Despite being widely available and easy to access, alcohol can be a dangerous and addictive substance. We’ve all seen news footage of people stumbling around drunk after a night of binge drinking, but there is a hidden side to alcohol abuse that many people don’t see. An alcoholic isn’t always easy to spot, and they can vary wildly from the loud, clumsy stereotypes they are often perceived as. Anyone can become an alcoholic: a lonely pensioner, a stressed lawyer, an over-worked parent. Without a change in behavior, or alcoholism treatment, it can ruin lives.
But what is it about alcohol that causes dependency in some people? What is an alcohol addiction?
What makes alcohol addictive?
Inside the brain is a pathway of neurotransmitters that release chemicals when stimulated. These include the opioid Endorphin, which makes us feel satisfied and happy. Endorphins are responsible for the feeling of satisfaction you get after exercising. Even eating chocolate releases endorphins. The reward center exists to encourage us to do things the brain deems good for us.
Sometimes substances can stimulate the reward center too. This is true in the case of alcohol – it makes the brain release the feel-good chemicals, making us relaxed and content. It is this effect that can make alcohol addictive. People can’t get enough of the feeling, and so drink more and more to experience it. This is called alcohol abuse (1). People can also get alcohol withdrawal symptoms, just as they would with any addictive drug.
Why do people develop an alcohol addiction?
Alcoholics come to depend upon the high that they get from drinking alcohol. As well as drinking for pleasure, such as cocktails on a night out, many people use alcohol as a way of coping with stressful situations.
Endorphins make you relaxed, so people with stressful jobs, full time parents, public speakers, and those dealing with bad situations can often turn to a glass of red wine or a shot of whisky to help them get through the day. Unwinding in the evening with a beer in front of the television is a well-earned treat after a tough or busy day. But this behavior can often lead to alcohol addiction. A rare afternoon drink or lunchtime pint can become a regular way of dealing with stress or medicating for low moods. One shot of vodka becomes two or three; a glass of white wine becomes a bottle. Soon people are experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, giving them another reason to keep drinking.
This happens because the more you drink, the less effective alcohol becomes at stimulating the receptors in the reward center of the brain. An alcoholic don’t get as much pleasure from alcohol as they used to, and so have to increase the amount they consume to get the same high. This is a cyclical process, in which the drinker’s life becomes focused on alcohol to the detriment of relationships, friends, jobs and hobbies, as well as the serious health problems that alcohol abuse can cause.
Effects of alcohol
The immediate effects of alcohol abuse are well known, and include dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, loss of coordination and reduced inhibitions. While these can be dangerous in their own right – causing accidents and injuries – the long term effects of alcohol are even more severe. Around 88,000 Americans are killed each year by alcohol related causes (2). While this does include drink drivers, the Centre for Disease Control tracks 54 separate effects of alcohol that can be fatal.
Long term drinkers can suffer from many debilitating health problems as a result of their drinking, including:
Diabetes – most types of alcohol contain a large number of calories, and heavy drinkers are more likely to be overweight than those who drink in moderation. Diabetes is condition in which the body does not produce enough insulin, meaning it is unable to process sugar in the way it should. Diabetes can lead to weeping sores, open wounds, and the need to amputate limbs.
Cardiovascular complications – alcohol raises your blood pressure, making you at greater risk of having a stroke or heart attack. Both of these can leave you disabled, and can often be fatal.
Liver disease – your liver is responsible for filtering out all the unwanted components of the liquids in your body. Because alcohol is actually a minor poison, it is the liver’s job to remove this and ensure it goes to the kidneys to be expelled as urine rather than staying inside the body and causing potential harm. Heavy drinkers are putting their livers under a lot of strain, which can cause permanent damage, resulting in the liver ceasing to work at all.
Excessive alcohol consumption affects your entire life, not only your health. It can put a strain on your relationships with family, friends, and children, cause you to underperform at work, turn up late, or not at all, and reduce your enjoyment of other things.
If you have become dependent upon alcohol you may need professional alcoholism treatment in order to turn your life around. Giving up alcohol can be tough if you have come to depend upon it. There can be some nasty alcohol withdrawal symptoms which make it harder to sober up, ranging in severity and including symptoms such as headaches, irritability, depression, anxiety, fever, and convulsions. On top of this are the psychological factors which motivated you to begin drinking in the first place, such as stress or fear. All of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms can add up to make it seem almost impossible for you to get sober.
You don’t have to battle your alcohol addiction alone, however. There are alcoholism treatment centers all across the United States, run by organizations such as Steps to Recovery, who have staff and resources at hand to help you beat your alcohol addiction in a safe and supportive environment. They will help you not only with the physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms, they will also help you to understand the cause of your addiction and show you ways of coping without alcohol.
1 – http://www.medicinenet.com/alcohol_abuse_and_alcoholism/article.htm
2 – http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/06/26/drinking-alcohol-alcoholism-binge-deaths-fatal-cdc/11384335/