Addressing the realities of alcohol addiction

It’s estimated that there are over 60,000 alcoholics in the UK, with just 18% receiving alcohol addiction treatment. The effect of alcohol on the lives of people struggling with an addiction is shattering – it affects their mental health, brain chemistry, nearly every organ in their body, their relationships, their families and the wider society they live in.

We’re going to shed some light on the harsh realities of alcohol addiction, exploring the consequences of dependency for the individual, their loved ones and their communities – and what to do if you’ve decided to get help with your alcohol addiction.

The effects on the individual

Last year, the World Health Organisation stated that there was no safe level of alcohol consumption. This is because alcohol is rated as a Group 1 Carcinogen, in the same class as asbestos, tobacco and radiation.

The risks associated with alcohol rise dramatically as consumption increases, meaning alcoholics have a high risk of not just cancer but many other physical and psychological conditions and diseases.

Physical health impacts

Alcohol is known to cause at least 7 types of cancer, including some of the most common ones like bowel and breast cancer.

The list of physical diseases caused by alcoholism is extremely long, causing multiple diseases within the liver alone. Alcoholism impacts virtually every organ system, even bones, via decreased bone density and osteoporosis. Some physical diseases have crossover with psychological and behavioural impacts. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a neurological disorder caused by excessive drinking, causes confusion, memory and coordination issues. Excessive alcohol wreaks havoc on the body, which is why it’s taken so seriously within the field of public health.

Psychological impacts

Alcohol has a high comorbidity with mental health conditions – the presence of both alcoholism and a mental health condition is called a dual diagnosis. The NHS has estimated that 86% of people who access alcoholism treatment have a co-occurring mental illness. A 2020 study found that in the majority of cases, mental health problems precede alcoholism, meaning that for most people, their struggles with mental health started before they began drinking. While alcohol may provide temporary feelings of relief, in the long term, it makes the problem far worse.

Behavioural impacts

All addictions can cause marked shifts in behaviour like secrecy and withdrawal, as the user tries to hide their addiction – but individual drugs cause different behavioural changes. For alcohol, there can be a big increase in impulsive and risky behaviour due to biochemical and neurological changes in the brain.

Biochemical and neurological changes

These changes are led by brain areas and pathways being altered by the consistent consumption of alcohol. A major contributor is the inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in moderating our day-to-day behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of our impulse control, governing planning and decision-making. By reducing its function when we drink, we start to act more impulsively and take bigger risks. Alcohol also increases dopamine release in the brain, which feels good – so good that it’s more likely we carry on drinking even when it’s become clear it’s not good for us. Continuing to drink even when it’s harmful is one of the warning signs of alcohol addiction – and the huge release of dopamine in the brain when we drink is one of the causes of addiction.

Other neurotransmitters are also affected by alcohol. GABA is enhanced, slowing down brain activity and contributing to increased impulsivity. As well as this, alcohol inhibits serotonin – and low serotonin makes us feel more impulsive and aggressive, and over the long term, contributes to low mood.

This interference with our neurochemistry might be why people experience alcoholic blackouts. Alcohol interferes with another neurotransmitter called amino acid glutamate, which is important to our ability to form memories, leading to blackouts. Because alcohol is so neurotoxic, over time, it may cause brain shrinkage and damage.

The effects on families and communities

Family and relationships

In the UK, about one-third of domestic violence incidents are alcohol-related. Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to chaotic and threatening relationship dynamics – neglect, arguments, altered family roles (children taking on responsibilities that aren’t age-appropriate for them) and child abuse.

This damage in family dynamics can become cyclical – childhood trauma is a common risk factor for developing an addiction in adulthood, and the traumatised children growing up in a household affected by addiction then go on to have an increased risk of developing an addiction themselves. The consequences of abuse in childhood persist into adulthood, with a link being found between alcohol consumption as an adult and a history of abuse and neglect in childhood. This means the problem can be generational.

Addiction is heritable – having a family member with a history of addiction increases a person’s risk of developing one of their own.The link between traumatic childhoods and later drinking shows environmental factors are important – and that the treatment of alcoholism in someone struggling with it may help to break the cycle and reduce the risk that their children later go on to suffer from their own addictions.


About four per cent of workplace absences are because of alcohol, and 25% of employees have said alcohol or drugs have affected them at work. This relationship goes two ways – 27% of employees have said workplace stress has made them drink more.

The UK Government has said that excessive alcohol use may be a cause or a result of long-term unemployment. Heavy alcohol use is a predictor of job loss and future unemployment but also makes problem drinking more likely, as the stress of looking for work, not having an income and uncertainty about the future take their toll. However, turning to alcohol is one of the worst things you can do in this situation – employment rates for people who develop an addiction are less than half of the rest of the population.

The effects on wider society

It’s estimated alcohol costs the UK 27 billion a year – that’s about 15% of the UK’s entire health and social care budget. These costs are mostly linked to crime, health and lost productivity.

Aside from financial costs, crime has the most direct impact on wider society. In England and Wales, alcohol is involved in up to 1.2 million violent incidents a year and in half of all violent crimes. It’s also present in up to 25% of suicide attempts. Unsurprisingly, about half of these violent incidents happen in late-night areas where people congregate – pubs, clubs, takeaways, bus stops and taxi ranks. A huge proportion of them also happen in the home, in the context of domestic violence.

The effects on quality of life and wellbeing

The impact of alcohol on physical and mental health leads to a poorer quality of life – significantly worse physical and mental health outcomes, behavioural and cognitive impairments and changes, damaged relationships and careers. Urgent alcohol rehab should be considered by anyone who has reached a point in their addiction where they see their quality of life and wellbeing impacted – but the cost of alcohol rehab can be a concern for them.

How much does alcohol rehab cost?

NHS rehab is the most affordable alcohol rehab, but waiting lists are extremely long. Private alcoholism rehab costs money, and how much depends on the length of the stay. While outpatient services are available, the best alcohol rehab is inpatient, as it takes away your access to alcohol, allowing you to recover and giving you 24-hour care.

Alcohol rehab costs can, to an extent, be tailored to the individual. This can be achieved by paying them over a longer period or adjusting the stay length depending on your budget. Some private insurance providers cover some or all alcohol rehab costs, and some charitable organisations can help with costs for people who need financial support.

Alcohol help – talk to UKAT

Alcohol addiction detox and rehab offer the best chance of success in beating alcohol addiction. Alcohol detox treatment at a dedicated alcohol detox centre supports you in getting alcohol out of your system safely. In contrast, alcohol rehab gives you the long- term help you need to get perspective, heal, and learn the tools and techniques to support your sobriety.

The realities of alcohol addiction are harsh, but it can be beaten. Contact us today to talk to a recovery expert.

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