If you find it difficult to enjoy yourself or relax without having a drink, it’s possible you’ve become dependent on alcohol.
The NHS estimates that just under one in 10 (8.7%) men in the UK and one in 20 (3.3%) UK women show signs of alcohol dependence (sometimes known as “alcoholism”)1.
Being dependent on alcohol means you feel you’re not able to function without it, that drinking becomes an important, or sometimes the most important, factor in your life.
It might be surprising to hear that you don’t always have to be drinking to extreme levels to become dependent on alcohol. Anyone who is drinking regularly will have a degree of alcohol dependency.
According to Dr Nick Sheron, a liver disease specialist from Southampton University, alcohol dependency operates on a spectrum. “At one end of the scale you have people who are mildly dependent,” he says. “That’s people who, for example, can’t conceive of a Friday night without having enough drinks to get a bit tipsy. At the other end, you have people where alcohol is more important than their jobs, their families, than pretty much anything, including being alive.”
People who drink heavily tend to keep increasing the amount they drink because they develop a tolerance to alcohol. Tolerance is a physiological response we have to any drug: the more you consume, the more you need to consume to have the same effect.
Part of this dependence is because the wiring in the brain changes with frequent consumption of alcohol. Then, as Dr Sheron says: “This change makes you less able to drink in a controlled way.”
Alcohol dependence can run in families. It’s partly down to your genes, but is also influenced by your family’s attitudes to alcohol and the environment you grow up in.
“We know from studies of twins raised apart and those raised together that 60% of your tendency to become alcohol dependent is inherited,” says Dr Sheron. “The rest is due to free will and environmental effects. If you come from a line of alcoholics, your likelihood of becoming an alcoholic is much increased.”
Using alcohol to deal with stressful events, such as bereavement or losing a job, can also trigger heavy drinking, which can then lead to alcohol dependence.
Like many other drugs, alcohol can be both physically and psychologically addictive. These are some signs to look out for that may suggest you’re becoming dependent on alcohol:
- Worrying about where your next drink is coming from and planning social, family and work events around alcohol
- Finding you have a compulsive need to drink and it hard to stop once you start
- Waking up and drinking – or feeling the need to have a drink in the morning
- Feelings of anxiety, alcohol-related depression and suicidal feelings – these can develop because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health
- Suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking and nausea, which stop once you drink alcohol.
If you’re worried you might be becoming dependent on alcohol, Dr Sheron suggests looking at how easy it is for you to go a few days without drinking. “Finding it pretty difficult to cut out alcohol on a Monday or a Tuesday, for example, is a pretty clear sign you have a significant issue and may well have a degree of dependence.”
This is why the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) advises that a good way to cut back on your alcohol in-take is to have several drink-free days a week.
If you’re dependent on alcohol, you can experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop drinking. Find out more about alcohol withdrawal symptoms here.
If you have any concerns about your drinking, talk to your GP who can refer you to local alcohol services, or contact one of the following organisations:
Alcoholics Anonymous UK
0800 9177 650
Al-Anon (for family and friends of alcoholics)
020 7403 0888
0300 123 1110
020 7803 1100.
0300 123 1110
(1) Health & Social Care Information Centre, Statistics on Alcohol - England, 2015. Available at: