Alcohol Addiction: Risk Factors, Side Effects, and Treatment
Alcohol is a chemical compound found in beverages such as wine, beer, and spirits. It is created when yeast ferments or breaks down the sugars in various food products, such as grapes, apples, and grains.
In lower doses, alcohol acts as a stimulant drug, increasing sociability and feelings of euphoria. In larger doses, it acts as a central nervous system depressant, impairing coordination, slowing reflexes and breathing, distorting vision, impairing judgment, and causing memory lapses or blackouts.
Alcohol is a commonly used drug and can be found in grocery stores, pharmacies, bars, and liquor stores all across the country. In America, it is common for alcohol to be present at celebratory events, formal occasions, parties, and other social gatherings.
The following terms are street names or slang for alcohol:
- Liquid courage
- Hard stuff
Having an alcoholic beverage every once in awhile is very unlikely to cause addiction or have severe physical effects, but many people engage in unhealthy drinking behaviors such as binge drinking and consistent heavy drinking. Drinking too much alcohol can have negative health effects and lead to addiction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the following definitions and guidelines for healthy and unhealthy drinking behaviors.
- A standard drink: A standard drink in the United States contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.
- Moderate drinking: One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is considered moderate drinking.
- Excessive drinking: This type of behavior is defined by any type of inappropriate drinking habits, including heavy drinking, binge drinking, or drinking by underage individuals or pregnant women.
- Binge drinking: A woman who drinks four or more drinks during a single occasion or a man who drinks five or more drinks during a single occasion is binge drinking.
- Heavy drinking: Women who have more than eight drinks per week and men who have more than 15 drinks per week are considered heavy drinkers.
Unhealthy drinking habits that become severe are diagnosed as Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD. This disorder is characterized by chronic, uncontrollable abuse of alcohol and is defined as a chronic relapsing brain disease.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), millions of adult Americans suffer from AUD and more than 600,000 adolescent Americans have it as well. Although alcohol abuse is an extremely common disorder in the United States, less than 10 percent of affected individuals actually receive treatment for it.
Alcohol affects the function of brain chemicals, which are known as neurotransmitters. GABA is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of relaxation and well-being, and initially, alcohol increases the amount of GABA. Meanwhile, it suppresses the effects of glutamate, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of excitement.
When you chronically abuse alcohol, the brain compensates for its effect on these neurotransmitters by suppressing the activity of GABA and increasing the activity of glutamate. The result is that increasingly larger amounts of alcohol are needed to get the same effects. This is known as building up a tolerance.
At some point, brain function may shift so that the brain now operates more “normally” when alcohol is present than when it’s not. At this point, stopping alcohol use will result in withdrawal symptoms that set in as brain function rebounds. Withdrawal is the primary indication that you have developed a physical dependence on alcohol.
Alcohol acts on the memory and reward systems in the brain. Beginning with the first time you use alcohol, the brain associates its consumption with pleasure, and the association is strengthened each time alcohol is used. Soon, you may begin to crave alcohol, and eventually, these cravings may become very intense.
You may feel compelled to drink even though you know doing so is compromising your quality of life. Although you may want to stop, and even despite trying, you’ll likely find that you can’t. This is the main indication that an addiction has developed.
Alcohol impacts just about every organ in the human body. It has a wide range of short-term and long-term effects and ongoing alcohol abuse can lead to very serious and even life-threatening medical conditions.
Immediate short-term effects of alcohol abuse include:
- Impaired judgment
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Distorted vision
- Memory loss
- Flushed skin
- Loss of physical balance
- Mood swings
- Loss of consciousness
Long-term side effects of alcohol abuse include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Irregular heartbeat
- Liver disease
- Weakened immune system
- Birth defects
- Physical dependence
Alcohol addiction can also lead to (or contribute to) psychological problems, such as:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Low self-esteem
A variety of social problems may also come as a result of alcohol addiction, including:
- Relationship problems
- Financial insecurity
- Violent behavior
Alcohol abuse also increases the risk of violence, physical injuries, risky sexual behaviors, and miscarriages.
Some individuals may have a higher risk of developing alcohol addiction than others, but there are many different factors that play a role in this, including:
- Genetics – Individuals who have a parent or other close relative who suffers from alcohol addiction has a higher risk of developing alcohol addiction themselves. Research has shown that this may be influenced by genetic factors.
- Environment – Certain factors put children and adolescents at greater risk for developing an addiction later in life. These factors include a lack of parental supervision, poverty, peer substance abuse, aggressive behavior early in life, and easy access to addictive substances.
- Age – Individuals who begin drinking at a younger age are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.
- Excessive drinking habits – People who binge drink or drink excessively on a regular basis have a higher risk of developing a tolerance, physical dependence, or alcohol use disorder.
- Mental health problems – Individuals with anxiety, depression or other mental health problems also frequently struggle with substance abuse issues.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction may vary from person to person, but most often, individuals who are addicted to alcohol will experience the following symptoms:
- Experiencing strong cravings or urges to drink alcohol.
- Being unable to limit alcohol consumption.
- Neglecting other obligations at home or work as a result of unhealthy drinking habits.
- Getting into dangerous or life-threatening situations while under the influence of alcohol.
- Continuing to drink despite the harmful consequences it is causing.
- Needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect.
- Having withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol begin to wear off.
If you or a loved one has experienced one or more of the above symptoms, your drinking habits are a cause for concern and you should seek help.
Alcohol addiction and AUD is a life-threatening condition that should be taken very seriously. Although it may seem impossible, alcohol addiction can be overcome with a comprehensive addiction treatment program and continued care.
For most individuals, the first step in a comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program is an alcohol detox program. Some individuals may be tempted to detox at home, but this is never a good idea as alcohol withdrawal can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Additionally, individuals who attempt to complete alcohol detoxification at home are much less likely to do so successfully, especially if alcoholic beverages are easily accessible.
Withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable and typically produces some of the following physical symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
- Severe cravings
The safest and most comfortable way to detox from alcohol is by enrolling in a medically assisted alcohol detox program. Medically assisted detox programs provide clients with 24/7 monitoring and treatment to reduce or eliminate any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms they experience throughout the detox experience.
|8 hours after the last drink:||Symptoms of withdrawal begin to appear. Early symptoms typically include nausea, insomnia, abdominal pain, and anxiety.|
|1 to 3 days after the last drink:||Confusion is common during this time, as well as high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and increased body temperature.|
|4+ days after the last drink:||Agitation, hallucinations, seizures, and fever may occur at this stage.|
|5-7 days after the last drink:||Most withdrawal symptoms decrease and taper off at this time. In some cases, some symptoms may persist for weeks if they are left untreated.|
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, professional help is almost always necessary for successful long-term recovery from an addiction. Willpower and good intentions are rarely enough to overcome an addiction, which changes the way the brain functions and fosters compulsive substance abuse.
A professional treatment program uses various traditional and alternative therapies to address the highly complex issues that underlie an alcohol addiction, including mental illness, trauma, stress and family dysfunction.
Clients in a treatment setting are fully educated about addiction and how it affects brain function, and they learn the skills and strategies necessary to prevent relapse.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.7 million people in America aged 12 or older needed substance abuse treatment in the past year. Of those who did not receive any type of substance abuse treatment, about 95 percent of them did not think they needed it. Convincing a loved one that they need help is the first step.
Once a person admits they have a problem and decides to get help, there are several different types of alcohol addiction treatment options to investigate. The most fitting option for any individual is always contingent on their circumstances. These may include:
- Their willingness to enroll in a program
- Their prior treatment and relapse history
- Their motivation for seeking treatment
- Their financial capabilities
A clinical counselor or substance abuse treatment specialist may be able to help you determine the appropriate level of care for you or your loved one. Based on their needs, they may be better served with one or more of the following types of alcohol addiction programs.
According to the NIDA, long-term rehab of 90 days or longer is associated with more positive treatment outcomes. For those who are addicted to alcohol, a 90-day inpatient rehab program will provide adequate time to adjust to a new sober lifestyle, learn and practice the essential coping strategies they will need to maintain their sobriety after rehab, and provide opportunities to establish a strong recovery support network.
In inpatient alcohol rehab, clients participate in a rehabilitation program that blends behavioral therapy, 12-step program interventions, chemical dependency education, and other evidence-based treatments to identify and correct negative behaviors, address other related problems and trauma that has contributed to the substance abuse, and apply skills to stop current substance abuse and prevent it in the future.
Throughout inpatient rehab, clients live in a comfortable addiction treatment center for an extended period of time where they work with addiction counselors, therapists, recovery specialists, and their peers in recovery to overcome their alcohol addiction. This time in treatment also provides an opportunity for them to heal physically, as the body needs time to recover from the abuse and neglect it suffered in the midst of addiction. To encourage physical healing, nutritious meals are served daily and clients are required to participate in a physical fitness regimen on a daily basis.
The cost for long-term inpatient alcohol rehab will vary based on the rehab center. Many alcohol rehab centers will work with a client’s insurance provider to lower the cost of rehab. Other payment options may include third-party healthcare loans, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), or reduced out-of-pocket payments.
During rehab, various therapies are used to delve into the complex issues behind the addiction. These include:
- Behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps clients learn to identify false beliefs and harmful thoughts and behaviors and replace them with healthier ways of thinking and behaving.
- Alternative therapies like meditation, acupuncture and yoga to reduce stress and foster healthy lifestyle changes.
- Alternative therapies like art, music or outdoor therapy to help clients better synthesize experiences, look at various issues in a different way and reduce stress.
- Relapse prevention programs that help clients identify triggers and develop skills and strategies to avoid or cope with them.
- Family therapy to help restore function to the household, repair damaged relationships and improve communication among family members.
- Group therapy to draw on the experiences of peers, address common issues and foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie.
- Participation in a support group to increase a sense of personal accountability and develop healthy relationships with other non-users.
After spending 90 days in alcohol rehab, an individual may choose to continue treatment by enrolling in a sober living program. Gender-specific transitional housing programs are designed to help clients adjust to independent sober life with recovery support services such as peer AA, NA, or 12-step meetings, personal monitoring programs, education and employment assistance, and regular drug and alcohol testing.
These recovery support services can also be combined with intensive outpatient programs to maximize the benefits of each. While enrolled in a sober living program, clients live in a clean, safe, and sober transitional living home with other peers in recovery. This type of structured group home environment serves as a safe, sober place where individuals can practice the life skills and coping strategies they learned in rehab while also learning to maintain their sobriety on a long-term basis.
Payment for sober living houses is due on a monthly basis (similar to rent) and the cost of the program will vary based on the additional recovery services provided, whether the client is also enrolled in IOP, and the type of sober living home he or she is living in.
Many individuals who have been sober for months and have completed detox, inpatient alcohol rehab, IOP, and a sober living program may continue their care by enrolling in an aftercare program. These programs are designed for rehab graduates who use regular meetings with their peers as sobriety check-ins.
These meetings (typically held weekly) are extremely beneficial for those who need continued support and accountability to face the struggles and challenges of sober life. Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease that individuals in recovery will need to face daily. Recovery is a lifelong process and although there is no simple “cure” for addiction, aftercare programs, and peer support are essential to maintaining long-term or lifelong sobriety.
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