Almost 18 million Americans abuse alcohol according to the American National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Obviously, alcoholism and alcohol abuse are serious personal and societal problems. Alcoholism is not a disease that will cure itself, left untreated it will continue to advance and accelerate, destroying lives and families.
Causes of Alcoholism
Addiction occurs gradually as alcohol alters the balance of chemicals in the brain, stimulating the pleasure centers. Long-term, excessive drinking can deplete or increase the levels of some neuro-chemicals, causing your body to crave alcohol as it can no longer create good or bad feelings on its own.
Other factors that can contribute to excessive drinking and addiction include:
- Psychological factors: Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly could promote excessive drinking. Low-self esteem or depression can make you more likely to abuse alcohol.
- Social and cultural factors: Alcohol is often portrayed as "glamorous" in advertising and other media. This could be sending the message that it's okay to drink excessively.
- Emotional state: Some people may drink alcohol to block out emotional pain, stress, or anxiety.
- Family: If other members of your family, particularly close relatives, have suffered from alcoholism, you are at greater risk for developing the disease.
The majority of alcoholics will deny that they have a drinking problem. Indications of alcoholism and alcohol abuse include:
- Inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed
- Forgetting conversations or commitments, referred to as "blacking out"
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Ritualizing drinking at a certain time or place and becoming annoyed if the ritual is disturbed or questioned
- Feeling a need or compulsion to drink
- Loss of interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring pleasure
- Hiding alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in the car
- Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
- Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances
- Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally, or drinking to feel "normal"
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — if you don't drink
- Building a tolerance to alcohol so that you need an increasing number of drinks to feel alcohol's effects
Side Effects & Health Risks
Excessive consumption of alcohol has many serious side effects, including:
- Lowering of inhibitions, affecting thought, emotions and judgment
- Impairment of speech and muscle coordination
- Heavy binge drinking can depress brain functions and bring on a life-threatening coma
- Fatigue and short-term memory loss
- Interruption of menstruation
- Birth defects: Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which results in birth defects, including a small head, heart defects, a shortening of the eyelids and various other abnormalities. Developmental disabilities are also likely.
- Osteoporosis: Bone loss, interference with the production of new bone, thinning bones and an increased risk of fractures.
- Gastrointestinal problems, impairing the intestine's ability to absorb B vitamins, particularly thiamine and folic acid, and other nutrients.
- Pancreatic damage: The pancreas produces the hormones that regulate metabolism and the enzymes that help digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
- Cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and damage to the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). These conditions can increase the risk of heart failure or stroke.
- Liver disorders. Heavy drinking can cause alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. After years of drinking, hepatitis may lead to cirrhosis, the irreversible and progressive destruction and scarring of liver tissue.
- Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness of your hands and feet, disordered thinking and dementia.
- Increased risk of cancer of the esophagus, larynx, liver and colon.
Treatment for alcoholism and alcohol abuse usually involves a combination of counseling and support. The patient must first acknowledge that they have a drinking problem and that they want to stop drinking. After that decision has been made, patients usually check into a treatment center, or enter an outpatient treatment program, for rehabilitation. Treatment centers help to ease patients through their initial withdrawal symptoms, and give support and counseling. These programs place an emphasis on acceptance and abstinence.
In some cases, short-term medications such as benzodiazepines (Valium or similar drugs) are used to help alleviate some of the symptoms of alcohol dependence and withdrawal. Other drugs that may be used in the treatment of alcoholism include:
- Disulfiram (Antabuse) an alcohol sensitizing drug, sometimes prescribed as a deterrent not a cure - to drinking.
- Acamprosate (Campral) can help control cravings
- Naltrexone (ReVia), a drug known to block the narcotic high, which can also reduce a recovering alcoholic's urge to drink.
Many recovering alcoholics continue to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after they complete rehabilitation. Continued therapy may also be helpful.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
There are acupuncture treatments available that are aimed at relieving cravings for alcohol and some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as fatigue and tremors.
It is important to recognize a family history of alcoholism and identify patterns of behavior before problems begin to develop. Early intervention is particularly key, especially in teenagers. If you have children, talk openly with them about any family history of alcohol abuse and about their own behaviors. Set a good example with your own use of alcohol. Allow your children a certain amount of independence, but set limits. Let them know what you expect, that there will be consequences for not following the rules and exactly what those consequences will be. Make sure your children understand the legal and medical consequences of drinking.