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.
Table of Contents
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
There are several signs that someone’s alcohol use is excessive. Signs of alcohol abuse may include:
- Excessive drinking, despite resulting social, legal or interpersonal problems
- Harmful use of alcohol that results in mental or physical damage
- Alcohol consumption to cope with psychological or interpersonal problems
- Choosing to continue drinking, despite alcohol-related illnesses or other physical problems
- Anger when confronted about alcohol use
- Feelings of guilt about alcohol use
- Drinking in the morning to treat hangovers
- Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption ceases
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.
How Is Alcohol Abuse Diagnosed?
Physicians diagnose alcohol abuse based primarily on the history their patient provides. There are not many good tools in the medical world for determining if someone is abusing alcohol, and most physicians depend heavily on the honesty and transparency of their patients.
While a diagnosis of alcohol abuse is typically based on the history that a patient gives their doctor, there are several factors — both from the history of the patient or from other symptoms — that may help a doctor diagnose alcohol abuse.
The most important factors in diagnosing alcohol addiction are:
- Increased physical tolerance to alcohol
- The presence of withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped
- Inability to follow through on intentions to stop drinking
- Neglect of normal activities
- The amount of time spent drinking
- Drinking alcohol even though it is causing health problems
- A strong desire or compulsion to drink alcohol
While these factors may be used to diagnose alcohol abuse, an accurate diagnosis depends upon honesty with your physician. Doctors are trained not to be judgmental and typically want what is best for their patients. Being honest with a doctor is vital to understanding if alcohol abuse is something that should be diagnosed
Alcohol Addiction Statistics
Scientists and researchers have been tracking statistics about alcohol consumption and rates of alcohol-related deaths for decades. This research effort is so substantial that the U.S. government created the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 1970.
Every year, the NIAAA publishes new data on alcohol abuse, alcohol-related deaths, and other important statistics. Some of the latest statistics on alcohol addiction in America include:
- 86.4% of adults ages 18 and over report they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime
- 70.1% of adults report drinking within the last year and 56.0% report drinking within the last month
- 26.9% of adults report binge drinking within the last month
- 15.1 million adults 18 or older have an alcohol use disorder
- Only 6.7% of people with an alcohol use disorder received treatment
- More than 10% of American children live in a household where at least one parent has a drinking problem
- Alcohol abuse is a leading risk factor in contracting mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver and breast cancer
- It is estimated that every five hours a college student dies from alcohol-related unintentional injuries
Only 6.7% of people with an alcohol use disorder received treatment
The number of people who struggle with alcohol addiction is staggering. What is even sadder is that many of these people will not receive the help they need. The good news is that most people with an alcohol use disorder will benefit from treatment. While many people will not receive the help they need, those who do seek help are likely to see a positive result from getting rehab for alcohol addiction.
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.
Common Questions about Alcohol Abuse:
- What Causes Someone to Become an Alcoholic?
Alcoholism has no one single cause. Rather, it is a detailed combination of genetic markers and environmental precursors all mixed together. There is definitely a hereditary role in the development of alcohol dependence, but no alcohol addiction gene has ever been isolated. Having a parent who is an alcoholic makes you four times more likely to be one yourself, per the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Likewise, environmental factors are part of the mix, too. Growing up in a household where alcohol is prevalent also ups the risk of alcoholism in your future. Your upbringing contributes via involvement with peers as well, and the age at which you begin drinking. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. reports individuals who first use alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence than those who first used alcohol beginning at the age of 21 or older.
Mental health plays a largely significant role in all forms of substance abuse. Among alcoholics specifically, 37 percent have at least one serious mental health disorder, such as bipolar disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- What Makes Alcohol Addictive?
There are several reasons why alcohol is addictive. Some of the key points for the addictive nature of alcoholism include:
- Alcoholism is the fourth leading cause of preventable death
- Alcoholism can develop because of the chemical interactions in the brain
- Alcoholism can develop when alcohol is used to cope with psychological needs
- The factors that lead to alcoholism can be both environmental and genetic
- What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?
A high-functioning alcoholic is pretty much how it sounds. These problem drinkers are able to keep their careers or home lives together as they continue with their alcohol abuse. High-functioning alcoholics might be successful in business or pillars of the community, but they drink enough to have an alcohol dependence and often conceal how much they truly consume.
Some signs of a high-functioning alcoholic include:
- They become irritable or restless when they are unable to drink.
- They would rather have a few drinks instead of a meal.
- Stopping at one or two drinks is next to impossible.
- They suffer periods of memory loss or “blackouts.”
- They refuse to discuss their drinking or become angry when it is mentioned.
- They can always conjure a “reasonable” explanation for when and why they drink.
- They hide their alcohol or attempt to conceal how much they are drinking.
- Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug?
The three gateway drugs are nicotine, alcohol and cannabis. The concept is based on the “gateway hypothesis,” which states that adolescents who experiment with these drugs are more likely to use other addictive drugs later in life.
The controversy and conflicting research can be confusing, but there are some conclusions that can still be made.
Here’s a review of the scientific evidence of alcohol as a gateway drug:
- Alcohol does increase the likelihood of other drug use, including the other gateway drugs (tobacco and cannabis)
- Addiction is a complex disease – prior use of alcohol is simply another risk factor among many, and there is no single explanation for why someone becomes addicted
- The interrelationships between the gateway drugs (tobacco, alcohol and cannabis) are complex
- Targeting alcohol use in adolescents will likely have an impact on the development of other substance use disorders later in life.
- What Are The Effects of Drinking Every Day?
With alcohol, drinking every day can have serious consequences for a person’s mental and physical health, both in the short- and long-term.
Alcohol has complex effects in the body and can affect multiple organs and systems like the heart, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, vasculature system, and liver. There are different short- and long-term consequences for each of these systems.
Many of the effects of drinking every day can be reversed through early intervention but become harder to treat with time. It’s critical to recognize alcohol abuse and treat alcoholism as early as possible to avoid irreversible damage to the brain and body.
- Alcohol can affect the GI tract, heart, kidneys, liver and vascular system in the short-term
- Chronic alcohol abuse can include arrhythmias, cirrhosis and risk of stroke
- Alcohol abuse can contribute to or worsen mental health conditions over time
- Chronic drinking can lead to diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancers
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.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol addiction, help is available. The most important step to recovering from alcohol addiction is seeking treatment. The caring team members of The Recovery Village understand how difficult it is to take the first step of getting help.
The Recovery Village is here for you and would welcome the chance to help you start on your path to a full recovery. Reach out to our team today to learn more about comprehensive treatment for alcohol abuse can provide and how you or your loved one can become free from an addiction to alcohol.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.