Most Insurances Accepted!
Call Ardu Recovery Center Today

What are the stages of alcohol addiction?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on November 16, 2023

Every person follows their own rocky road to addiction, but there are some common pit stops along the way. Let’s talk about the stages of alcohol addiction. 

Table of Contents

In a matter of months, your drinking can progress from casual to out-of-control. We provide you with the clues to catch alcoholism before it catches you. If you see your drinking following this harmful trajectory, contact Ardu Recovery Center.

We can help you start your journey to healing and sobriety, one day at a time.

I recommend you go to ARDU if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction. You won’t find a better program!!! Thanks to my ARDU family, I now have 91 days in recovery today!

Jennifer Taylor


What is alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a chronic disease characterized by uncontrolled drinking despite negative effects on your health, work, and relationships. It involves changes in brain chemistry that lead to dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking.

The more you drink, the more the effects of alcoholism accumulate over time, leading to acute and chronic health issues. These can manifest both physically and psychologically. 

Here’s how alcohol is bad for your physical health

  1. It causes brain damage leading to memory loss, cognitive decline, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a neurological disorder caused by the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1).
  2. It leads to liver diseases, including fatty liver, cirrhosis, and liver failure.
  3. It increases the risk of mouth, throat, breast, colon, and other cancers. 
  4. It causes heart disease, stroke, arrhythmias, and high blood pressure.
  5. It worsens pancreatitis and leads to pancreatic fibrosis or bleeding.
  6. It suppresses the immune system, increasing infections.
  7. It contributes to peptic ulcers, gastritis, malnutrition, and vitamin deficiencies.
  8. It disrupts sleep cycles, exacerbating fatigue and mood disorders.

Alcohol addiction is also pretty bad for your mental health too. 

  1. It destabilizes mood and mental wellbeing.
  2. It increases anxiety and depression.
  3. It leads to aggression and anger issues.
  4. It increases the risk of self-harm or suicide.
  5. It causes sleep disruptions, confusion, memory loss, and even psychosis in extreme cases. 
  6. It strains relationships with loved ones due to unpredictable behaviors. 

Dependency can also create financial, professional, and legal troubles. Alcohol completely ruins your life, but not for the lack of willpower. Alcoholism is a disease that stems from changes in brain chemistry.

What happens in your brain when you’re addicted?

The main mechanisms of addiction occur in the brain’s reward pathways and executive function centers. Alcohol triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, creating temporary pleasure and reinforcement to drink more. According to research, alcohol hijacks the brain’s reward and stress pathways by altering the activity of neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, driving addictive behaviors that can eventually lead to alcoholism. 

Over time, your brain adapts to the frequent dopamine spikes and becomes dependent on alcohol to feel normal. As addiction progresses, alcohol impairs the function of neurotransmitters, so nerves fail to communicate and function optimally. This leads to cravings, tolerance, and physical withdrawal when drinking stops—all driven by changes to neurotransmitters and neural pathways in the addicted brain. 

As you can see, heavy drinking has loads of negative effects on the brain. The wide-ranging damage from alcoholism highlights the importance of seeking help. With treatment, recovery is possible and your health can improve. We’re not saying it’s easy, quite the contrary. Overcoming an alcohol addiction is extremely challenging.

Alcohol often makes quitting feel impossible without support. Attempts to part ways with it abruptly can be dangerous or even life-threatening. The dependent brain goes into overload, causing severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome

That’s why getting medical help to detox safely from alcohol is so important when you decide to free yourself from alcohol dependence. It’s a tough road, but one you don’t have to walk alone.

There are five generally accepted stages of alcohol addiction

The progression of alcoholism is gradual and different for each person. Since there are no universally accepted stages of alcohol addiction, here are some general similarities that most stage models share: 

  1. Early stage: you experiment with alcohol and drink casually.
  2. Middle stage: the drinking and tolerance to alcohol are increased.
  3. Late stage: you’re drinking more and becoming physically dependent.
  4. End stage: you’re addicted to alcohol.
  5. Recovery: you turn to treatment and lifestyle changes in order to overcome addiction.

One: early stage: experimentation and recreational drinking

In the early stage, drinking is all about experimentation and social fun. You enjoy a few drinks with friends or at parties without chemical dependence setting in. Drinking is purely recreational with no cravings or withdrawal symptoms afterwards because your brain and body aren’t reliant on alcohol. You don’t even need to up your intake to feel a buzz. 

At this point, alcohol hasn’t started messing with important brain chemicals like dopamine, which regulates feelings of pleasure, or GABA, which has calming effects. (Read more about the effects of alcohol on GABA.) Your brain’s reward and stress circuits are still functioning normally. The early stage is all about casual, social drinking without dependence or a major impact on brain chemistry.

While enjoyable at first, if you continue upping the dosage, heavy drinking can transition you from the early to middle stage. 

Two: middle stage, increased drinking and tolerance

Here is where your drinking starts to escalate. The middle stage of your road to addiction may look something like this:

  • You’re consuming alcohol more frequently. 
  • You start having a few drinks most nights or needing it to unwind from work. 
  • You start to build tolerance, so you need more drinks to feel that pleasurable buzz.
  • While not physically dependent yet, you may get irritated and anxious without alcohol. 
  • Attempts to cut back fail as brain wiring strengthens drinking habits.
  • Your nervous system and brain function start to slow down.

Alcohol is activating reward pathways in the brain, causing a rush of dopamine that makes you feel good. The more you drink, the more these pathways get rewired to crave alcohol’s effects. 

Even low alcohol doses can increase dopamine release in part of the [nucleus accumbens]. This dopamine release may contribute to the rewarding effects of alcohol and may thereby play a role in promoting alcohol consumption. (Di Chiara)

It’s all about chasing that feel-good high. At the same time, alcohol is starting to depress the central nervous system, slowing down brain function and reaction time. You may experience impaired coordination and diminished judgment. 

The liver is also working overtime to metabolize alcohol, so its cells get overloaded and inflamed. Heavy drinking stresses your liver and interferes with its crucial role in removing toxins from the body.

The further you progress down the addiction pathway, the more ingrained those neural pathways become. But in the middle stage, you still have some control over your drinking and can make major lifestyle changes with the right treatment center.

Contact our alcohol rehab center to start your recovery before it becomes much harder to treat.

Three: late stage, physical dependence, alcohol abuse

At this point, alcohol has its hooks deep in you. Your brain is dependent on booze to function. Dopamine levels are only elevated when you drink, leading to intense cravings. Your neurons have adapted to operate with alcohol on board at all times.

Without alcohol, you’ll suffer withdrawal: we’re talking cold sweats, tremors, spiking anxiety, and even seizures. Your brain has trouble regulating stress hormones and calming neurotransmitters without liquor. The physical signs of addiction are becoming more pronounced.

Here’s what happens in the third, late stage of alcoholism:

  • You’re drinking daily, sometimes starting right in the morning to ease hangovers. 
  • Tolerance is through the roof, so you need huge amounts just to feel “normal.” 
  • Executive functions like judgment and impulse control are impaired.
  • The liver is reeling, trying to filter all that alcohol. Hepatitis, fatty liver, fibrosis—your risks for permanent damage are sky-high. 
  • You are in increased danger of stroke, arrhythmia, and cardiomyopathy.
  • Stomach and intestines are inflamed, causing pain and digestive issues. 
  • Nutrient absorption problems can create deficiencies.
  • Prolonged drinking is exacerbating conditions such as anxiety and depression. 
  • Relationships are strained, work or school is suffering—but you can’t quit.

These are the signs that late-stage addiction has fully taken hold. But there are always options for treatment and a better life.

Four: end stage, addiction, and alcoholism

If you’ve reached this stage, we have bad news: your brain is now so accustomed to booze that it can’t regulate without it. This suggests severely imbalanced neurotransmitters: depleted dopamine leaves you depressed, little serotonin (the “happy hormone”) means constant anxiety, and GABA dysfunction removes your natural brakes on stress.

Alcohol is the only thing that brings relief. With no alcohol, withdrawal is excruciating and life-threatening. Craving and tolerance reach dangerous peaks. You drink to the point of blacking out regularly, just to satisfy out-of-control urges. Binge drinking puts you at risk for alcohol poisoning.

Let’s see what alcoholism does to the rest of your body:

  • Liver cirrhosis is likely causing fluid retention, jaundice, and even liver failure. 
  • The heart is profoundly weakened, risking cardiomyopathy and stroke.
  • The immune system barely functions after so much alcohol abuse, leaving you prone to serious lung infections. 
  • Pancreatitis causes agonizing abdominal pain and digestive dysfunction.
  • Dementia from advanced alcohol-related brain damage sets in. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are pervasive when sober. 
  • Work, relationships, finances—everything is in ruins.

End-stage alcoholism transforms alcohol from habit to lethal necessity. 

But with help, you can enter the recovery stages of alcoholism. Intensive rehabilitation programs can still make a difference even in the late stage. After you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s no way to go but up.

Five: recovery

Treatment is your ticket to breaking alcohol’s grip for good. Recovery begins with medical detox to safely manage withdrawal symptoms. Medications can ease the brain and body’s adaptation to sobriety.

From there, inpatient rehab provides constant support. Behavioral therapy helps identify triggers and develop coping techniques. Support groups connect you with others on the recovery journey so you don’t feel alone. Therapy empowers you to build a lifestyle that no longer revolves around drinking.

The great news is, that as you recover, your body slowly starts returning to normal. Amazing things happen to your brain when you ditch alcohol. Brain chemistry starts to stabilize. Dopamine and GABA levels even back out, alleviating depression and anxiety. Abstinence allows the liver, heart, stomach, and brain to heal.

Recovery is a lifelong process, but endless possibilities open up in sobriety. Health, relationships, employment: slowly but surely, the pieces come back together. Fulfillment and meaning can be found in living free from addiction.

Our Utah rehab center will help you break the cycle of dependence on alcohol. At Ardu Recovery Center, we provide comprehensive treatment for alcohol addiction. Our goal is to help you reclaim sobriety and lifelong wellness.

How much alcohol is safe to drink?

Each person has their own limits to the amount of alcohol they can consume without feeling impaired. Some people may need to abstain completely for health or other reasons. Moderation is always key, but how much is truly moderate or safe to drink?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is considered a low-risk amount.

One “standard” drink equals:

  • 12 oz. of regular beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 oz. of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits (40% alcohol)

You can reduce the health risks of alcohol if you keep your daily amounts within these limits—or cut it out altogether. Regular excessive drinking—more than four drinks for women and five drinks for men within two hours—is particularly harmful to the brain and body. 

If you’re concerned about your drinking, keep track of your daily and weekly consumption and discuss your use with your doctor. Moderation takes mindfulness, but it can help promote health when practiced responsibly.

What is the difference between alcohol addiction and abuse?

It’s easy to mistake addiction to alcohol for abuse. Here are the differences: 

  • Alcohol abuse is the over-consumption of alcohol beyond “normal” social limits. This could be on a one-time basis, infrequent basis, or regular basis.
  • Alcohol addiction (also termed alcoholism) is the body’s acclimation to repeated alcohol abuse, to the point that you feel like you need alcohol on a consistent basis.
  • Alcohol addiction involves alcohol abuse. 
  • Alcohol abuse may indicate alcohol addiction. 

The good news is that both abuse and addiction can be treated. Our addiction recovery center is here to guide you through your recovery process, helping you break free from alcohol addiction and regain control of your life. If you’re ready to take the first step toward a healthier, alcohol-free life, contact Ardu Recovery Center today

I loved every moment I spent at Ardu. I really got the therapy and support I have been needing so badly over the years. They are so kind and loving that I came back to work and I love it even more as an employee. The environment is so peaceful. It’s beautiful place for healing. 💛✨

Chandler Lindley


How is alcohol addiction treated?

Recovery from alcohol addiction is possible with professional guidance, compassionate support, and proven treatments. At Ardu, we offer a full spectrum of alcohol treatment options to help you triumph over alcoholism.

Alcohol detox

The first step in treating alcohol dependence is safely managing withdrawal symptoms through detox. We offer both medical detox and holistic detox supervised by caring experts.

Medical detox uses medications to relieve alcohol withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, tremors, insomnia, and seizures. Holistic detox relies on nutrition therapy, supplements, acupuncture, exercise therapy, and other non-pharmacological therapies to aid your body’s natural detoxification.

Ardu offers medical and holistic detox. With around-the-clock monitoring and supportive care, we ensure your comfort and safety during this pivotal transition.

Alcohol rehab

Once detoxification is complete, the real work of rehabilitation begins through our comprehensive alcohol abuse and addiction treatment programs.

Inpatient treatment at our welcoming residential facilities surrounds you with 24/7 support. Outpatient treatment programs, such as partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, offer flexible solutions to maintain your home and work routines or receive treatment while in a sober living facility.

We use proven forms of psychotherapy, including:

Together we’ll uncover the root causes of your alcoholism and acquire the skills needed for recovery.

Patient care at Ardu goes beyond treating the addiction itself. We’ll help you improve all areas of health and wellness for complete healing of mind, body, and spirit. Our goal is to empower you to thrive in lifelong sobriety.

Alcohol addiction and mental health conditions

The close link between substance abuse and mental health disorders is well established. People battling alcohol addiction often have co-occurring mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, or bipolar disorder.

We’re experienced in dual diagnosis treatment, simultaneously addressing both the addiction and associated psychiatric symptoms. Integrated care leads to better outcomes.

Our comprehensive psychiatric services and dual diagnosis treatment make Ardu the right choice for anyone struggling with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Contact us today to discuss your unique needs—help is always available.

Our dual diagnosis services include:

How to enroll

Anyone struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction can enroll in our alcohol addiction treatment program. Our recovery center welcomes people with alcoholism seeking help to overcome their addiction. Our dedicated team of professionals is here to guide and support you in your addiction treatment process, laying the foundation for long-term sobriety and relapse prevention.

To enroll in an Ardu alcohol rehab program, contact Ardu Recovery Center online or via phone (801-810-1234). We will work with you to find a recovery path that works for you during the detox process and beyond. 

Read our admissions process page for additional information.

Alcohol addiction FAQ

Is alcohol addiction the same as alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder are basically the same thing. Both terms refer to the same chronic substance use disorder characterized by uncontrolled consumption, increased alcohol tolerance, physical dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and being unable to quit drinking despite harmful consequences including liver damage. 

Both terms describe a disease involving compulsive alcohol use that continues despite negative impacts on one’s physical health from cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases to cancer, as well as mental health and personal relationships. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides criteria for assessing this condition.

What are the 7 stages of being drunk?

The 7 stages of alcohol intoxication are:

  1. Sobriety. Drinking has not yet started.
  2. Euphoria. Feelings of sociability and relaxation after one or two drinks.
  3. Excitement. Impaired judgment after more than three drinks leads to exuberance and talkativeness.
  4. Confusion. More than five drinks bring emotional instability, confusion, and blurred vision.
  5. Stupor. This stage is marked by slurred speech, staggering, and sleepiness after your seventh drink.
  6. Unconsciousness. More than ten drinks can lead to blackouts and loss of consciousness.
  7. Death. After severe alcohol poisoning, vomiting while passed out can cause fatal asphyxiation.

Progress to the later stages increases the risks of alcohol overdose and long-term health damage from heavy alcohol consumption.

What are the 4 types of drinking behaviors?

Alcohol intake typically occurs on a spectrum, ranging from abstinence to severe alcoholism. 

The four drinking patterns are:

  1. Abstinence. You consume no alcohol due to addiction recovery or personal or religious reasons.
  2. Moderate drinking. This is up to one drink daily for women and two for men.
  3. Binge drinking. Women consume four or more drinks and men consume five or more within 2 hours. This causes intoxication.
  4. Heavy drinking. Women consume eight or more drinks weekly. Men consume 15 or more. This can lead to alcoholism.

The four primary patterns of alcohol consumption are defined by the amounts and frequencies at which people ingest alcoholic beverages. When moderate intake levels are exceeded, drinking poses a danger to both physical and mental health. 

What does 20 years of drinking do to your body?

After years of heavy alcohol consumption, the damaging effects on your health can really add up. Long-term alcohol abuse profoundly impacts the body and mind, with risks compounding over time. 

Let’s take a sobering look at the severe physical and mental consequences that can arise from 20 years of heavy drinking.

  • The liver bears the brunt of metabolizing large quantities of alcohol over years, leading to fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and potentially fatal cirrhosis. 
  • The heart suffers greatly, with risks of cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and hypertension escalating.
  • The immune system grows weak in the face of sustained alcohol toxicity, leaving one vulnerable to serious infections such as pneumonia and life-threatening sepsis. 
  • Nerve damage from high alcohol levels can also lead to debilitating neuropathy.
  • The brain suffers damage, with disruption of neurotransmitters and vitamins, progression of dementia, and memory deficits.
  • Several types of alcohol-induced cancer see increased risks after 20 years of drinking, including mouth, esophagus, breast, and colon cancers. 
  • Years of alcohol dependence also torment mental health, with spikes in depression, anxiety, and psychosis when not drinking. 

Add in the impacts to the pancreas, stomach, and endocrine system, and the toll of two decades of alcohol is nothing short of devastating.

In what organ of the body is most alcohol processed?

The liver handles up to 90% of ingested alcohol through enzymes that metabolize it. When alcohol reaches the liver through the bloodstream, it begins breaking it down first into acetaldehyde, then into acetate, eventually converting it into water and carbon dioxide for elimination. Long-term heavy drinking can damage liver cells and lead to scarring, inflammation, and diseases like alcoholic cirrhosis.

Why can’t I drink alcohol anymore without feeling sick?

If you’re feeling ill after drinking, it can be an indicator of how your body starts to view alcohol as a harmful toxin due to prolonged heavy use. Liver damage, nerve damage, and stomach irritation from chronic drinking lower your tolerance, making consumption quickly unpleasant. It may be a sign of physical alcohol dependence and the need for professional detox and addiction treatment.

Is it OK to drink everyday?

It is not recommended to consume alcohol on a daily basis, even in moderate amounts. Drinking every day stresses the liver, heart, immune system, and brain over time. It can lead to chronic illnesses and raise the risk of cancer. Even one drink daily is associated with an increased risk of alcoholic liver disease versus occasional moderate drinking. 

It’s best to limit alcohol intake to 3–4 days weekly or infrequently.

What are the first signs of liver damage from alcohol?

Early signs of alcoholic liver damage include abdominal bloating, nausea, fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, upset stomach, facial redness and puffiness, fluid retention, jaundice, itchy skin, enlarged liver, and elevated liver enzymes on blood tests. These commonly appear before progression to fibrosis, alcoholic hepatitis, or cirrhosis.

Is 6 beers a day too much?

Six beers per day, every day would be considered excessive drinking. Guidelines define heavy drinking as over 4 drinks daily for men. Long-term risks of drinking 6 beers a day include liver disease, neurological damage, dementia, low hormone levels, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, stroke, various cancers, pancreatitis, digestive issues, heart problems, diabetes, gout, and weakened immunity. Moderation or abstinence is recommended.


Valenzuela, C. F. (1997). Alcohol and Neurotransmitter Interactions. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 144-148. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826822/

Chiara, G. D. (1997). Alcohol and Dopamine. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 108-114. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826820/

The Basics: Defining How Much Alcohol is Too Much | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2023, September 22). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/health-professionals-communities/core-resource-on-alcohol/basics-defining-how-much-alcohol-too-much

Further reading

What is the best way to quit alcohol?

Is alcohol classified as a drug?

How does booze affect my skin health?

Does it take long to detox from alcohol?

Is “beer belly” a myth?

Is alcohol inflammatory?

Can heavy drinking really make me fat?

Are hallucinations during withdrawal normal?

Can you reverse the effects of alcohol?

Can Alcoholics Anonymous help me?