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Understanding the 5 Types of Alcoholism

There are several different classification systems that identify types of alcoholism and alcoholics. These typologies are created to effectively understand the cause of or the influence behind alcoholism, and hopefully with that knowledge, be able to treat them.

One widely-acknowledged classification system is physiologist Elvin Jellinek’s 5 Alcoholism Species, which identifies 5 different forms of alcoholism differentiated by level of alcohol dependence. These are:

1. Alpha Alcoholism

Emotional drinking is the hallmark of alpha alcoholism. Alpha alcoholics look to alcohol to soothe themselves when they are feeling sad, stressed or pressured, to the point that they become psychologically dependent on alcohol for relief. However, alpha alcoholics are able to control the amount of alcohol they take and have no problem rejecting alcohol.

Alpha alcoholics are advised to go to therapy or explore other coping mechanisms to deal with emotional and physical stress, like exercising, meditation, journaling or getting emotional support from a trusted loved one. The earlier this behaviour is corrected, the better the outcome will be for the alpha alcoholic.

2. Beta Alcoholism

Beta alcoholism involves serious medical complications due to excessive drinking. Beta alcoholics usually suffer from liver damage and nutritional deficiency, and may frequently experience blackouts due to severe intoxication. Unlike alpha alcoholism, beta alcoholism does not involve psychological or physical dependence.

Beta alcoholics are often influenced by situations in which drinking is encouraged, as in working with colleagues who go out every weekend to bond over alcohol. 

If a beta alcoholic seeks rehabilitation, they must uproot themselves from this toxic environment, as constant exposure can interfere with their treatment and delay their recovery.

A woman having a drink at a bar

3. Gamma Alcoholism

Gamma alcoholism involves physical and psychological dependence on alcohol with no ability to stop, and suspending drinking will result in withdrawal symptoms. 

This inability to control drinking often damages the addict’s relationships and puts a strain on their professional and personal lives, since too much drinking takes them away from their responsibilities.

Gamma alcoholism usually starts as psychological dependence which progresses to physical dependence as the drinker develops alcohol tolerance. In the later stages, they might develop reverse tolerance, that is, a lower alcohol tolerance than when they first started drinking, which can make a single alcoholic drink toxic to the gamma alcoholic. Attempting withdrawal may cause tremors as well, so it is important that they be given the appropriate medical attention.

4. Delta Alcoholism

Delta alcoholism is similar to gamma but a person under this classification will be able to control the amount of alcohol they drink. However, they will still be unable to abstain.

Delta alcoholics are easily influenced by sociocultural and economic factors like peer pressure and low alcohol prices. This makes it the most common type of alcoholism in wine-drinking countries, where people are somewhat “expected” to drink as part of their culture.

Called “maintenance drinkers,” delta alcoholics are unable to skip a day without drinking, but since they can control how much they drink, they often do not look or feel drunk. Yet, physical deterioration still happens, albeit much more gradually. 

Since their health declines at a much slower pace, delta alcoholics might attribute their alcoholism symptoms to other things like fatigue or high blood pressure, until they go to a doctor for treatment and experience withdrawal symptoms after being instructed to abstain from alcohol while undergoing medication.

Jellinek considers both the gamma and delta types of alcoholism as diseases as they both involve alcohol tolerance, physiological dependence and withdrawal symptoms.

5. Epsilon Alcoholism

Epsilon alcoholism is characterized by alternating periods of binge drinking and abstinence. These episodic binges do not follow a constant pattern and usually are not influenced by any situation or condition. Intervals can last up to years if the drinker does not find any motivation to binge drink. If binge drinking happens more frequently, the epsilon alcoholic may become a gamma alcoholic.

Although binge drinking is not in itself a form of alcohol use disorder, it increases one’s risk of developing one and may still result in health problems.

Binge drinking can bring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent. At this level, motor skills may be impaired, which can lead to serious injuries and severe mood swings. Cognitive impairment may also happen at lower BAC levels. For adolescent binge drinkers, this could mean interference with brain development, which may potentially result in deficits in cognitive functions.

A doctor discussing types of alcoholism with a patient.

How Understanding Different Types of Alcoholism Can Lead to Recovery

Being able to determine the severity of alcoholism can help physicians determine the best course of treatment for alcoholics.

Identifying alcoholism as a disease also helps patients and their loved ones realize that they can be treated, and encourages them to seek medical help.

What others don’t know is that getting help early can reduce health problems and in some cases, reverse organ damage. So if you or your loved one is exhibiting symptoms of ANY of these types of alcoholism, don’t wait too long! The best prognosis happens at the earliest time.

We’re Here to Help

At Freedom From Addiction, we are dedicated to liberating alcoholics from substance misuse and its consequences. Our effective treatment programs and personalized care are designed to treat even those who have developed severe alcohol dependency.

Begin recovery now by calling us or leaving us a message. Our treatment consultants are available 24/7 to help you regain control of your life.


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