In the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) the alcoholic was thought to have a physical allergy to alcohol which caused their Alcoholism. I was recently asked about this and I thought I would share my answer.
The idea that an alcoholic has an allergy to alcohol is more of a metaphor than a statement of medical fact.
There is no doubt that alcoholics have an abnormal response to using alcohol, but technically it is not an allergic response.
Recent brain research suggests that this abnormal response to alcohol is an addictive brain response caused by a disruption in the pleasure or reward centers of the brain. This creates an intense sense of euphoria when using and a state of agitated depression when abstinent. This reinforces reinforces continued use.
As the brain develops tolerance for the alcohol it takes higher doses to feel the euphoria so the quantity of drinking in increases. This creates a pattern of compulsive use described in AA literature as a loss of control.
The metaphor of an allergy to alcohol is easier to understand for a newly sober person than the idea of an addictive brain response, so the metaphor is still useful.
It seems that people who become addicted to other mood altering drugs, including alcohol, have a similar addictive brain response to their drug of choice. I describe this in detail my book Straight Talk About Addiction: http://www.relapse.org/custom/cart/edit.asp?p=154773
I also have a book based upon Father Martin’s interpretation of the 12-Steps that I wrote as a result of our time spent together designing the Relapse Prevention Program for Father Martin’s Ashley.
I developed a two day workshop for addiction professionals on understanding the twelve steps in a way that could be easily related to cognitive therapy. This workshop was based primarily upon what I learned from Father Martin as he explained his understanding of the Twelve Steps to me. The edited transcription of this workshop was published as the book Understanding The Twelve Steps: http://www.relapse.org/custom/list.asp?c=37332&pageid=62383