All About Alcohol

All About Alcohol

Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: one in every 12 adults suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. Every year, several million more drink heavily. Not all binge drinkers become alcoholics, but it is a risk factor.  88,000 deaths are annually attributed to alcohol.

  • Thirty seconds after your first sip, alcohol races into your brain. It slows down the chemicals and pathways that your brain cells use to send messages. Your mood, reflexes and balance are altered.  You can’t think straight, and you’ll struggle to store things in long-term memory.
  • If you drink heavily for a long time, your brain cells start to change and even get smaller. Too much alcohol can actually shrink your brain.   Your ability to think, learn, and remember things changes.   It becomes harder to keep a steady body temperature and control your movements.
  • Alcohol’s slow-down effect on your brain makes you drowsy, but you won’t sleep well. Your REM sleep is disturbed and you’re more likely to have nightmares and vivid dreams. 
  • Your stomach lining is irritated and your digestive juices flow causing you to feel nauseated.   Ulcers develop in your stomach.   
  • Your small intestine and colon get irritated, casuing diarrhea.  Heartburn is more likely as your body relaxes the muscle that keeps acid out of your esophagus.
  • Alcohol causes the kidneys to overwork, creating too much urine which causes dehydratipn. When you drink heavily for years, that extra workload and the toxic effects of alcohol can damage kidneys.
  • Your liver breaks down almost all alcohol toxins making the organ fatty and thicker.  Fibrous tissue build up,  limiting blood flow.   Liver cells die off and begin scarring.   Liver damag, unchecked, develops to cirrhosis.
  • The pancreas produces insulin to aid in the process of the intestines; alcohol breaks down this process.  The toxins from alcohol cause inflammation in the organ, which can lead to diabetes and increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Alcohol expands the blood vessels in your body and brain expand causing headaches.  Your stomach wants to get rid of the toxins and acid that booze churns up, which gives you nausea and vomiting. And because your liver was so busy processing alcohol, it didn’t release enough sugar into your blood, bringing on weakness and the shakes.  Blood flows to the skin causing flushes and temporary warmth, but the body temperature drops.    
  • Your heart’s rhythm is jumbled after one night of drinking.   Over time, those changes can become permanent. Alcohol can literally wear your heart out. Heart muscles droop and stretch, like an old rubber band. Pumping blood is effected which impacts every part of your body.  
  • Alcohol widens your blood vessels, making more blood flow to your skin. That makes you blush and feel warm and toasty. But not for long. The heat from that extra blood passes right out of your body, causing your temperature to drop. On the other hand, long-term, heavy drinking boosts your blood pressure.   Your body release stress hormones that narrow blood vessels, so your heart has to pump harder to push blood through.  Blood pressure increases; over time this can become permanent.
  • Alcohol impacts your immune system. Your body can’t produce the numbers of white blood cells it needs to fight germs. Long-term, heavy drinkers are much more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
  • Hormones manage everything from your sex drive to how fast you digest food, and alcohol creates an imbalance.  In women, the mentral cycle can impact ability to become pregnant.  In men alcohol can cause erectial dysfunction, lower sperm count, shrinking testicles, and breast growth.
  • Alcohol impacts your hearing, possibly impacting the part of your brain that processes sound, damaging the nerves and tiny hairs in your inner ear that help you hear. This can become permanent. Long-term drinkers often have hearing loss.
  • Heavy drinking reduces your calcium levels. Combined with the hormone changes that alcohol triggers, your body is prevented from building new bones. Bones get thinner and more fragile, causing osteoporosis. Alcohol limits blood flow to your muscles, preventing proteins that build them up. Over time, you’ll have lower muscle mass and less strength.

Signs of Alcohol Overdose include:                                               

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • No gag reflex (which prevents choking)
  • Low body temperature

Cold showers, hot coffee, or walking will not reverse an alcohol overdose. They can actually make things worse. Don’t act alone – call 911 immediately.

Warning Signs of Alcoholism

Sometimes the warning signs of alcohol abuse are very noticeable. Other times, they can take longer to surface. It is important to act quickly when the warning signs appear. Catching alcoholism early can improve the chances for a healthy recovery.

Common signs of alcoholism include:

  • Being unable to control your drinking
  • Drinking after you’ve promised to quit
  • Unsuccessfully limiting the amount you drink
  • Spending less time on activities that used to be important, such as hanging out with family and friends, exercising, or pursuing hobbies or other interests
  • Drinking despite consequences
  • Putting alcohol above personal responsibilities and relationships
  • Going out of your way to hide the amount you drink
  • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school
  • Needing to drink more and more in order to produce the same effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, trembling, sweating, nausea or fatigue

To be diagnosed with AUD, individuals must meet certain criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Under DSM–5, the current version of the DSM, anyone meeting any two of the 11 criteria during the same 12-month period receives a diagnosis of AUD. The severity of AUD—mild, moderate, or severe—is based on the number of criteria met.

To assess whether you or a loved one may have AUD, ask:            

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

If you have any of these symptoms, your drinking may already be a cause for concern. The more symptoms you have, the more urgent the need for change. A health professional can conduct a formal assessment of your symptoms to see if AUD is present. Ultimately, receiving treatment can improve an individual’s chances of success in overcoming AUD. The NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator can help you recognize and find high quality treatment for alcohol use disorder. If you drink excessively, seek medical help to plan a safe recovery as sudden abstinence can be life threatening.


Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol negatively effects all areas of the body-our bodies perceive it as a toxin and goes into over drive to rid it.  For this reason, alcohol make the perfect conduit for other medications.  Many ‘gel’ type pharmaceuticals utilize alcohol to enhance the efficacy of their medications- while the body recognizes alcohol immediately and works to remove it, the medication is secondary and absorbs into the system faster.

Barriers to Treatment

Alcohol use disorder is a major cause of disease, disability, and premature mortality in the U.S.  29% of Americans will  experience an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lifetime, yet only one in five of these individuals will ever receive any treatment.

The Recovery Institute conducted a study trying to determine why this percentage is so low-

One of the most common triggers for returning to use after a period of abstinence is a combination of the prevalence of alcohol around us- it is in our medications, our foods, romanced on television, movies and commercials.

A stigma certainly exists around alcoholism- a large population continues to view alcoholism as a moral and personal weakness.  In addition, because of the ease of access and legality of this drug, many family members and significant others will continue to drink while the loved one attempts sobriety.

Alcohol Use Disorders:  Alcohol Dependence vs. Alcoholism

There is a fine line between Alcohol Dependence and Alcoholism; in the case of Dependence, the person still has an element of control over stopping use, and their use may not yet have negatively effected all aspects of life.

With Alcoholism, there is a physical dependence on alcohol, and stopping using without medical oversight can result in a medical emergency, including death.

Alcohol Use Disorder  (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.

It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the  term, alcoholism. Considered a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting changes in the brain caused by alcohol misuse perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.