Is Alcoholism a Disease?

is alcoholism a disease
July 28, 2014
|   Updated:
November 11, 2021

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5, the popular tool used for billing insurance companies calls it “alcohol use disorder.” But “is alcoholism a disease?” Medical professionals at places like the Mayo Clinic simply refer to it as “alcoholism.” Either way, they list alcohol dependence as a progressive and degenerative disease with specific symptoms for diagnosis. The statement that alcoholism is a disease is a strong point of contention among persons in the recovery community.

So What’s the Problem?

There is no question that alcohol dependence is progressive, with the body becoming addicted to the drug after repeated use. There’s also no question that it can be degenerative, with severe long-term effects such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. And, of course, few will say that it does not have common symptoms. The argument comes simply from using the word disease – implying that the addiction, like a chronic illness such as type I diabetes, is something that can have symptom-free periods but must be monitored and managed for the rest of a person’s life.

The idea of alcoholism as a disease makes sense when you look to the genetic aspects of alcohol dependence, such as its tendency to run in families. Studies at the National Institutes of Health assert that the condition is 50% genetic. There is also evidence that alcohol, like other drugs, can alter a person’s brain chemistry, resulting in physical, not just psychological, changes.

However, on the con side, there is little argument over the evidence that environment also plays a defining factor in whether a person becomes alcohol dependent– which would not be the case for most hereditary ailments. Plus, the brain can begin to heal itself, as can the liver, after a prolonged period without presence of the drug.

Why It Matters

You may wonder, “Who cares whether alcoholism is a disease or not, as long as people get better?” which is a valid point. One of the biggest problems with accepting the alcoholism as a disease frame of mind is the real or perceived stigma. While some feel it is an important and helpful part of the recovery process to admit powerlessness over their alcoholism disease, others feel the opposite way. They have a fear of being labeled an “alcoholic” and of being forced to admit they have a lifelong illness. It prevents some individuals who would greatly benefit from doing so from setting foot inside a recovery support group or treatment center.

About the Author

Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.

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