Alcohol is a legal, controlled substance that lowers anxiety and inhibitions with a broad range of side effects, such as loss of coordination to slurred speech. Not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic, but when a person has no control over their drinking, they likely have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In the US, over 14 million adults struggle with an addiction to alcohol. Treating an AUD can lower the chances for serious risks and fatal outcomes.
What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a popular psychoactive drug that is commonly consumed in social settings. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic beverages that produces the feeling of being drunk. The main types of alcoholic beverages include beer, wine, and liquor.
Beer has the lowest alcohol content by volume (ABV) at an average of 5%. For most beers, 12 ounces, or a standard drink, is the amount of alcohol a body can process in 1 hour. Wine, made from grapes, has on average 12% ABV. This places its alcohol content higher than beer but lower than liquor. A 5-ounce glass is a standard drink of wine. Liquor, such as whiskey, rum, tequila, gin, and vodka, is frequently mixed with other non-alcoholic beverages to create mixed drinks. The average ABV for liquor is 40% and a standard drink is 1.5 ounces.
When ingested, about 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and the other 80% is absorbed in the small intestine. Alcohol makes its way to the rest of the body through the bloodstream and begins to disrupt the body’s systems normal functioning. The liver metabolizes the majority of alcohol that has been consumed. Long-term use of alcohol and excessive drinking can put strain on this organ which can cause related health issues. In the brain, alcohol interacts with neurotransmitters which impacts normal functioning of mood, awareness, and perception.
Immediate Effects Of Alcohol
Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it slows down the brain causing short-term effects such as slurred speech, coordination issues, drowsiness, distortion of senses and perception, loss of consciousness, lowered inhibitions, and problems with memory. The intensity of alcohol’s short-term effects depends on the amount and how quickly it is consumed, the weight and sex of the drinker, and if food has been eaten prior to drinking. These factors impact how the body processes alcohol. Women are at a higher risk for adverse effects because they tend to weigh less than men. This means women tend to process alcohol at a slower rate than men even if they drink the same amount.
Long-term alcohol use and misuse can have serious health risks. The substance has been linked to over 200 diseases and health conditions. Liver cirrhosis, cancer, unintentional injuries (to self and to others), and addiction can all be caused by the consumption of alcohol. Other long term health effects include:
- Liver disease
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Stomach ulcers
- Brain and nerve damage
- Digestive problems
Understanding Drinking Patterns
In 2019, almost 70% of adults in the US reported having drank alcohol in the past year. With alcohol being so common, it can be hard to differentiate between casual use and abuse. While no amount of alcohol is risk free, certain drinking patterns lower the chances for health risks and the formation of an AUD.
If a person of legal drinking age chooses to drink, it is recommended that they do so moderately. Moderate drinking is considered to be 1 standard drink a day for women and 2 standard drinks for men in a day. Heavy drinking comes with greater risks. Drinking heavily is classified as 3 or more drinks in a day for women and 4 or more drinks in a day for men. This drinking pattern can also be defined as 8 drinks per week for women and 15 drinks per week for men.
Binge drinking is another unhealthy pattern of drinking that involves bringing a drinker’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to or above .08 g/dl. For women, this is achieved by drinking 4 or more alcoholic beverages in 2 hours. Five or more drinks in 2 hours is considered binge drinking for men. Although this pattern is very common, especially among college students, it can result in fatal outcomes or an addiction to alcohol.
Addiction To Alcohol
Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is marked by a craving for alcohol and the inability to stop drinking despite any negative impacts. An AUD occurs when the chemical changes from long-term alcohol use cause the brain to adapt its normal functions. This creates a dependency on the substance. Signs of an alcohol addiction include:
- Drinking more than intended.
- Unsuccessful attempts to stop unhealthy drinking habits.
- Needing more alcohol to feel the effects.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.
- Needing to drink impacts obligations, such as work or school.
- Putting aside other activities and interests for drinking.
- Spending more time getting, drinking, and recovering from alcohol.
- Continuing to drink despite health consequences.
- Feeling cravings to drink alcohol.
Because alcoholism is a progressive disorder, its impacts and risk for health problems will get worse with prolonged use. For this reason, treating an AUD is easiest when done in the early stages. The first step of treatment involves detoxing the body of alcohol which can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and sweating. These symptoms typically subside 48 hours after the last drink consumed. Five percent of people who go through alcohol withdrawal will experience delirium tremens which come with severe hallucinations and delusions. Completing detox in a facility allows medical professionals to assist in making this process as safe as possible.
After detoxing, treatment should continue with inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation. These programs can help to treat not only an addiction but also its root causes. Participating in aftercare programs, such as support groups and therapy, can help to lower the chance of relapse after rehab.
High functioning alcoholics, which is not a medical diagnosis, do not fit the typical characteristics of a person struggling with an AUD. People who are high-functioning alcoholics are capable of keeping their alcoholism from interfering in their professional obligations. They may appear to have their lives together, but they likely struggle with intense cravings for alcohol and many unsuccessful attempts at stopping use.
A 2009 New York Times article estimated that as many as half of all alcoholics are high-functioning alcoholics. Lawyers, professors, and doctors make up a large portion of these individuals.
High-functioning alcoholics rarely recognize they have a problem until they face severe alcohol-related consequences. The danger of high-functioning alcoholism is that it can continue for years while a drinker remains in denial. The long-term health risks associated with an AUD still affect high-functioning alcoholics.
Alcohol And Other Drugs
Because it is so common in today’s culture, alcohol is often abused alongside other drugs. As a CNS depressant, alcohol poses a serious risk when mixed with other drugs of the same class, such as Benzodiazepines and some painkillers. Alcohol on its own can be dangerous but combining it with other substances can quickly prove lethal.
Statistics Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
Adults who first used alcohol before they turned 15 are 7 times more likely to develop alcoholism than adults who first used alcohol at the age of 21.
Over 40% of all drug-related emergency room visits of people under the age of 20 were caused by alcohol abuse.
Over 2 million people found treatment for their alcoholism in 2011.
Find Help For Alcohol Addiction
You don’t have to go through recovery alone. Many people who struggle with alcohol addiction find it difficult or impossible to quit without the help or support of others. There are many professionals and support groups designed to get you the help you need. Increase your chance of a full recovery with the help of a treatment center. Get in touch with a treatment provider today to discuss available options for rehabilitation facilities.