Alcohol is indisputably the United States’ most popular psychoactive drug. It is nearly impossible to avoid the commercials, billboards, or any other advertising that promotes alcohol. Common phrases muttered around us during times of stress such as “Ugh! I need a drink!” are so common that it’s inescapable. No matter where we go, it’s actively being marketed by friends or coworkers around us.
In such a heavy drinking culture, it’s no surprise that alcohol addiction is so prevalent. Unfortunately, the media tend to describe only the positive side of drinking and completely ignores the dark side associated with its effects.
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In commercials, individuals are portrayed as being in a superior class riding in on horses holding vodka bottles, but the reality is binge drinking (the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short time) does not result in these upper echelon views that are portrayed.
There is a dark and ugly side to alcohol that the media hide. Alcohol addiction could be just as destructive and deadly as illicit drugs. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a study that indicates drinking too much can harm your health (no surprise here), and excessive alcohol use led to about 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year from 2006-2010. Economic costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption skyrocketed to more than $249 billion.
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What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Drinking a beer or a glass of wine is typical to end a long day in U.S. culture, but where do you draw the line between moderation and alcohol use disorder (AUD)? Drinking in moderation means women consume no more than one drink and men consume no more than two drinks in a 24-hour period. This translates to 1.5 ounces of liquor, five ounces of wine, and 12 ounces of beer.
Other ways to observe one’s drinking patterns is to weigh how much is consumed in a given week. Heavy drinking for women means more than seven drinks per week; for men, it is 14 drinks per week. The problem with AUD lies deeper than in how much or how often than someone drinks. The disorder is something that poisons your thoughts and behaviors. Those who exhibit risky behaviors are more at higher risk for alcohol addiction/AUD, and it’s worth reading up to see if some of these behaviors are something you or a loved one is experiencing.
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that affects the reward center in the brain. It begins to develop after long binges and heavy drinking, and at this time, a person can become chemically and psychologically dependent. There are certain people, however, who can consume large amounts of alcohol for prolonged periods and not develop dependence. For example, not all college students who binge drink develop alcoholism. Genetics, environment, and other factors can play a role in who develops AUD.
Legal Does Not Mean Safer
The glorification of alcohol and its legal status within the United States makes it an easy target to presume it’s safe. “My friends and celebrities use it, so why can’t I?” some think. A drug’s legal status doesn’t always acknowledge safety or the risks of taking it. At the end of the day, alcohol is still a recreational drug, and drinking in excess has its risks. The most prominent of these risks is the damage to your physical health. Diseases that have been attributed to alcohol abuse are pretty severe. They include cancer, heart disease, stroke, and depression.
Short-term health risks that excessive alcohol use has can include:
- Injuries like motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns
- Violence (homicide/suicide/sexual assault/intimate-partner violence)
- Risky sexual behaviors
- Miscarriage and stillbirth among pregnant women
Severe and long-term effects from excessive consumption are not any better, and the development of these chronic diseases can cause extensive damage in the form of medical bills, and be highly expensive to treat. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Memory and cognitive learning problems
- Severe mental health problems such as anxiety/depression
- Social problems
- Decrease in productivity at work or school
- Family problems
With these negative effects listed, it is hard to ignore the legality issue and how it relates to safety. Alcohol abuse is on par with the dangers of prescription and illicit drugs. Even though there is easy access and that it’s widely recognized in our communities, it should still be taken as an addictive and serious drug. While you may identify as a functioning alcoholic, a high tolerance can still pose these dangers listed above.
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How Does Alcoholism Work?
Alcohol as portrayed in movies often highlights the drunk stumbling over their feet while walking down the street, slurring their words, and with their clothing ripped and torn. Unfortunately, alcohol is a lot more difficult to spot than Hollywood portrays it because alcoholics try to hide their problem from friends and family.
Howstuffworks.com breaks it down and shows that alcohol affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the body and control thought processes, behavior, and emotion.
As your body grows more and more accustomed to the effects of alcohol, you begin to build a tolerance. It means you require more and more alcohol to gain the desired effects that perhaps one drink used to cause. It may now take four to five drinks to get high after a tolerance begins to develop.
Unfortunately, in our drinking culture, tolerance is often referred to as “holding one’s liquor,” which doesn’t send the signal that problematic drinking for some who drinks. What a high tolerance really means is that you are physically and psychologically growing dependent on this drug; your brain and body need alcohol to maintain its balance. Stopping suddenly could mean less than desirable withdrawals and possibly deadly side effects.
If there is growing concern that either you or a loved one is developing alcohol dependence, there are quite a few signs to indicate whether a moderate drinking problem has grown out of control. In the beginning, signs are a bit more subtle. As time progresses, and the problem becomes more severe, signs will become more pronounced. Here are some signs to look out for if you are concerned about an alcohol addiction:
- Drinking to forget problems
- Drinking outside of the usual social engagements; drinking alone
- Lying about your drinking habits
- Feeling irritable if you haven’t had a drink in a while
- Drinking until blacking out
The biggest red flag of this drinking in the morning or when waking up. Once these points have been achieved, they can lead to increased tolerance, which is drinking more to reach the same point. When a person at this stage of addiction decides to stop drinking, withdrawal symptoms such as shaky hands, irritability, and intense cravings to drink start to appear.
If you are worried that a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, there are signs and symptoms to look for, such as:
- Sudden decrease in work or school performance
- DUI or arrests related to alcohol
- Continuing to use alcohol despite negative consequences
- Mood swings or personality changes
Alcohol Addiction Treatment: What Is Involved?
Alcohol addiction typically needs a full continuum of care that begins with detoxification. Alcohol is extremely addictive, meaning you will have to withdraw from its effects. Depending on the length of use and how much was consumed in a given day, withdrawal can range from mild to severe. If someone has been drinking long enough, the person can attest to having experienced the beginning phases of withdrawal symptoms during brief stints between drinks.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows down functions. When you do stop drinking, your functions attempt to return with a vengeance, often working in overdrive. This can lead to insomnia and seizures. Because of these risks, it is highly recommended that a medically supervised detox takes place. Medical detox from alcohol addiction will give you customized around-the-clock care that specializes in addiction treatment. This will allow your transition into sobriety to be as safe and as comfortable as possible. Its sole purpose is to alleviate the worst symptoms involved in detox.
Detox is only the beginning of recovery, and depending on the situation, it is likely that the person in recovery will be placed in a facility that offers residential treatment. This placement will be customized to your exact needs. For it to be effective, expect a 30-day stay at the least.
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The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends people in recovery follow a treatment plan for at least 90 days. An extended stay can increase someone’s chances of having a successful recovery period. You will sit down with a team of medical professionals and help create a plan that addresses all of your psychological, medical, and emotional needs and help you put addiction behind you.
Post-treatment relapse prevention plans should include long-term outpatient services, such as 12-step programs, to help combat relapse. Staying connected to a supportive network of people can help you remain accountable for your actions.
- 86.4% of people ages 18 and older said they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime
- 26.9% of people ages 18 and older said they engaged in binge drinking in the past month
- In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31% of overall driving fatalities)
- More than 10% of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems
Need Help Ending Alcohol Abuse?
If you or someone you care about has an alcohol addiction and wants help, California Vistas Addiction Treatment can help. We offer medical detox treatment with a seamless transition into ongoing care.
Call us anytime at (888) 721-5606to speak with one of our addiction specialists about which of our treatment programs is best for you or your loved one. You also can reach us online for more information.
Alcohol and Public Health. (2018, January 03). from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
Watson, S. (2018, June 28). How Alcoholism Works. from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/alcoholism4.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (N.D.). from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholFacts&Stats/AlcoholFacts&Stats.pdf