Alcohol is probably America’s most ubiquitous psychoactive drug. Advertisements for beer and liquor can be found everywhere from sports arenas to YouTube ads. It’s all but impossible to go through life without seeing an image of alcohol portrayed as fun, cool, or classy in today’s media. Plus, self-medication with alcohol is normalized with phrases like, “I just need a drink,” appearing in movies and on television when characters go through stressful situations. Happy-hour, drinking games, and taking shots at parties have created a culture in which heavy drinking is expected.
Though it is as addictive and potentially harmful as some other prescription and illicit drugs, almost every adult in the United States has tried alcohol. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.4 percent of people have tried alcohol at some point in their lives. Of course, the normalization of alcohol as a recreational drug is largely due to the fact that it is legal and has been for decades. Not everyone who drinks becomes addicted, but the fact that it’s legal and highly available may contribute to the high rates of alcoholism.
In 2015, over 15 million adults met the qualifications for an alcohol use disorder (AUD) which accounts for 6.2 percent of Americans over the age of 18. Alcohol poisoning, alcohol-caused car accidents, and the medical complications from long-term alcohol use continue to cause public health issues. As the opioid epidemic rages on, alcoholism quietly kills thousands of people every year.
However, though alcohol addiction is a chronic disease, it is treatable. Learn more about alcoholism, how it works, and how it can be treated.
Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a term used to refer to chemical or emotional dependency on alcohol. It’s a problem that has been around since alcohol has existed in human culture. Today, it’s among the most heavily used addictive substances. In fact, studies show that more than half of all Americans consume alcohol. While not everyone who drinks becomes addicted, the fact that it’s so common contributes to high numbers of people with alcohol use disorders.
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of your brain. It occurs after a period of excessive or heavy drinking when a person become chemically or psychologically dependent. Some can use and even abuse alcohol for a period of time without developing a chemical dependence, which is why not all college binge drinkers develop alcoholism. There are a number of contributing factors that can lead to alcoholism, including genetic, environmental, and developmental factors.
It’s commonly assumed that alcohol is a safe recreational psychoactive substance to consume because it is legal and other drugs aren’t. But it is, in fact, a recreational drug, and drinking it in excess has its fair share of risks. It can also have other effects on your physical health. Alcohol abuse has been linked to serious diseases all over the body including cancer, heart disease, stroke, cirrhosis, dementia, depression, and many more. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive drinking has led to the deaths of around 88,000 Americans between 2006 and 2010 alone.
Alcohol binging has become a standard practice on college campuses and it’s seen as something of a rite of passage for teens and people in their 20s. However, studies have shown that prolonged use of excessive amount of alcohol can significantly stunt the process of brain development called myelination. During this process, your nerve cells are surrounded by a fatty white substance called myelin. This substance helps increase the speed of brain functioning. Stunting the growth of myelin with alcohol can permanently affect cognition and lead to slower thinking and mental processing.
Even alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, unlike withdrawal from other addictive drugs. Central nervous system depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can cause seizures when people are going through withdrawal. Seizures aren’t typically deadly but they can cause dangerous injuries, accidents, and medical complications. However, alcohol and other depressants can cause a phenomenon called Delirium tremens (DT). Episodes of DT can cause catatonia, hallucinations, hypertension, confusion, nightmares, and increased heart rate. Without medical treatment, DT can result in death.
Alcohol abuse is as dangerous as the abuse of some prescription and illicit drugs. Even though it’s legal and highly available, it should be taken seriously as an addictive drug. Some may consider themselves functioning alcoholics, but a high tolerance can be even more dangerous.
Alcoholism begins with the abuse of alcoholic beverages, either through heavy binging or excessive regular use. As your body gets used to the alcohol in your system, it grows accustomed to its psychoactive effects. As you get used to it, you will need more alcohol to achieve the same effects. This effect is called tolerance. In the culture of alcohol, tolerance is often a point of pride. The less it affects you, the more you can drink, asserting your physical prowess over weaker drinkers. However, a very high tolerance can actually mean that you are growing dependent on the drug. Your brain and body need alcohol to balance brain chemistry. Stopping alcohol use suddenly allows nervous system activity to rebound in a way that caused withdrawal symptoms and potentially deadly side effects.
If you are worried that you might be developing a dependence on alcohol or if you think you may already be addicted, there are a few telltale alcohol addiction symptoms that can reveal the presence of an alcohol use disorder. The beginning stages of a substance use problem can produce subtle signs, and as the problem grows, the signs may become more serious. Here are some things to look out for if you are concerned about alcoholism:
As a pattern of alcoholism continues, it may start to manifest in more severe alcohol addiction symptoms that can be noticeable like a growing tolerance and needing more alcohol to achieve the same effects, feeling withdrawal symptoms like shaky hands, irritability, or intense cravings for alcohol. One of the biggest signs of alcoholism that are often a wake-up call for people with an AUD is the need to drink in the morning. The effects of alcohol last between six and 12 hours.
Another helpful metric for alcoholism follows the acronym CAGE as a way to self-assess your likelihood of alcoholism:
If you are worried that a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, there are a few outward signs that you may be able to observe in someone who is dependent on alcohol. Some behavioral signs include:
Alcohol addiction treatment typically requires a full continuum of care starting with detoxification. Alcohol is a chemically addictive drug, which means that you will have to go through withdrawal symptoms to stop using. However, it’s not as simple as one night of sweating and discomfort like you might see in television or movies.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable and even dangerous. If you have been chemically dependent on alcohol for enough time, you may have already experienced the beginning stages of withdrawal in between periods of drinking.”
However, hand tremors and irritability may be the least of your worries if more serious withdrawal symptoms occur. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows nervous system functioning. When you finally stop drinking, your nervous system functioning will return in a big way. This can cause insomnia, seizures, and delirium. Because of this risk, you will need medical treatment and supervision as you detox. Through medical detox, you will receive 24-7 care from medical professionals with specialties in addiction treatment. This level of care will help you through withdrawal as comfortably as possible, avoid dangerous medical complications, and ensure getting through detox without relapse.
After detox, your road to recovery isn’t over. As a disease that affects the reward center of your brain, it will take more than detox to learn how to cope with triggers, cravings, and any co-occurring mental health issues. Residential treatment should be tailored to your specific needs and studies show that treatment needs to last long enough to be effective, typically for around 90 days.
Alcohol addiction treatment will involve meeting with clinicians and therapists that specialize in addiction. They sit down with you to create a treatment plan that is tailored to your needs and that meets every type of need including, psychological, medical, emotional, vocational, and financial needs.
After residential treatment, you may want to consider long-term outpatient services such as a 12-step program that can help keep you accountable and, perhaps most importantly, help you prevent relapse.
There are a variety of causes that can contribute to the development of alcoholism in individuals and there are no one definitive factors. Typically, alcoholism and addiction, in general, is caused by a number of factors working together including:
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