While Alcoholics Anonymous’, long held theory that alcoholics are ‘allergic to alcohol’ provides solace for millions of self-proclaimed alcoholics, the theory may be impacting how society approaches alcohol. The negative impact of alcohol use on American society has been increasing since A.A.s inception in 1939. How do you define alcoholism.
Currently 71% of Adult Americans regularly drink (NIAAA) up from 59% in 1939, when A.A. was formed. (Gallup)
Drinking is on the rise, heavy drinking is up more than 17% since 2005 and 1 in 7 adults suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). (NIAAA)
88,000 deaths per year are attributed to alcohol in the United States, making it the third leading cause of preventable death. (NIAAA)
And globally, for individuals ages 15-49, alcohol has become the leading case of death. (NIAAA)
The theory of alcoholism as a disease of allergic origins was introduced in A.A.s primary literature: The Big Book:Alcoholics Anonymous, the Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, by Dr. William Silkworth, medical doctor and specialist in the treatment of alcoholism. Silkworth states:
Wine and hard liquor bottles photographed through a multiprism filter.
“The action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy, that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class [of people] and never occurs in the average temperate drinkers. These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all.”
This theory continues in today’s A.A. program literature, This is A.A. An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program states: “We are perfectly willing to admit that we are allergic to alcohol and that it is simply common sense to stay away from the source of our allergy.”
The theory is popular among alcoholics for a variety of reasons:
How do you define heavy drinking
The theory of a physical, allergic, reaction to alcohol removes blame.
The Big Book states alcoholism “is limited to this class [of people] and never occurs in the average temperate drinkers.” Segregating ‘alcoholics’ and ‘average temperate drinkers’ explains why some people suffer greatly from drinking while others don’t seem to suffer at all.
Defining a problem can help us understand and therefore overcome it. This principle is used in how A.A. members introduce themselves at meetings. Each time a member speaks they say, “my name is _________ and I am an alcoholic.
Acceptance of a physiological difference, or an allergy to alcohol, seems to make it easier for A.A. members to stop drinking altogether. As the literature states it becomes, “…common sense to stay away from the source of our allergy.”
Despite the fact that alcoholism is not scientifically defined as an allergy this theory appears to be working within the context of A.A. According to A.A. 50% of members have been sober more than 5 years and 24% have been sober between one and five years.
But what impact does the allergy theory have on the rest of society?
With widespread popularity A.A. has become the default treatment for alcoholism in America. Doctors recommend and court systems mandate meeting attendance. A.A.’s theories are so popular and well known they can define how we talk about alcoholism.
So how does the allergy theory affect millions who worry about their drinking but don’t identify as alcoholics? Instead of treating alcohol with caution because we know it to be dangerous and addictive, we reassure ourselves that we are different from self-proclaimed alcoholics. Why? Because alcoholics themselves tell us so. A.A. members believe they do not ‘drink normally’ but rather partake in ‘alcoholic drinking.’
They claim that as alcoholics they are different, even allergic, and unable to tolerate alcohol in any form. The unintended result is permission for the ‘normal’ drinker to continue drinking without caution or fear of becoming an alcoholic.
But it’s not just alcoholics who systematically increase the amount they drink. Millions of people who do not, or will not, identify as alcoholics question their relationship with alcohol, wondering if they are still fully in control. We wonder when exactly occasional drinking became nightly drinking. We question why evening cocktails suddenly seem to be the high point of our day. We never intended to drink as much as we do now, it simply snuck up on us. So if we don’t identify as alcoholics then at what stage should we become concerned?
No Scientific or Standard Definition for Alcoholism.
When it comes to the terms ‘alcoholic’ and ‘alcoholism’ there is no standard or diagnosable definition. Medical professionals prefer ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’ which is defined by a continuum of progressive symptoms. It’s telling that we don’t declare people addicted to nicotine “cigarette-o-holics” or say that people who suffer from cocaine addiction have the disease of “cocaineism”. Alcohol is addictive, and like any other addictive substance there are varying levels of emotional, mental and physiological addiction. A.A.’s black and white, ‘alcoholic’ vs. ‘normal drinker’ approach strongly influences how we view alcohol addiction with unintentional yet terrifying repercussions:
We approach drinking a highly addictive substance without fear. Since we don’,t identify as alcoholics we must fall into the normal category of drinkers, for whom drinking does not pose a problem.
With this definition we may ignore the varying shades and the continuum of alcohol dependence. We tend to be unaware of a developing problem until our relationship with alcohol becomes truly unmanageable.
We place the onus for becoming addicted on the individual (they are an alcoholic) rather than on the substance (alcohol is addictive).
Questioning our drinking at all, or even turning down a drink on occasion, has the terrifying implication that we are no longer drinking ‘normally’. No one wants to be an alcoholic so we close our minds, often unconsciously, to our internal concerns.
These factors combine and suddenly, as a society, we are no longer approaching alcohol with the caution it deserves. When alcohol, demonstrated to be the world’s most deadly drug, kills more people than all illegal and prescription drugs combined (CDC) this is a clear cause for alarm. When our primary solution is defined by extremes we fail to offer a solution to the millions of people whose drinking is no longer healthy but has not yet become completely unmanageable.
It is true that many members of A.A. can no longer drink alcohol in any form without severe repercussions. This is not due to an allergy but rather, according to neuroscience, because repeated use of addictive drugs can make the brain’s dopamine center hypersensitive to that specific substance, in this case alcohol. Brain changes resulting in dopamine hypersensitivity lead to chronic drinking and inexplicable, uncontrollable cravings for alcohol. The important distinction is that this can happen, with the right level of exposure, to anyone rather than only to a sub-set of the population with an alcohol allergy.
How to define chronic alcoholism
Annie Grace grew up in a one-room log cabin without running water and electricity outside Aspen, Colorado. After she discovered her passion for marketing, she worked in corporate America. By the age of 26, she was the youngest vice president in a multi-national corporation and began drinking earnestly. By age 35, she was a C-level global marketing executive and was responsible for marketing in 28 countries. During that time, she routinely consumed a bottle of wine each evening.
Knowing she had to change her lifestyle, but unwilling to submit to a life of deprivation, she searched for a painless way to regain control of her life.Annie no longer drinks and has never been happier. She left her job as an executive to write This Naked Mind. This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol: Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life is her first book.
She holds a dual degree in business –, marketing and entrepreneurship –, with a minor in Spanish from Colorado State University, and a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Colorado.
A true world traveler, Annie has visited 26 countries (and counting). She currently lives in the Colorado mountains with her two sons and husband.
Books are available on and e-books are available on Kindle. Audio program is available on .