The most socially accepted mind-altering substance is also one of the deadliest. Alcohol, the world’s oldest drug, is a boisterous presence at social gatherings and celebrations, in feel-good advertisements and ominous PSAs. It may be seen as a social lubricant and is certainly considered safe in moderation, but “liquid courage” flows on a steep and slippery slope to dependence. The all-consuming shadow of alcoholism does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, or class. Consumed recklessly, alcohol can take a wicked toll on one’s health, relationships, and overall quality of life.
A History of Alcohol
Alcohol has played a historical role of its own for thousands of years. Purposefully fermented beverages have been around as early as 10,000 B.C., and experts believe that the first alcoholic beverages may have been a product of fermented fruit or honey. Ancient Egyptians used alcohol in spiritual rituals, to facilitate relaxation, and even as medicine. Alcohol played a particularly prominent role in the Christian faith, with tales of Jesus turning water into wine. However, even then, the importance of moderation was stressed and excessive drinking was frowned upon.
Purposefully fermented beverages have been around as early as 10,000 B.C., and experts believe that the first alcoholic beverages may have been a product of fermented fruit or honey.
The United States has seen a particularly complicated history with alcohol, peppered with periods of abstinence, prohibition, and uncontrollable binge drinking. Americans in the early 1800s drank alcohol at a rate over four times as high as current citizens. Calls for alcohol education did not come about until the late 19th century, and those early teachings were largely made up of invented facts and portentous warnings about the “evils” of the drink. Temperance textbooks promoted the view that “any quantity of alcohol in any form was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation.”
While scientists and experts were ultimately successful in refuting these claims, contradicting views on alcohol persisted. The Eighteenth Amendment established national prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, under the belief that complete and total abstinence would bring an end to crime and poverty. Instead, it created a “black market” similar to the illegal drug trade of today, with the smuggling of alcohol leading to murder and widespread political corruption. Americans who wished to drink found themselves consuming alcohol heavily and quickly behind closed doors.
Discontent over prohibition grew to the point that it was repealed in 1933; however, anti-alcohol views have increased since this event less than a century ago. The temperance movement has never quite died, and with a legal drinking age of 21, the United States are among the most rigid alcohol-consuming countries in the world.
How Alcohol Works
After a glass of wine or a pint of beer is consumed, alcohol travels to the stomach and small intestine, where it is eventually absorbed into the bloodstream. It is then carried through the bloodstream and into the liver, which metabolizes the ethanol (beverage alcohol) by breaking it down with the help of enzymes.
The liver can only metabolize an average of one standard drink per hour. When a greater amount is consumed, the blood becomes saturated with excess alcohol that the liver is unable to metabolize, resulting in a higher blood alcohol concentration. It then remains in the bloodstream and body tissues until the liver is able to process more alcohol.
Anyone who’s ever had a drink or two is well aware of the immediate effects of alcohol: slurred speech, dizziness, talkativeness, impaired judgment and coordination, nausea, etc. The long-term consequences of drinking in excess can include permanent liver and brain damage, memory problems, poor sleep patterns, alcohol-hazed injury and drunk driving, heart problems, or even a deadly overdose.
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a lifelong disease that involves an inability to control one’s alcohol consumption. It is marked by physical and psychological dependence, including having to drink more to achieve the same level of intoxication, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when consumption is ceased or reduced, and an inability to stop drinking despite negative social and health consequences. The alcoholic is constantly preoccupied with when and how they’ll reach their next objective: another drink in their hand.
Abuse and addiction are not one and the same, however. A person can be a “problem drinker” without being addicted to alcohol. Binge drinking continues to be a popular and dangerously encouraged activity amongst teenagers and twenty-somethings -- “binge drinking” referring to large quantities of alcohol consumed over a short period of time to fulfill a primary goal of becoming heavily intoxicated. This problem drinking can lead to many of the same negative consequences as alcoholism: problems at work or school, liver damage, and even death. Such behavior becomes alcoholism when the individual is unable to stop drinking, even as their alcohol use is tearing their life apart.
Causes and Risk Factors
A combination of genetic and environmental factors can be blamed for alcohol addiction. Having one or more alcoholic parents can be a contributing factor, as well as suffering from depression and anxiety. Just as alcohol abuse can lead to a depressive state of mind, those with mental disorders might use alcohol to self-medicate or “escape,” leading to the development of alcoholism. This co-occurrence of addiction and mental disorders is known as dual diagnosis. The exact causes of alcoholism are continuously debated, including the possibility of “addictive personalities.”
Peer pressure is another massive risk factor when it comes to abusing alcohol. Particularly during teenage years, many are pressured to drink recklessly -- binge drinking, blacking out, and entering into risky situations as a result. Unhealthy in any amount, when this type of behavior becomes a habit, it can easily morph into an addiction.
Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
An individual’s alcohol use can be classified as an addiction when they exhibit signs of the drug hindering their ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Symptoms of alcohol addiction include:
- Excessive and frequent drinking
- Increased alcohol tolerance
- Mood swings
- Inability to stick to a limit while drinking
- Exhibiting withdrawal symptoms (irritability, anxiety, nausea, shakiness, fatigue, etc.) when alcohol is unavailable to them
- Frequently drinking alone or attempting to hide alcohol use from others
- Trouble at work, school, or home due to alcohol use
If any or all of these symptoms are detected, it is imperative that you or your loved one seek treatment as soon as possible.
Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal
For alcoholics in search of recovery, detoxification is often the first step. Alcoholics’ bodies have become accustomed to large amounts of the drug in their systems; ceasing alcohol consumption can cause shock to the body and produce such withdrawal symptoms as:
If you find that your drinking habits are interfering with your life and happiness, now is the time to seek treatment.
- Increased heart rate
These symptoms are the most severe when the “cold turkey” detox method is used. The “cold turkey” method refers to the complete and abrupt cessation of drinking alcohol. This can be effective for some and it rewards the addict by quickening their path to recovery; however, it is excruciatingly difficult and should be accompanied by both support group meetings and doctor visits in order to reduce the risk of relapse.
The “tier method” requires gradually tapering off alcohol and is considered a more feasible option for many addicts. By gradually reducing their alcohol intake -- for example, eight drinks instead of ten one day, six the next, then four, and so on -- an addict will experience withdrawal symptoms that are less severe.
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Regardless of the detox method used, finding a treatment center for alcohol addiction is strongly recommended. Treatment centers offer a combination of counseling, medication, and therapy to help addicts transition to a sober lifestyle.
Outpatient therapy is available through independent psychiatrists as well as alcohol treatment centers. For milder forms of alcoholism, addicts may find the freedom of outpatient therapy beneficial in that it allows them to continue working and living in the comfort of their homes while receiving treatment. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide free group meetings and close-knit support systems to help you no matter where you are in your recovery.
For more severe forms of alcoholism, an inpatient program may be required. Short- and long-term inpatient services are available through many treatment centers with short-term programs typically lasting 7-30 days, 30-90 days for long term. Find out what is right for you by consulting an addiction specialist.
For such a common commodity, alcohol can take a wicked hold. If you find that your drinking habits are interfering with your life and happiness, now is the time to seek treatment. The sooner you ask for help, the quicker you will be on the road to recovery.