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What is Functional Alcoholism?

A group of men in suits having beers after work

Functional alcoholism can be tricky – first to recognize and then to navigate. 

The reality of alcoholism can be very different from person to person. An individual struggling with alcohol use disorder may not show characteristic signs such as drinking excessively or being visibly under the influence too often.

Many people who abuse alcohol lead seemingly healthy lives. According to, many “who struggle with severe alcohol use disorder are unable to function well in their daily lives, while others sometimes informally referred to as “high-functioning alcoholics” may seem more able to maintain a semblance of everyday life by continuing to perform and succeed in their careers or other tasks.” (

Functioning alcoholism is considered a subtype of alcoholism that accounts for 19.5% of those who struggle with alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

People who fall in this category lead what appears to be a “normal” life, with a stable job and healthy social and family systems. From the outside looking in, all is well. 

Beneath the surface lie the same risks and negative consequences that broader alcohol use disorder can pose.

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Functional Alcoholism: Risk Factors

There is no formal diagnosis for high-functioning alcoholism, and there is less research available in comparison to dysfunctional alcoholism. Those that could identify as suffering from “high functioning” alcohol use disorder may not even question their relationship with drinking in the first place. 

Still, there are certain risk factors associated with this disorder subtype.

The NIH finds that “about one-third have a multigenerational family history of alcoholism, about one-quarter had major depressive illness sometime in their lives, and nearly 50 percent were smokers.”

Other factors that can affect a person becoming a high-functioning alcoholic include:

  • Homelife
  • Work environment
  • Binge drinking (more than five drinks per day)
  • Increased levels of stress
  • Genetic factors
  • Family history of alcohol abuse
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety or depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Religious or cultural views


Signs of Functional Alcoholism

One of the most challenging aspects of this form of alcohol use disorder is recognizing the warning signs. The classic “red flags” can quickly go unnoticed by friends, family, and co-workers because the behavioral traits aren’t exposed.

An individual might: 

  • Have uncontrollable cravings
  • Make unsuccessful attempts to quit drinking
  • Have obsessive thoughts about their next drink
  • Has been sober for several years and believes they can “handle” their drinking

Taking an honest look at these behaviors and asking hard questions can be uncomfortable and bring up other issues. But, facing what feels like an impossible journey can lead to recovery and wellness. 

Risks Associated with Functional Alcoholism 

Even though a person grappling with “high functioning” alcoholism can meet life’s day-to-day obligations, there are still many risks that they take each day by drinking to excess.

These risks can range from poor judgment calls to driving while intoxicated or even excessive drinking that could result in alcohol poisoning. 

Because they may not struggle to hold down a job or maintain a relationship, long-term “functional” alcohol abuse can cause an array of health consequences. Functional alcoholics often drink for years, slowly raising their tolerance to astounding levels. 

Regular alcohol consumption at increased levels can lead to a higher risk of:

  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Dementia
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease


Wet brain” is a dangerous vitamin deficiency that causes permanent memory loss and brain damage in alcoholics. 

Functional alcoholics usually assume that they are drinking without consequence– that everything is fine if the bills are paid, and they are in decent shape.

Physical changes in the body are not always apparent when dependence develops gradually develop over time. The harmful effects of prolonged alcohol abuse can develop suddenly, affecting the body and mind without warning. 

Functional alcoholism often negatively affects a person’s intimate relationships. Addiction can create distance between a person and their closest family and friends.

Denial can be exceptionally high in the functional alcoholic as well. Denial can cause them to alienate themselves from loved ones that express concern about their drinking. 

When to Seek Treatment 

It’s always a good idea to be assessed by a professional that specializes in the addiction field. If the functional alcoholic is only experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and slightly elevated blood pressure, outpatient treatment might be an appropriate starting point. 

Suppose the functioning alcoholic suddenly experiences a drastic consequence of drinking, like losing a job or a DUI arrest. These severe consequences might be a reasonable breaking point for them to admit their problems and seek treatment. 

A man in a blue shirt and tie, white with a beard holds a beer and is in discussion

Types of Treatment 

There are several paths to treatment for alcohol abuse and related disorders. For many considered “high-functioning,” the decision to step away from daily life and enter a treatment program can be difficult. 

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) bridge the gap between maintaining work and family life and the journey to sobriety. This level of care is like “having one foot in treatment and one foot in the real world.” An individual can take an active step towards recovery and get the support they need without completely stepping away from their daily responsibilities. 

The right treatment path is the one that fits the needs of the individual, taking into account their unique situation. Other options include:

  • Partial hospitalization program or PHP is built around the patient’s schedule. This program is over a shorter time and allows individuals to return home after their daily sessions.
  • Inpatient Residential Programs gives individuals the focus attention they need to address and overcome their needs. Patients are monitored 24 hours a day at a licensed professional facility.
  • Aftercare is for patients who have complete their addiction treatment program. Aftercare provides ongoing support from professional staff and support communities.


At Integrative Life Center, we take a comprehensive approach to our alcohol treatment services. Our programs are transformational, supportive, and designed for real-world settings. We focus on healing the whole self, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

If you have asked yourself, “Am I an alcoholic,” you could be getting help and guidance today.

Contact us at 615.891.2226, and you can take the first step toward getting past your addiction and into a clean and sober life in recovery.


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