with alcohol dependency.

It has been said often, but that’s because it is crucial. To achieve sustainable recovery from alcohol addiction you must really want it and be ready to do whatever it takes to achieve it.

Also, you need to be ready to face setbacks and a tremendous fight to ignore your triggers and cravings. When you do slip up, are you willing to get straight back on with your alcoholism recovery programme? One of the main ways people ‘fall off the wagon’ is they drink, and then their compulsion takes over and they feel demotivated to get back on a path to alcohol recovery.

The best time to seek treatment for an unhealthy relationship with alcohol is any time YOU are ready to give it your best shot. No one can do this for you.

That’s because there are two things that make a big difference in how successful treatment for alcohol dependency is. First, well-orchestrated and medically-proven substance treatment help that is customised to you. Second, your determination to engage with a successful treatment programme for alcoholism.

That determination will be tested constantly – as you are going to be dealing with the physical, mental, emotional, and biological aftereffects of having alcohol issues. However, the payback makes it worthwhile.

Treatment options: detox?

This type of alcohol treatment is often most appropriate for those who have had long-term or severe alcoholism, and who need to consume excessive amounts to get the full psychoactive effect. However, anyone can choose to find the best alcohol detox programme – either residential or a home-based option.

The vital thing is to only detox with the right help, to manage the symptoms and side-effects of withdrawing from alcohol safely and successfully.

Treatment options: rehab?

Some people with alcohol dependency can go straight to rehab services. However, someone who has an active and severe addiction may progress to rehab once they have things more under control, thanks to effective alcohol detox support.

Just like detox, you can choose between a residential alcohol rehab centre, or you can follow a trustworthy home rehab programme. There are also community-based rehab services for alcohol dependency issues.

Whichever path you choose, the key thing is to be fully invested in your recovery from alcoholism. Including being ready to abstain completely if necessary.

Rehab is where you receive coping strategies that underpin sustained recovery, such as ways to recognise and manage triggers and cravings, and alternative things you can do to distract yourself from the temptation to drink.

It can also often include counselling and therapies that help you to explore where your dependency came from, to avoid returning back to your previous relationship with alcohol.

Alcohol detox at home

You can get professional help to explore how detox from alcohol can be self-managed. Medically-sound assistance is still needed, to protect you from side effects and health risks from detoxing at home.

However, for many people, this is an effective way to reduce or abstain from drinking. Not least as a home detox system provides you with a private and discrete way to end alcohol dependency.

Why do we think we can detox at home?

The steps involved in how to alcohol detox at home must be carefully managed.

However, with the right expert advice and insights, many people find this is the best option for them. For some people, going away for alcohol detox and rehab services is impractical or far too daunting. Achieving recovery in the comfort of familiar surroundings – and without strangers around you – can be really important.

It is certainly a way to tackle your alcohol issues in the real world, learning to cope with cravings and triggers from day one. Residential help with alcoholism can be successful, only for your daily life back home to throw up substantial issues which derail your recovery.

With a well-supported home detox for alcohol dependency, you will be tackling your issues ‘in context’ and potentially with encouragement from family and friends too.

What is the reality of home detox?

Home detox from alcohol takes a great deal of willpower. It needs to be a well-orchestrated and medically-sound home detox programme to make success more assured, but also to keep you safe.

Having someone to support you through the process – such as a partner- can be important. Partly because you can feel physically unwell – even when you undertake home detox gradually and with all the health risks properly managed. You are tackling a physical, mental and emotional compulsion, and every step presents its own hurdles.

Why are we so reluctant to detox at a clinic?

When you look at how to detox from alcohol, you can see that reducing down carefully and in a risk-free manner takes time.

Not everyone can afford to give up that much time so they can detox in a specialist alcohol treatment clinic. For example, if you are a parent, or you need to keep working throughout your alcohol treatment programme.

For some people, the thought of going away from home and dealing with strangers can be triggering and uncomfortable, and being away from everyday life can actually make you feel less able to stay on track now and post-treatment.

Should I consider a private detox clinic?

There are times when the best way to find an effective treatment for alcoholism is to use a successful private detox clinic.

For instance, if your compulsion to drink alcohol is likely to overwhelm your willpower to stop, making home detox options a non-starter.

Also, some people find being away from their normal everyday life and routine does help. They can focus entirely on the steps involved in detoxing from alcohol and can engage fully with rehab counselling and therapies with no distractions.

Of course, one of the big advantages of a private detox clinic is the availability of professionals to help you 24 hours a day. This round-the-clock support can be particularly vital if you live alone or have limited access to help with a home detox programme.

Will medication cure alcoholism?

There are medications that can help to tackle the physical side effects of withdrawing from alcohol or quash cravings post-treatment. There are also anti-depressants and other medications that can support addiction alcohol treatment including alcohol detox at home options.

However, there is no ‘magic pill’ to cure alcoholism. The only way to tackle a poor relationship with alcohol is to engage in a well-managed programme of reduction or abstinence, supported by medical professionals.

What approved medications are available?

Among the few medications used to support alcohol addiction treatment is specialist tranquilisers approved for this purpose. These work by managing some of the more severe and distressing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. There are also medications approved to help you to achieve sustained recovery from alcohol dependency.

Acamprosate (sometimes referred to as Campral) is sometimes used once you have stopped drinking, as it helps some people to reduce their craving for alcohol.

Disulfiram (Antabuse) is another medication used to prevent relapses following a successful alcohol treatment programme. It works by causing unpleasant effects when you do consume alcohol – such as making you feel sick (or be sick) and dizzy.

Naltrexone plays a different role in preventing a significant relapse. This drug works by cancelling out the psychoactive effects of alcohol, making it less attractive. However, it also cancels out some pain medications and is usually only used in conjunction with post-treatment counselling.

Nalmefene (Selincro) works by killing your craving for alcohol by altering the chemistry of your brain. It is sometimes used in the leading alcohol treatment programmes, to help people to reduce or abstain while they benefit from counselling and other long-term solutions for addiction.

Counselling for alcoholism

Most diseases (or disorders) are treated as thoroughly as possible with medications – and the cause becomes largely immaterial. Treating the disease of alcoholism is different. The cause can be highly significant, and the key to achieving sustainable recovery from alcohol dependency.

This can make it vitally important to engage in counselling and therapies that address the underlying causes of issues with alcohol. Without doing that, recovery could be short-lived as the original cause can ‘undo’ even the best alcohol treatment programmes.

Also, counselling can be important in treating alcohol addiction due to the other emotional and mental issues you could be tackling. For instance, you could be experiencing guilt and shame about the effects of your compulsion to drink. Perhaps being alcohol dependent has badly impacted your relationships, career and ability to control your aggression.

Counselling can help remove some of the obstacles to managing your alcoholism. One of the most commonly used therapies in rehab treatment for alcoholism is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This helps you to rewire some of your instinctive responses and decisions. Including identifying and defusing the things that trigger you to drink.

In other words, counselling can be the difference between sustained recovery, or just a temporary improvement in your alcohol issues.

Tips for selecting treatment

To treat alcohol addiction, it is vital to find the right programme of treatment and support for you.

Just as YOU have to want this, YOU also have to be the one fighting to end your compulsion to drink. No matter how well supported you are – medically and personally – alcohol addiction treatment is a very individual journey.

What gives you the best chance of sustainable recovery may be different from what suits other people. So, you need to find a treatment programme that’s versatile and can be customised to what you need.

However, a medically-sound and carefully monitored treatment route is always essential. Doing this on your own makes it very hard indeed, and you could also be putting your health at serious risk. The potential health complications of withdrawing from alcohol addiction when you are unsupported are serious.

Vital point to remember about alcohol dependency and recovery

The above reminder about the risks of trying to detox without proper support runs alongside another important warning. Even the best help and treatment for addiction to alcohol are not going to make this straightforward and simple.

Alcohol detox isn’t easy, even if you have a moderately low level of dependency. You have come to rely on this substance physically, mentally and emotionally – so the work to replace it with healthier alternatives can take time and determination. You may experience significant back steps too – and will need to shake that off and get back on track.

The thing to keep firmly in mind when you start treatment for addiction to alcohol is that it is going to be well worth everything you have to do. You are working towards improved health, being more stable mentally and emotionally, and better relationships and career prospects. You will no longer be held back by a compulsion to drink alcohol and you will feel fresher, more alert and have more energy.

Ultimately though, the best reason to give up alcohol entirely could well be that it will save your life! Premature death from alcoholism is preventable, and the best time to act is NOW.

Alcohol addiction facts

Official Government statistics show that in one year alone, there were 8,974 UK deaths from alcohol-specific causes. The impact alcohol has on everyday life, relationships and careers are widespread and profound.

There is a lingering myth that alcoholism is always attributable to ‘weakness’ or poor mental health. There is also a view that you can be genetically destined to suffer from addiction.
A genetic predisposition to being addicted to alcohol or drugs is the topic of research the world over. For example, can your brain’s reward system be altered by genetics, putting you at greater risk of becoming addicted to substances?
There certainly appears to be strong evidence that alcoholism can be a ‘complex genetic disease’.

However, addiction is still largely environmental and about a series of decisions that lead to a disease – and it is not something that is inevitable.

Becoming alcohol dependent can happen to anyone, at any age, and in any demographic group. Including fully functioning members of society who keep a tight lid on their poor relationship with alcohol, and appear very in control.

Medication for alcoholism is developing all the time, but it is aimed at managing symptoms. You still need to find a treatment programme you can mould around your own dependency level, preferences and lifestyle, to achieve sustainable recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

There can be a fine line between drinking to be social and relieve stress and needing treatment for alcohol addiction. It is never a bad idea to reduce or remove alcohol from your life. Even well-controlled consumption can result in a diverse range of health issues. For example, if you drink alcohol (even in small amounts) over time, you increase your risk of such things as heart disease, liver disease, cancer and pancreatitis.

Find a way of treating alcohol dependence if you feel your relationship with drinking is getting out of hand, and you struggle to reduce or stop.

Whatever option you choose from different treatments for alcoholism, getting help from family can be important, if not crucial. Not least as your alcohol issues may have impacted their lives too. Dealing with any residual issues and shame, through therapy for alcoholism, can make recovery from alcoholism more assured.

When detoxing from alcohol at home, your family can provide practical support and encouragement to help you to manage any physical symptoms. If you choose residential treatment for alcohol addiction, they can give you time and space to do whatever is necessary.

To recover from alcohol addiction you must believe that it is achievable and desirable.

Knowing how to stop alcohol cravings and being ready to tackle other issues after alcohol dependence treatment, can be essential. Not least as alcoholism treatments are less likely to succeed if you lack confidence in long-term solutions for your issues.

Keep in mind that tablets to stop drinking relapses are available, and counselling for alcohol addiction is designed to provide you with long-term coping strategies.

Alcoholism often results in a need for total abstinence, to avoid re-triggering dependency.

What stops alcohol cravings and how do alcoholics recover? Often by using a combination of medication to stop drinking alcohol, therapy, support from family, friends, a sponsor or a group and awareness that going backwards is not a pleasant option!

Is alcohol addiction treatment always about giving up completely? Not necessarily. Following de-addiction treatment for alcohol, some people manage to maintain a healthier relationship with it. So, they can drink controlled amounts without transitioning back into a compulsion to drink.

To engage properly with treatment (alcohol or drugs) the person must have some willpower and a desire to succeed. Even the best treatment for alcoholics stands little chance of success if someone feels forced to take this step.

Clearly, if someone you love denies they need alcohol dependency treatment it can be deeply frustrating. It is recommended that you explain the health risks, and other problems they may face, and then give them your full support and lots of information about alcohol treatment options that offer good, long-term management of alcoholism. After that – it’s up to them!

Treating alcoholism does not have to mean sharing your issues with your employer, family and friends if privacy is really important to you. However, home detox should still be done with proper medical support. You should also consider therapy alcohol-dependent people can use to support sustainable recovery.

Medications to support home detox are prescribed as part of a well-orchestrated and medically monitored alcohol treatment programme. There is no such thing as cure-all tablets for alcoholics. An approved drug to stop drinking is usually only used to help manage cravings and avoid a relapse. These are tablets to stop drinking alcohol UK health providers are confident in.

Therapy for alcohol dependency can be just as important – if not more important – than taking approved medicine to stop alcohol addiction from re-surfacing. You must certainly never buy drugs to stop drinking online. Medical help for alcoholism recovery is important and medication to help stop drinking is carefully tested, approved and used with care. If you buy medication to give up alcohol from a website, it could be at best a waste of money, and at worse a way of putting your health at risk.

Statistics about different treatments for alcoholism – and the success rates for places that specialise in alcohol treatment UK or anywhere – can be misleading. Of course, some organisations that support treatment for alcohol do have an excellent track record for helping patients to achieve sustainable recovery.

However, alcohol treatment is a very personal journey, so you need to consider the different ways to access alcohol treatments and find the best one for YOU.

We offer a range of proven treatment options to suit your preferences and lifestyle, as well as medication to help with alcoholism and alcohol therapy options. All of these can be personalised, to give you the best possible chance of sustainable recovery.

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