By: Zinnia Health Editorial Staff | Edited By: Rebecca Hill | Medically Reviewed by: Dr. David Hu
Alcoholism: Helping People Get on the Road to Recovery
The National Institutes of Health defines alcohol use disorder (AUD) as a “chronic relapsing brain disease” in which a person compulsively drinks even in the face of adverse consequences.
Also called alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol dependence, it is one of the most complex substance abuse disorders. Alcohol use is so widely accepted in the U.S., it is practically the social norm. It’s very difficult to know when a person has crossed the line from social drinking into alcoholism.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85.6 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime and 69.5 percent reported that they drank in the past year.
But alcoholism is a very common, chronic, and progressive condition. It can lead to serious social, familial and physical health consequences.
With the right treatment, a person can reach sobriety and take back control of their lives.
This guide to alcohol abuse explains the disease of alcoholism and the treatment options available to help you overcome abuse and achieve recovery.
What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a psychoactive substance produced by the fermentation of sugar, yeast, and starches.
The alcohol in wine, beer, and liquor is ethanol, a central nervous system suppressant that affects every organ in the body.
When ingested, alcohol gets absorbed by the stomach and small intestine. It enters the bloodstream and is then processed in the liver.
However, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time.
Drinking more than the liver can handle means that the rest of the alcohol flows throughout the body, affecting us in a variety of harmful ways.
Why Do People Drink Alcohol?
A person’s tendency to drink boils down to highly individualized factors. It’s impossible to attribute the attraction to drinking to any one thing, but certain reasons might make it seem appealing at first.
Some of the most common reasons why people like to drink alcohol include:
A desire to have fun is one of the main reasons people drink alcohol. Drinking small amounts makes some people feel happy, relaxed, and sociable. Many people find that drinking with friends is a fun experience. However, alcohol is a depressant. The more people drink, the less they will experience these positive effects and the more it will depress the central nervous system.
2. Stress Relief
Many people start drinking to relieve stress in daily life. Alcohol is a sedative and a relaxant. Its effects can be very welcome when a person is feeling overwhelmed with stress. However, the more a person relies on alcohol to reduce stress, the more they need to achieve the same stress reduction. Using alcohol to eliminate stress also means a person isn’t developing other, healthy ways to deal with stress.
3. Pleasurable Feelings
Initially, alcohol can provide people with euphoric effects. Drinking might offer an escape from work, relationships, boredom, or other problems they are trying to escape. But using alcohol regularly as a source of happiness can turn into a serious drinking problem down the road.
4. Social Anxiety
Drinking helps people relax and lowers their inhibitions. For people who have a lot of social anxiety, it becomes a crutch to help them feel comfortable in social situations. Over time, it becomes hard to show up to social situations without having already drunk alcohol. This can easily turn problematic.
It is extremely common for people suffering from substance abuse disorders to report a history of trauma. Whether this is childhood trauma, sexual trauma, traumatic events like combat or car accidents, or something else, painful events can be incredibly hard to process. Alcohol can be a quick fix to escape hard situations and memories. But the only way to feel better is to heal from the traumatic events themselves.
Drinking can be a way to deal with loneliness. When people don’t feel connected to others or part of a community, drinking can help them escape the bad feelings. People think it can also help them make friends more easily, but drinking actually makes people feel even lonelier.
People who have experienced the loss of a friend, family member, or loved one often have a difficult time dealing with grief. It’s understandable that many people want alcohol to help numb their feelings when something so painful happens. Eventually, though, this habit starts to cause pain of its own.
Does Alcohol Have Any Health Benefits?
While alcohol can wreak havoc on a person’s health, research shows that moderate alcohol consumption may also have some health benefits. It’s possible that light to moderate drinking could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in both men and women.
Some studies also found that gallstones and type 2 diabetes are less likely to occur in moderate drinkers than in non-drinkers.
Additionally, red wine is a source of resveratrol, a natural antioxidant that can improve damaged cells and reduce oxidative stress in the body.
But this only tells part of the story. The emphasis in all these cases is on moderate drinking.
Increasing alcohol intake to two or more drinks per day doesn’t just negate the positive effects of drinking — it immediately increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a host of other diseases.
Plus, the health benefits do not apply to anyone with any existing health problems or with even a moderate risk for alcohol abuse.
Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Drinking alcohol can cause several short-term effects immediately upon consumption. These effects depend on a variety of factors, such as:
- Overall health
- Type of alcohol consumed
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- Genetic makeup
- Other substances consumed
In general, short-term effects of alcohol begin within 20 to 30 minutes of consuming it. These short-lived effects include:
- Elevated mood
- Feelings of euphoria
- Physical relaxation
- Slurred speech
- Slow reflexes
- Impaired motor skills
- Inability to concentrate
- Distorted vision or hearing
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rise in body temperature
- Lowered inhibitions
These effects are what people experience immediately after consuming alcohol.
They might not seem serious, and most people recover from them once the alcohol is eliminated from the body. What’s problematic is the cumulative effect of abusing alcohol over time.
Let’s take a closer look at how chronic drinking affects the body long-term.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
While having a glass of wine or a beer now and then isn’t a big deal for most people, drinking too much — on just one occasion or over time — can be very damaging to your health.
Some of the health complications arising from chronic alcohol abuse include:
1. Slowed Cognitive Functioning
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s neural pathways and can affect how the brain functions.
Prolonged drinking can shrink the frontal lobes of your brain. It can change mood, behavior, and coordination.
Drinking can also make it harder to think clearly and can cause memory impairment.
It’s possible to wake up with no memory of what happened while you were drinking.
Chronic alcohol use can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a permanent brain disorder that affects memory.
2. Circulatory System Damage
Prolonged alcohol abuse or episodes of binge drinking can damage the heart and lungs.
Drinking can cause stretching and drooping of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat, stroke, and high blood pressure.
It can also cause difficulty pumping blood through the body, which makes it hard to absorb vitamins and minerals.
This leads to anemia, a condition of low red blood cell counts that causes extreme fatigue.
3. Liver Problems
Heavy drinking places strain on the liver. It can lead to fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.
The liver helps break down and remove toxins from the body, including alcohol.
But over time, heavy drinking interferes with this waste removal process. It causes chronic inflammation in the liver, where scar tissue is formed and it eventually destroys the organ.
This is known as cirrhosis.
Alcoholic liver disease can be fatal. It causes toxic waste to accrue in the body and a host of other problems.
4. Endocrine Damage
Too much alcohol can cause the pancreas to produce an abnormal amount of digestive enzymes.
These enzymes cause a severely painful inflammation called pancreatitis.
This can turn into a long-term situation and cause serious complications that make it hard to digest food.
The pancreas also regulates insulin in the body. When the pancreas and liver are damaged, it can easily lead to low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, or too much sugar, hyperglycemia.
Both are serious conditions and can cause complications and side effects related to diabetes.
Alcohol is very dangerous for people with diabetes or hypoglycemia.
5. Digestive Problems
Drinking can cause damage to tissues in the digestive tract. This prevents the intestines from being able to absorb necessary nutrients, leading to malnutrition.
Heavy drinking can also cause bloating, excess gas, diarrhea, painful stools, pain in the abdomen.
Alcohol can cause ulcers and dehydration, which can leader to internal bleeding and hemorrhoids, respectively.
6. Reproductive Health
Drinking heavily is known to cause erectile dysfunction in men and problems with menstruation in women. This can sometimes lead to infertility. Drinking while pregnant can pose great harm to both women and their unborn children, including the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol syndrome disorders. It also puts babies at risk of developing learning difficulties, long-term health issues, and physical abnormalities.
7. Elevated Risks of Cancer
The National Cancer Institute also lists alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. The more alcohol a person drinks, the higher the risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. Even people who have only one drink a day have a slightly increased risk of some cancers. Heavy drinkers are at risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, or liver.
8. Central Nervous System Damage
Alcohol is a ventral nervous system suppressant that slows down many critical functions in your body. It can cause slurred speech, impaired motor coordination, and loss of equilibrium — which can make driving a vehicle extremely dangerous. The more alcohol a person drinks, the more they damage their central nervous system. This can cause neuropathy, a numbness and tingling in hands and feet. Alcohol also makes it hard to create short- and long-term memories and to make rational choices. Frontal lobe damage can occur over time, impairing the ability to exhibit emotional control and sound judgment.
9. Weakened Immunity
Excess alcohol can also weaken the immune system. This makes it much more likely for alcoholics to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than those who don’t drink.
When Does Drinking Become a Problem?
Many adults can drink in moderation. This means up to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
A drink is equal to 1.5 ounces of spirits, five ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.
However, pushing the limits on moderation can easily lead to alcohol abuse and dependence.
AUD, alcoholism, or alcohol abuse can only be diagnosed by a medical or mental health professional.
However, as found on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) website, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) outlines basic criteria for mild, moderate, and severe AUD.
A medical professional might diagnose someone with mild AUD if they have two to three of these symptoms. Moderate AUD is a person who meets four to five of these criteria, and severe AUD is someone who meets 6 or more within a 12-month period.
The APA’s diagnostic signs and symptoms include:
- Being unable to stop drinking or control alcohol intake despite trying
- Drinking more frequently or drinking more than intended
- Spending significant time seeking alcohol, drinking, and recovering
- Craving alcohol
- Inability to fulfill home, work, and school obligations
- Spending less time at work, school, or social activities because of drinking
- Drinking when it is physically dangerous to do so, like when driving a car
- Drinking despite physical or psychological problems related to alcohol use
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon cutting back
Alcohol abuse is the step before alcoholism, or dependence. It’s a pattern of drinking that causes significant and recurrent adverse consequences. Individuals who abuse alcohol meet between two to five of these criteria.
People with alcoholism have lost control of how much they drink. They cannot stop even though they want to. And often, they cannot stop drinking once they start.
This turns into a painful cycle of experiencing withdrawal and then drinking again just to curb the terrible symptoms, leading right back into alcoholism.
According to the NIAAA, a 2019 survey revealed that 5.6 percent of adults in the United States aged 18 and older had alcohol use disorder (AUD), or roughly 14.1 million people.
Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose
Drinking too much alcohol is extremely dangerous and can result in death.
If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning or has overdosed on alcohol, contact emergency medical professionals immediately.
Signs that someone may have alcohol poisoning or has overdosed include:
- Passing out
- Inability to walk
- Lack of reflexes
- Decreased heart rate or pulse
- Slowed breathing
- Pale or bluish skin, especially around the lips
If a person has been drinking heavily for some time, halting alcohol use or cutting down on the amount can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from alcohol can be severe and incapacitating. It can also be fatal.
Problem drinkers should never attempt to stop using alcohol without the help of medical professionals.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Profuse sweating
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Panic attacks
- Vivid nightmares
- Delirium Tremens
- High blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
No one should endure severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal without help. Call Zinnia Healing at (855) 430-9439 to learn more.
What Causes Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol abuse and disorders happen for a variety of reasons; it can be attributed to genetic, physiological, environmental, psychological or social factors.
Some problem drinkers have a problematic combination of traits, like impulsiveness, low self-esteem, and a tendency to give in to peer pressure.
Some drink out of boredom.
Others drink to “self-medicate” or avoid emotional or psychological problems. Others drink as a result of childhood trauma, poverty, or domestic abuse.
Many people are vulnerable to alcoholism because of genetic factors.
Children of parents with AUD are two to six times more likely than others to develop their own AUD.
AUD is also more common in people whose relatives have had more severe issues with drinking and people who have more relatives with AUD.
Likewise, a person is more likely to develop a drinking problem if they have easy access to alcohol and/or spend time with people who abuse substances.
Problematic drinking can also happen during the teenage years when a person is still undergoing developmental changes.
Teenagers don’t yet have the total ability to exercise good judgment, display self-control, and make positive decisions for themselves.
When people engage in risky behaviors, like drinking at a young age, they are more prone to alcoholism when they’re older.
Factors like low self-esteem, stress, personality or mood disorders, and a person’s social support network can also increase the risk of turning to heavy drinking at some point in life.
While there is no obvious answer to why some people seem more prone to addiction than others, researchers are gaining more insight into the biology of addiction.
Alcoholism is caused in part by biological changes in the body. These changes facilitate physical dependence on alcohol.
Combined with psychological factors, such as depression or anxiety, it can be extremely difficult for many people to escape the cycle of alcoholism safely on their own.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse
Deciding to ask for help with alcohol addiction is one of the best decisions a person can make in their life.
If you’re ready to admit you have a drinking problem, you’ve already taken the most important step.
It takes extraordinary courage to admit that you’re ready to change your life. It’s time to reach out for help.
Treatment for alcohol abuse and alcoholism can look different for different people.
Some people go to rehab and others try to do it at home.
Recovering from any kind of substance abuse is much easier and more likely to be successful if you have support, and a treatment center can provide medical assistance and people to lean on for encouragement and comfort throughout the process.
The first stage in recovery is detox.
This detox process is an incredibly important stage of alcohol addiction recovery.
If the addiction is severe, it’s critical to have the help of medical professionals. Withdrawal can be seriously uncomfortable and even deadly.
A treatment center can help ease your symptoms and pain with medication.
After detox, a person has several different options.
Recovery is a personal path, and each person needs to find out the steps that work best for them. Entering rehab and working with professionals gives you access to all kinds of treatment options.
2. Inpatient Rehab
Inpatient rehab involves staying at a facility where you have access to 24-hour/day supervised medical care and support. You remain in a safe, controlled environment for a determined amount of time without the temptation to use or access alcohol.
3. Outpatient Programs
Outpatient programs provide rehabilitative support on a daily or weekly basis. You can choose to attend anywhere from 5 to 40 hours of treatment each week. The main difference is that you can stay at home during treatment instead of living at a facility.
4. Individual Therapy
Therapy is highly recommended for people in early recovery. It involves working with a counselor on different aspects of your addiction. There are a number of different therapies to choose from, including:
This approach focuses on identifying your triggers. Once you learn what causes your cravings to use, you can learn how to cope with those cravings. It also teaches ways to avoid situations and behaviors that increase your risk of relapse.
b. Matrix Model
The Matrix Model combines a number of different approaches to target addiction from all angles. It can include cognitive-behavioral therapy, family or marriage counseling, group therapy, 12-step programs and outpatient rehab.
c. Contingency Management
This is a popular approach that works by encouraging behaviors that promote sobriety with tangible rewards.
d. Motivational Therapy
This approach works by helping to keep you motivated during treatment. It focuses on letting you take time to move through the recovery process at your own pace.
5. Group Therapy
Group therapy is a chance to meet with other people who are experiencing similar issues. It’s a way to explore your addiction and learn healthy coping mechanisms from others. It is also a great way to continue talking about your addiction and benefitting from lessons others have learned.
6. Attending 12-Step Groups
12-step groups are programs that focus on abstinence, such as AA and NA. They are excellent forms of social support and can offer a way to make new, sober friends.
It’s possible that you and your treatment team will decide that medication should be a part of your recovery. Some medications help curb cravings for alcohol. Others help alleviate withdrawal symptoms in the early stages of recovery. And others help address any co-occurring disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
Alcoholism and alcohol use disorder are very personal conditions that require a personalized solution. If you are ready to seek treatment for alcohol abuse, call Zinnia Healing at (855) 430-9439 to regain control of your life.