Alcohol abuse is the fourth leading cause of preventable death throughout the world. Alcohol misuse can be defined as heavy drinking, or consuming more than one drink of alcohol a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men. The World Health Organization reports that over 5% of deaths throughout the world are due to alcohol use.
Alcohol use triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that produces sensations of pleasure. The desire for this sensation leads to prolonged use of alcohol in increasingly greater quantities, which can lead to addiction. Regular alcohol use rewires the brain and creates dependence on alcohol, leading to severe withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped.
Alcohol addiction can result in many physical, psychological and social effects, from weight gain and liver dysfunction to domestic violence, loss of income, inability to keep a job and damage to unborn children. In 2018, it was estimated that there are over 15 million Americans aged 18 and older who had an alcohol use disorder. Of these individuals, approximately 9.8 million were men and 5.3 million were women.
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What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a beverage made by fermenting grains, fruit or even honey. The main ingredient that causes the symptoms and side effects of alcohol is ethanol. In the body, ethanol acts as a depressant that alters brain chemistry. Ethanol consumption leads to decreased activity and brain function, causing side effects such as slurred speech, difficulty walking, impaired motor skills and a greater willingness to participate in risky behavior. This intoxication is commonly described as being drunk or buzzed.
Alcohol distribution and consumption is a significant business in America and throughout the world. In 2018, alcohol sales in the U.S. reached $253.8 billion. The legal status and aggressive marketing of this drug have no doubt contributed considerably to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Although it is legal to manufacture and consume alcohol, the drug is still a dangerous substance that can lead to addiction and severe health conditions.
Different Types of Alcohol
There are many different types of alcohol, depending upon how the alcohol is manufactured and what it is mixed with. The three primary types of alcohol are:
- Isopropyl alcohol, which is used for sterilization, like rubbing alcohol
- Methyl alcohol, which is used in industrial solvents, like paint remover
- Ethyl alcohol, or grain alcohol, the form of alcohol that people drink
Each type of alcohol is toxic to the human body. While it is toxic, ethyl alcohol is the only form of alcohol that people can drink. Ethyl alcohol, or drinking alcohol, comes in many forms, including:
- Spirits, such as vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila, and gin
- Alcoholic energy drinks
There is a wide variety of slang that is used to describe alcoholic beverages. These terms may refer to some type of alcoholic beverage:
- Cold one
- The bottle
- Hard stuff
- Liquid courage
Different types of alcoholic beverages vary in alcohol content:
- Beer has roughly 2–6% alcohol
- Wine can have 8–20% alcohol
- Liqueurs can have 15–60% alcohol
- Tequila, gin, rum, brandy, whiskey, and vodka typically contain up to 40–50% alcohol
It is important to keep in mind that how much alcohol is in an alcoholic beverage can vary significantly, which impacts how the number of drinks used is calculated. For example, twelve ounces of beer will be roughly equal to five ounces of wine. Both of these are considered a single drink when used in the context of the amount of alcohol used. By this definition, someone who drinks more than ten ounces of wine a day is a heavy drinker, while someone who drinks ten ounces of beer is not.
15.1 million adults 18 or older have an alcohol use disorder
How Addictive Is Alcohol?
Alcohol can be a highly addictive substance, especially when consumed in large amounts within a short period of time. Alcohol addiction develops in several stages. The process of addiction may begin with the first drink, and addiction to alcohol involves both physical and mental factors that can escalate quickly.
Endorphins From Alcohol Use
Like any other addictive drug, alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry. When a person drinks alcohol, the drug causes their brain to release endorphins, which are chemicals responsible for signaling pleasure and reward. This rush of endorphins is why people often feel happy and boisterous when they drink.
Once the effects of alcohol wear off, so does the feeling of happiness, pleasure, and satisfaction caused by the endorphins. A person can experience these feelings again if they drink alcohol again, and often they do. After a period of continued alcohol abuse, it takes more substantial quantities of alcohol to achieve the same effect. This process is called tolerance and causes people to use higher amounts of alcohol over time to achieve the same level of intoxication.
Alcohol Dependence, or Physical Dependence
As alcohol continues to be used, the body and brain begin to adjust to the heightened levels of endorphins caused by alcohol. This adjustment, called dependence, makes it necessary to have alcohol to have normal functioning of the body and brain.
If alcohol use is stopped, someone who has been misusing alcohol and is dependent on it will experience withdrawal symptoms. During withdrawal, the brain has become so accustomed to alcohol that it has a volatile reaction when the drug is removed, causing headaches, vomiting, sweating, and anxiety, as well as other symptoms.
Alcohol Addiction, or Physical and Psychological Dependence
Addiction finally occurs when physical dependence is met with psychological dependence or mental cravings for alcohol. At this point, the person engaging in alcohol abuse will likely experience many negative side effects from drinking — such as financial trouble or legal trouble — but cannot stop themselves from continuing to drink.