Many people across America enjoy a drink or two, yet they are consuming the world’s greatest killer.

Alcohol is a common beverage, made and drank for centuries across the world. It is produced by fermenting ingredients with yeast, which breaks down the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. Alcohol can be made using a range of different ingredients, including hops and barley (to create beer and lager), grapes (wine), and even potatoes (certain types of vodka). In chemistry, the term alcohol refers to a group of different hydrocarbon chains. When people talk about alcohol in drinks, they are referring to the hydrocarbon ethanol.

Alcohol is a chemical that affects the brain system and is classed as a depressant. Curiously, however, alcohol often has a stimulating effect on a person when it is first drunk. It causes the brain to release dopamine: a chemical that causes several changes in the brain. It is involved in pleasure-seeking behavior, making us want to experience the effects of it. Everything from food to sexual activity can trigger a release of dopamine. Because alcohol causes dopamine to be released, this gives drinkers a feeling of reward. Dopamine release raises the blood pressure and increases the heart rate, giving drinkers a flush. The effects are felt the quickest when drinking strong spirits, such as brandy, rum or vodka, and is slowest when drinking wine, giving drinkers a ‘glow’.

Alcohol is consumed in a variety of ways. Beers, lagers and wines are often drunk on their own, while spirits such as brandy, whiskey and vodka can be drunk on their own, but are often mixed with other things. As well as mixed together with cocktails, alcohol is often added to coffee and used in cooking.

Alcohol usage and effects in America

Alcohol is a huge contributor to the US economy, with 2013 revenue for the sale of beer, wine and spirit totaling $308 billion. Half of all the alcohol consumed in the United States is beer, contributing around $250 billion to the economy. By 2011, per capita drinking in America had reached 35.2 liters. Vodka is a particular favorite among American consumers, with 122 new flavored vodka products entering the market in 2013 (1).

Alcohol abuse Recovery

Sadly, alcohol can also have serious problems. The positive effects of dopamine realized when alcohol is drank can cause people to constantly crave another drink. Because alcohol also works as a depressant, people find it useful to relax and cope with stressful situations. This can lead to people drinking alcohol in order to deal with tough situations, such as a heavy workload in their job or a stressful family life. Emotional situations, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

More than half of people in the United States report that a close family member has an alcohol problem. There are around 50,000 cases of alcohol overdose per year, while in 2007 there were 14,406 alcohol-caused deaths involving liver disease, while alcohol-induced deaths (excluding homicides and accidents) numbered 23,199. There are 2.6 million binge drinkers under the age of 17 in the States.

Alcoholism does not just affect the drinker themselves: it has a serious effect on their family, too. Non-alcoholic people with alcoholic family members take ten times as many sick days from work as workers without an alcoholic in their lives, and 80% of them report reduced performance at work thanks to living with an alcohol abuser (2).

Effects of alcohol consumption

Short term effects of alcohol are varied and depend upon how much is consumed. Drinking too much can lead to a person being drunk, and showing signs of:

Drowsiness
Impaired judgement
Decreased co-ordination
Slurred speech
Vomiting
Upset stomach
Blackouts
Unconsciousness

As well as the immediate effects, alcohol can have some serious long term problems for heavy drinkers or those who drink for a long period of time.

Liver disease is possible in heavy drinkers, because the liver cannot cope with the amount of alcohol it has to use up. The liver has no pain receptors, so people often do not realize that they are damaging it until it is too late. Heavy drinkers can suffer from scarring to the liver, and fatal liver failure.

Alcohol is high in calories, so people who regularly drink a lot are more likely to be overweight. Obesity leads to the development of diabetes, where the body does not process sugar in the right way. Diabetes can cause its own health problems, including gangrene and infection.

A raised blood pressure is common amongst heavy drinkers. Alcohol also contributes to cardiovascular disease and can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Alcohol has also been linked to several different types of cancer, being the highest risk factor after smoking for mouth or throat cancer. Research suggests that a daily two units of alcohol contributes an 8% rise in the risk of bowel cancer. One or two units of alcohol a day can increase the risk of breast cancer in women by up to 11% (3).

FAQs and further information

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Sources:

(Title source: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/216328.php)
1  http://thefederalist.com/2014/07/25/how-vodka-conquered-america/
2 http://www.caron.org/knowledge-library/statistics-outcomes/alcohol-stats
3http://www.drinksmarter.org/health-and-wellbeing/the-invisible-effects