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Understanding Alcohol Addiction

What Is Alcoholism?

  • Alcoholism is an addiction disease that can lead to a number of social, economic and health problems. The consequences of addiction can range from mild to severe, depending upon the individual, but there are many similarities when it comes to how alcohol addiction affects the human body and the overall ramifications of alcohol abuse.  Even so, thousands of people abuse alcohol each year.
  • Symptoms of alcoholism are increased tolerance, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms. Even though alcohol addiction may be genetic, other factors can determine whether someone develops an addiction, such as stress. Alcoholism can lead to diseases and harm family members, but treatment can help people control it.
  • Because alcohol addiction is a disease, there are specific symptoms that accompany the disease.  The symptoms can be observed by taking note of certain behaviors.  Answering the following questions can provide you with some insight concerning whether an addiction problem may exist.

Have you developed a tolerance for alcohol?

Tolerance is both a common term as well as a medical term.  We develop tolerances for people we work with whom we might not socialize with on a regular basis, for instance.  Tolerance as a medical term refers to the ability of the human body to withstand substances based upon how frequently those substances are introduced.  Over time, the human body will need more of a given medication or substance in order to achieve the desired effect.

When an individual is first introduced to alcohol, a few drinks are enough to create the euphoric effects brought about by drinking.  As the person drinks more often, greater amounts of alcohol are required to reach the same levels of euphoria.

Do you lack the ability to stop drinking once one drink has been consumed?

This symptom of alcohol addiction is evident on individual occasions of alcohol consumption.  Is it possible for you or your loved one to have one glass of wine?  Is it possible to have only one beer?  Is it far more likely that one drink will lead to two, which leads to four, which then leads to the inability to stop the consumption of alcohol?   This loss of control is a serious indicator that there may be an alcohol addiction either present or very close at hand.

Do you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when no alcohol is available?

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal vary by the individual, but they may include:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling, especially in the hands
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Irritation
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Change in appetite or lack of appetite
  • Depression or anxiety

If the alcoholic is unable to drink, each of these symptoms may be present.  Some alcoholics feel these symptoms as stress and believe that “relaxing” with a drink will ease the tension.  The fact of the matter is that alcohol is physically addictive and it is the alcohol that is assuaging the physical symptoms.

Do you crave alcohol?+

Craving alcohol is a definite symptom of alcohol addiction.  When an individual craves a substance like alcohol or other drugs, they will go to great lengths to meet their physical need.  Those addicted to alcohol will sometimes drink dangerous substancesin order to satisfy the craving.  For instance, an alcoholic might consume aftershave, cough medicine or other solvents if they do not have access to an actual drink.

Drinking non-beverage alcohol products can lead to significant health problems, depending upon the type of products consumed. Consuming non-beverage alcohol is not the only indication of cravings, however.  Simply feeling as though one “needs” a drink can meet the definition of craving alcohol if that need leads to choosing alcohol over other social, economic or familial responsibilities.


The Effect of Alcohol on the Brain

  • An individual who consumes one or two drinks may suffer from slurred speech or the dizzying effects of alcohol.  Another person who is more accustomed or “tolerant” of alcohol may not suffer these visible effects of alcohol until they have consumed greater amounts.
  • The human brain fails to function properly when exposed to alcohol, however, for every person—no matter what.  It is a physical certainty.
  • Some very significant problems with brain function may occur when the blood alcohol content reaches higher amounts.  An individual may suffer a “black out.”
  • When this happens, they will have no recollection of activities in which they participated while under the influence.  The ability to reason is often affected by alcohol, resulting in irritation and agitation at the slightest provocation for some individuals.
  • These people may find themselves involved in violent altercations, even if they are normally the easy-going type.  Another problem may arise from the lack of ability to make good choices.
  • For instance, someone under the influence of high levels of alcohol may find himself in socially dangerous situations and partaking in reckless sexual activity, or they may “choose” to climb behind the wheel of a car, placing themselves and everyone they come into contact with in life-threatening danger.
  • These are the immediate effects of alcohol addiction, but the long-term effects on the brain are also significant.  When an individual participates in only infrequent episodes of binge drinking, their brain will undergo physical, measureable changes on MRI scans.
  • Specifically, the part of the brain that controls the transmissions of signals, the synapse, is negatively affected.  While the dizziness, slurred speech and other immediate symptoms of alcohol abuse and addiction will dissipate when the drinking episode has stopped, the dysfunction in the synapse will remain.

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Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

There has been a significant amount of debate concerning whether an individual may be predisposed to alcohol addiction.  Studies have shown that addiction, including alcoholism, may in fact be passed from one generation to another.  However, it is crucial to understand that this is not the only factor that determines whether an individual is or may become addicted to alcohol.

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There are many social, medical and psychological factors that come into play when broaching the subject of alcohol addiction.

For instance:

  • The availability of alcohol
  • The age at which an individual begins to drink
  • The amounts of stress exposure
  • The presence of an underlying or undiagnosed psychological condition such as depression or anxiety

Having a family history of alcoholism is a huge indicator that one should choose not to consume alcohol, but that factor alone does not mean that the person will automatically become an alcoholic.


Long-Term Health Effects of Alcoholism

Long-Term Health Effects of AlcoholismAlcohol addiction, by definition, indicates that an individual is consuming large amounts of alcohol.  The health effects of this type of behavior can be dramatic.  Alcohol is metabolized by the liver.  As such, it can cause a degeneration of the liver, known as cirrhosis, which can be life threatening. In fact, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse — a division of the National Institute of Health — alcohol-related cirrhosis deaths have historically outnumbered all other forms of cirrhosis deaths.

Pancreatitis is another long-term health effect of alcohol addiction.  The pancreas creates insulin and other enzymes needed for proper function of the human body.  The most common cause of pancreatitis, or the chronic inflammation of the pancreas, is alcohol abuse and addiction. In the case of chronic pancreatitis, parts of the pancreas are destroyed and therefore unable to perform their vital functions.

The caustic effect of alcohol when it comes into contact with human cells can lead to myriad forms of cancer.  Some of these cancers might include larynx (voice box), esophagus, and throat or stomach cancer.  Because of the involvement of the liver, cancer of the liver is also a very real possibility.

Effects on Families

Alcohol Effects on FamiliesAlcoholism does not affect only the alcoholic.  The family of the alcoholic is always subjected to the damaging influences of alcohol; there is no getting around this simple fact.

The abuse of alcohol can cause rifts between family members, for instance.  Even if the family members “wash their hands” of their alcoholic family member, they will be forced to grieve for the loss of the loved one and worry about their well-being on a regular basis.  If the family chooses to live with the alcoholic and his or her behaviors, they are often left picking up the pieces of a tattered life.  The family members may feel pressured into making excuses for the alcoholic regarding social engagements, work or personal issues, for instance.

If the individual who is addicted to alcohol has children, the children can bear the brunt of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their alcoholic parent.  There are several types of abuse when it concerns children; the most prevalent being physical and sexual abuse, psychological abuse and neglect.  Some studies have shown that parental abuse of alcohol can contribute to the likelihood of abuse within a family.  If an alcoholic chooses to drink to the point of either blacking out (losing memory) or passing out, the very minimum form of abuse that will occur is neglect.  When a child is neglected on a regular basis, he or she may suffer traumatic psychological abuse as a result.  In the worst cases, a parent may become enraged while under the influence and physically abuse their children.

Financial Effects

Financial Effects of AlcoholWhen an alcoholic succumbs to their disease of addiction, they place a huge financial burden on themselves and their families.  The inability to perform their jobs, for instance, might lead to frequent unemployment or taking jobs that pay considerably less than they might otherwise be able to earn.  The cost of the alcohol itself can steal money from family coffers that should be utilized for the household in the form of utility bills or even family vacations.

A more drastic financial impact may come in the form of legal fees, fines and other penalties should the alcoholic’s behaviors lead to charges such as driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol.

The costs of these types of charges can reach into the thousands when the attorney fees are combined with the inevitable court costs and fines.  If the driver’s license is suspended, which is a near certainty in most cases, the alcoholic will suffer consequences of being unable to easily get to and from work, or risk additional charges for driving without a license.

The cost of automobile insurance will also be raised significantly due to the increased risk of accident or injury at the hands of an impaired driver, and many states will require the driver to purchase a special policy costing hundreds of dollars per year, to cover any state liability for their actions.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

When considering how much you or a family member drinks at any given time, you must understand what constitutes “a drink.”  One 12-ounce beer, one shot of hard liquor, and one 5-ounce glass of wine are the government standards for a single drink.  The National Institute of Health has set the following warning levels for unhealthy consumption of alcohol as a signal that an individual may become dependent upon alcohol:

Warning Levels

  • For men: 15 or more drinks in a week
  • For women: 12 or more drinks in a week
  • For anyone: 5 or more drinks in a single event or occasion on a weekly basis

If broken down in practical forms, anyone who consumes a six-pack of beer on a Saturday is at an increased risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.  A woman who has a couple of cocktails after work every night has increased her risk.  A man who drinks socially while entertaining clients several nights per week, consuming only three or four drinks per evening will increase his risk of becoming an alcoholic.

There is good news, however.  While alcoholism, like other addictions, is not curable, treatment is available.  With proper counseling and possibly the introduction of approved medications, an alcoholic can control their disease and create a better future for themselves and their family.

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