In this two-part series, our editors explore the effects of alcoholism on health and on the lives of those with a disorder resulting in alcohol abuse. In this part, we cover risk factors, symptoms and emergent health effects. Find the link to the second part of the series at the bottom of this page.
While many adults are capable of safely enjoying alcohol from time to time, others are far more susceptible to becoming dependent or addicted. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that more than 15 million adults over the age of 18 struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), which includes alcoholism. This devastating disease can have a major impact on a person’s mind, body, and relationships.
Alcoholism is a Disease
There are several conditions classified as alcohol use disorders. Alcoholism, the term most commonly associated with excessive drinking is considered the most severe form. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines alcoholism as a chronic brain disease. There is no preventative vaccination that can stop a person from becoming addicted, nor is there a cure. Treatment goals generally target stopping current alcohol use and controlling the triggers that may cause a relapse.
But while we may associate alcoholism with AUD, there is in fact, much more nuance to the problem and knowing the differences can help people to better understand not only themselves but their disease, perhaps increasing the odds of successful treatment.
How can we know who is at risk? Scientists don’t know what makes one person more susceptible to addiction over another, but they have identified a number of risk factors. These factors, combined with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, lead a person to build up a tolerance to alcohol. Over time, regular consumption leads to the body synthesizing the intoxicated state as "normal," which may lead to dependency. As a person develops a dependency and has increasing difficulty functioning without drinking, they may start to become preoccupied with alcohol and lose control over their choices regarding consumption.
Here are some of the risk factors that scientists have identified:
- Men: consuming 15+ drinks per week
- Women: consuming 12+ drinks per week
- Binge drinking (5+ drinks in a single day)
- Past history of substance abuse
- Family history of addiction
- Environmental factors, including childhood abuse
- Trauma, such as a sudden loss
- Prolonged stress
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders
- Suffering from low self-esteem
- Subjected to frequent peer pressure (especially among young adults)
Symptoms of Alcoholism
Knowing when a person has slipped from ordinary drinking into the territory of alcoholism can be tricky as some may resort to sneaking and hiding their consumption in an effort to protect themselves from judgment. The best thing we can do is to let our loved ones know that we love them unconditionally and we support their process. Here are some things to watch for:
- Increased alcohol tolerance
- Lack of focus on topics unrelated to alcohol consumption
- Lack of interest in limiting the number of drinks consumed
- Increasing investment in dedicated drinking time
- Neglected personal commitments
- Neglected work and professional responsibilities
- Inability to stop drinking without withdrawal symptoms
- Frequent symptoms of a hangover
- Bloodshot eyes
- Coordination and focus changes
- Slurred speech patterns
Alcoholism and the Body
Alcoholism can have a number of long and short-term effects on the body. Those who binge drink, (having five or more drinks in a two hour period or less for men, four for women) put themselves in extreme danger as resulting blackouts can lead to alcohol poisoning, car accidents, or other forms of physical injury as well as a host of health effects ranging from mild to severe.
Scientists have found a relationship between long-term alcohol abuse and more than 200 diseases, ranging from nutrient deficiencies to cancer. Most notable are the effects alcohol has on the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, the immune system, and the reproductive system.
- Brain - Aside from addiction and dependency issues, regular alcohol abuse disrupts the way the brain functions, resulting in coordination issues, comprehension delays, and severe mood changes. Alcoholism can also lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, aka “wet brain.” Wet brain is a form of brain damage that occurs when the brain is chronically deprived of vitamin B1, a common nutritional deficiency in alcoholics.
- Heart - Long-term use of alcohol has a profound impact on the cardiovascular system, leading to an increased risk of high blood pressure, the potential for a stroke, and both heart muscle and rhythm disorders.
- Liver - Alcohol consumption disrupts the liver’s ability to properly filter the blood it receives from the digestive system before it goes back out into the body. Over time, an alcoholic may develop cirrhosis, fibrosis, fatty liver disease, or alcoholic hepatitis.
- Pancreas - Too much alcohol can cause the pancreas to secrete toxins. Those toxins can, over time, cause pancreatitis — a dangerous condition that causes severe pain and digestive issues. Excessive drinking can also diminish the body’s sensitivity to insulin, leading to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
- Immune System - Alcoholics tend to have a weakened immune system, leading to an increased risk of the development of pneumonia and other infectious diseases.
- Pregnancy Complications - Excessive alcohol consumption among pregnant women can lead to the development of fetal alcohol syndrome, a permanent condition that causes physical abnormalities, learning disabilities, and behavioral issues
In part two of this important two-part series, our editors cover even more health effects, risky behavior, alcohol and relationships and how to find help for yourself or those you love who may be experiencing some of these symptoms. There are far more options than ever before, and while AA may still be popular, the options go far beyond this old standby, so be sure to check out the next in the series.