Alcohol is the leading addictive substance used by Americans, with around 15 million adults who meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is well-known that frequently drinking to excess can lead to long-term health problems, but many don’t understand the full extent of alcohol’s impact on the body or the range of diseases that become more dangerous with addiction. It’s crucial to have a thorough understanding of the effects of alcohol to break the grip of addiction and encourage yourself or others to seek out a treatment program.
What Is Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcoholism has gone by various terms over history, including the catch-all “alcohol abuse” as well as “alcohol dependence.” The current name for a drinking problem that results in physical and emotional dependence is alcohol use disorder. The defining characteristic of alcoholism is the uncontrollable urge to seek and drink alcohol at the expense of essential activities in your life.
An AUD causes people to continue drinking despite obvious negative consequences. Losing a job, ruining a relationship or continually dealing with the symptoms of a hangover become unimportant compared to finding the next drink. One of the most significant issues is knowing on a logical level that your drinking is destroying your life, but still feeling unable to stop.
In the past, alcohol abuse was the term used to describe drinking to the point where it causes issues in life, but not being physically dependent on alcohol. Currently, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has one entry for alcohol use disorder. If someone meets two of the following criteria over a year, they can receive a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder:
- Having occasions of drinking more than intended or for longer than intended.
- Wanting to reduce alcohol intake or stop drinking but being unable to.
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking.
- Experiencing cravings for alcohol.
- Finding that drinking or getting sick from drinking interferes with your daily responsibilities at home, work or school.
- Continuing to drink, despite the relationship issues with family or friends.
- Giving up or reducing participation in formerly meaningful activities in favor of drinking.
- Getting into unsafe situations during or after drinking.
- Continuing to drink, despite knowing it increases depression or anxiety or contributes to another health issue.
- Having to drink more than before to feel the effects of alcohol.
- Finding that you experience withdrawal symptoms after alcohol has worn off, including disturbed sleep, irritability, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating or hallucinations.
The severity of an alcohol use disorder can be mild, moderate or severe.
- Mild: Two to three symptoms are present.
- Moderate: Four to five symptoms are present.
- Severe: Six or more symptoms are present.
No matter the severity, it’s essential to address an AUD as soon as possible through an alcohol treatment program. An unchecked alcohol addiction will worsen over time, and the affected individual will begin to see increasingly adverse effects on their health and well-being.
The Effects of Alcohol Addiction on Health
Alcohol use is physically punishing, with widespread effects on multiple body systems. The following are some of the most dangerous effects of alcohol abuse.
The liver’s function is to remove toxins like alcohol from the body. However, it can only handle a small amount at a time, or it sustains damage. Alcohol kills liver cells and creates scarring, otherwise known as cirrhosis. Long-term drinking can also lead to fatty liver disease, and both conditions are signs your liver is not working correctly. Under normal circumstances, the liver has remarkable regenerative properties, but long-term alcohol abuse leads to irreversible cell death, even after the cessation of use.
Alcohol results in high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both central contributors to heart problems, including heart attacks, heart disease and heart failure. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is the term for heart disease explicitly caused by drinking too much in the long run. With this condition, the heart muscle becomes weakened, severely limiting its ability to pump blood effectively.
Your body needs enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to all organs and systems. Alcohol causes your body to produce fewer red blood cells, and this can result in anemia, which contributes to further conditions like inflammation and ulcers. Drinking too much also makes people more likely to skip meals or eat poorly, which can cause anemia through a lack of dietary iron.
Alcohol is extremely irritating to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract (GI). It can cause severe inflammation throughout the GI, starting with heartburn, nausea and vomiting in the stomach. Alcohol harms the cells that extract nutrients from food, and speeds up the process of digestion so you can’t get all the nutrition you need from eating. Drinking may also cause pancreatitis, a buildup of pancreatic enzymes that significantly increases the risk of diabetes.
Many people develop alcohol addiction after getting used to a “nightcap” before bed, thinking it will help them sleep. Although alcohol can certainly knock someone out, it drastically reduces sleep quality. One recent study showed that moderate alcohol consumption lowered the restorative quality of sleep by 24%, and high intake reduced sleep quality by almost 40%. Not getting enough quality sleep can aggravate many medical conditions and lead to a depressed mood that may trigger cravings for alcohol.
Alcohol’s Effects on Behavior
Alcohol consumption has immediate effects on a person’s visible behavior. A drunk person will slur their speech, display impaired motor skills and can be extremely disoriented. Alcohol intoxication quickly lowers inhibitions that keep people from participating in risky activities.
While this effect of alcohol abuse is frequently a comedic subject in movies and TV, it leads to devastating consequences in real life. One of the most significant issues stemming from a loss of inhibition is drunk driving. About a third of traffic accident deaths involve an impaired driver. Alcohol also makes people more likely to get into physical altercations or have unsafe sex. Overall, alcohol impairs a person’s ability to behave responsibly, both while intoxicated and between drinking sessions.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain
A significant area of concern with alcohol addiction is its impact on the brain. The effect of alcohol on the brain is extensive and can interfere severely with a person’s ability to function in day-to-day life. Changes in brain chemistry have a strong influence on mood, behavior, the ability to think and to form memories. Brain damage from alcohol doesn’t always occur directly. It can occur through deficiencies in key nutrients, through liver disease and alcohol-induced seizures.
One of the essential parts of the brain susceptible to alcohol damage is the cerebellum. This part of the brain is responsible for muscular coordination. Heavy drinking impairs the cerebellum in the short-term, which is why drunk people tend to stagger around and be clumsier than usual. But alcohol also damages the cerebellum over time, leading to loss of coordination and fine motor skills even when not drinking.
Proper treatment and long-term abstinence from drinking can reverse some of the effects of alcohol on the brain. Most people find they are better able to think clearly and form memories after several months or years in recovery. However, some damage is irreparable, making prevention through an alcohol treatment program the best course of action.
Alcohol Overuse vs. Abuse and Addiction
Many people tend to view the subject of alcohol use as black and white. They may assume there are only two options: not having any problems with alcohol, or being an alcoholic who is allowing drinking to ruin their life. One reason for this is that a good number of people with alcohol addiction are “high-functioning” and able to hide their drinking effectively. Although these individuals may appear functional in work and daily life, they may still be physically dependent on and addicted to alcohol.
Alcohol abuse is an action, rather than a condition in and of itself. Alcohol abuse is the act of drinking to excess, and it can occur on single occasions or be a pattern of activity over time. It frequently results from a desire to escape unpleasant circumstances or emotions stemming from mental health conditions. From a legal standpoint, any consumption of alcohol is alcohol abuse when performed by a pregnant woman or an underage person.
Alcohol overuse is just another term for alcohol abuse, although some people use it intentionally because it sounds somewhat less dangerous. Both terms indicate that someone is drinking too much, too often or both, and is at risk of developing addiction.
Addiction occurs as frequent alcohol use forces the brain to adapt to the presence of alcohol. Drinking causes the release of multiple neurotransmitters that bring feelings of pleasure, which causes the brain to produce less of them and lower its sensitivity to their effects. Removing alcohol after a long period of heavy use causes the imbalanced brain to produce symptoms of withdrawal, including:
- Mood swings
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Nausea and vomiting
The presence of withdrawal symptoms is one of the strongest indicators that alcohol overuse and abuse have led to physical dependence and addiction.
Preventing Relapse With an Aftercare Program
While enrolling in an alcohol treatment program is the most effective way to get clean and sober, it is just the first step on the road to recovery. Aftercare programs are part of a full continuum of care that ensures clients get the long-term support needed to sustain sobriety after initial treatment. The risk of relapse is persistent, and aftercare programs help minimize that risk.
Aftercare programs typically consist of regular support group meetings and continued talk therapy to aid in relapse prevention. The benefits of aftercare programs include:
- Building a robust support system for life
- Finding encouragement to stay sober and healthy
- Helping others in their recovery
- Developing a deeper understanding of your triggers
Finding Fulfillment Without Alcohol
A significant part of a successful recovery is finding fulfillment in people, places and activities that don’t involve drinking. One crucial way to do this is to determine a set of goals you can work toward as you build up your physical and mental health during treatment. These goals can be big or small, and it’s often a good idea to have a mixture of both to ensure you have the opportunity to achieve them. Some examples of goal-setting for personal fulfillment include:
- Changing careers
- Going back to school
- Leaving toxic relationships
- Starting a business
- Picking up a new hobby
- Working out
- Taking a class
- Doing volunteer work
While something like a total career change is typically a long-term goal to achieve over months or years, you can easily decide to take a class or start a new hobby while you work toward the larger goal. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three vital aspects of fulfillment to focus on.
1. Fulfillment Through Personal Relationships
Relationships are a fundamental human need, and alcohol addiction deprives us of healthy ones. Alcoholism causes people to lie to their loved ones, reduce time spent together and to stop caring as much as they once did. A significant part of any effective treatment program is learning how to act in a healthy relationship, and how to repair relationships with people who are willing. You will get the opportunity to practice building new relationships through group therapy and other activities.
2. Fulfillment Through Interests and Passions
Alcohol addiction is frequently all-consuming, erasing every shred of interest in anything other than drinking. Think back to before you began abusing alcohol, and ask yourself what used to bring you joy. Many people find recovery is an opportunity to reconnect with hobbies and activities that produce natural happiness, thereby offering new avenues for healing. Creative pursuits and volunteering are two examples of activities that can inspire passion for life without alcohol.
3. Financial Fulfillment
Many people in recovery find fulfillment through restoring their financial stability. There is no question that a severe side effect of alcohol abuse is financial chaos. Some people deplete their entire life savings, borrow or steal money from family members or take out loans with dangerously high interest rates, all in the name of obtaining more alcohol, leaving them with no solid financial footing. Learning or returning to healthy financial habits after addiction is an essential element of achieving overall stability, a crucial piece of recovery.
Treatment at Beacon House
The effects of alcohol addiction permeate every aspect of life, but prompt, effective treatment can mitigate the majority of them. At Beacon House, we offer multiple levels of care for individuals with alcohol use disorders of any severity. Our alcohol treatment programs are planned according to each client’s needs and goals, allowing us to address each person on a holistic level for the best possible outcomes.
If you or someone in your life are struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction, there’s no time to waste in getting help. Call Beacon House today at 831-273-1386 or reach out through our online contact form for more information.