Because it is one of the most commonly used and socially accepted substances in the world, millions of people struggle with alcohol abuse each year. Even though alcohol is commonly associated with fun and celebration, abusing alcohol can weaken our immunity, damage our bodies, interfere with our mental health, and increase our risk of accidents. Sometimes, abusing alcohol can even be fatal. According to The World Health Organization, approximately 3 million people die from harmful alcohol use every year. It's important to understand the impact alcohol treatment could have on you or a loved one.
Luckily, a better understanding of how alcohol works and knowing the common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse can help prevent alcohol-related deaths. Likewise, understanding how you can treat your alcohol abuse is treated and how to choose and enroll in a professional recovery program can help individuals struggling with alcoholism obtain and maintain long-term sobriety.
There are many different types of alcohol, but ethyl alcohol (ethanol), the active ingredient in beer, wine, cocktails, spirits, and liquor, is a drug. Most people don’t view alcohol as a drug because the substance is naturally created from fermented grains and fruits. But alcohol interacts and interferes with the activity in our central nervous system just like other prescription and illicit drugs.
Fermentation is a chemical process that occurs when yeast breaks down the sugars in different types of foods. For example:
Though natural, fermented products are typically stronger substances than other naturally- occurring liquids like water or milk. That’s why drinking too much alcohol can cause intoxication and why abusing alcohol can lead to addiction.
Different types of drugs affect the body in different ways. Alcohol is known as a depressant, which means that ethanol slows down vital activity in the central nervous system. But alcohol can also act as a stimulant, producing feelings of euphoria that can make individuals feel extroverted and confident. Despite this, drinking more alcohol doesn’t elicit more pleasure. Because alcohol is a depressant, large amounts of alcohol slow vital functions down, which can cause:
In fact, too much alcohol, especially within a short period of time, can lead to drowsiness, difficulty breathing, coma, or even death.
Everyone who drinks alcohol isn’t abusing the substance and everyone who drinks a lot of alcohol isn’t addicted to alcohol. Even though both heavy drinking and alcohol abuse can wreak havoc on the human body and our mental health, there are some important distinctions between heavy drinking and alcohol abuse.
Let’s explore the difference between moderate drinking, binge and heavy drinking, and alcohol abuse.
Generally, alcohol consumption is classified as moderate, binge, heavy, or abusive. Most people who drink moderately are able to monitor and control how much they drink. In contrast, most people who engage in binge, heavy, or problematic drinking lose control of how much or how often they drink, increasing their risk of addiction. In contrast, people who abuse alcohol have typically lost all control over the frequency and amount of alcohol they consume.
Let’s break down each category further.
According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020” from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, moderate drinking is equal to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. A “drink” is any beverage that contains 14 grams of alcohol. Common 1-drink equivalents include:
Binge drinking happens when individuals consume large amounts of alcohol in a single session. Both The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Center For Disease Control and Prevention define binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings the blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, to 0.08 percent or higher. Blood alcohol concentration is the percent of alcohol in an individual’s bloodstream. A BAC of .10 percent means that an individual’s blood contains one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood. Typically, binge drinking happens when:
When individuals drink so much in a short period of time, their organs aren’t able to clear out all the alcohol in their body, raising their blood alcohol concentration. In addition, too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States of America.
According to the NIAAA, heavy drinking occurs when men have more than 4 drinks in a single day or more than 14 drinks in a week. For women, heavy drinking means having more than 3 drinks in a single day or more than 7 drinks in a week. Individuals who drink heavily may not have alcohol-related problems, but drinking this amount of alcohol does increase the likelihood of developing such problems. Approximately 25 percent of heavy drinkers who consume more alcohol than the daily or weekly limit have an alcohol use disorder. An estimated 50 percent of individuals exceeding the daily and weekly limits have an addiction to alcohol.
Alcohol abuse also referred to as alcohol misuse, is a serious problem. When individuals reach this point, they are typically drinking too much too often. Alcohol starts to interfere with their daily lives and relationships. Oftentimes, people who abuse alcohol have difficulty functioning successfully at work. Despite these challenges, individuals can’t seem to stop drinking. Sometimes, they consume even more alcohol in order to cope with these challenges, but this often makes the situation worse. This pattern of drinking can lead to alcoholism.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to differentiate between binge, heavy, and problem drinking. While there isn’t an exact formula to determine whether or not an individual is abusing alcohol, some of the most common signs include:
Other, signs of alcohol abuse include:
Oftentimes, alcohol abuse is a byproduct of underlying, unresolved life challenges. Let’s explore some of the common causes of alcohol abuse.
Most people don’t drink alcohol expecting to become addicted. Instead, many people drink alcohol to deal with the pressures, challenges, and difficulties of life. Some people use alcohol because of social pressure, while others use alcohol to relax after a long day. Some consume the substance to help ease anxiety, depression, tension, loneliness, self-doubt, or to temporarily escape unhappiness. Others have a family history of abusing alcohol. It’s important to understand that people’s reasons for turning to alcohol can be complicated and multifaceted. Nonetheless, here are some of the most common reasons why people abuse alcohol.
Stress is a natural part of life. But dealing with multiple types of stress or living and working in a stressful environment can increase an individual’s likelihood of heavy drinking. Raising children, grappling with unemployment, and dealing with financial problems can cause people to drink more than they normally would. Many police officers, doctors, nurses, and paramedics struggle with heavy alcohol use due to their high-stress occupations. Oftentimes, people use alcohol to help relieve stress and “take the edge off.” Unfortunately, this can lead to alcohol abuse and addiction. Taking the time to destress, exercise, and get adequate rest can help lower this risk factor.
Individuals who begin drinking at an early age are more likely to have an alcohol problem as they get older. In addition to developing a drinking habit, these individuals may also develop an increased tolerance to alcohol. This means they need to drink more alcohol in order to experience the effects they desire.
Living with mental health challenges can make life feel like an uphill battle. That’s why many people with anxiety-based conditions, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD turn to alcohol to find some sort of relief from their condition. Unfortunately, the relief they feel is temporary, causing them to consume even more alcohol, increasing their risk of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Many people combine alcohol with prescription medications without knowing that prescription drugs can increase the effects of alcohol on the body. When this happens, individuals may mistakenly believe that the combination “worked better” than the prescription alone. Unfortunately, individuals may become easily addicted to both of these substances, causing them to increase their alcohol and drug consumption with potentially fatal consequences.
Having an alcoholic parent or relative increases an individual’s risk of alcohol abuse. Part of this is a result of genetics, but the environment in which an individual lives also affects the habits they develop. Living with and spending time around people who drink heavily can easily influence others to do the same.
In addition to being a product of their environment, most individuals are influenced by a variety of social factors. When these social factors are negative, individuals might turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Some of the most common social factors associated with alcohol abuse include:
Experiencing trauma can be devastating. Attempting to live through unresolved trauma can be debilitating. That’s why many trauma survivors turn to alcohol as a way to escape the physical, emotional, and psychological pain that reverberates in their everyday life.
People abuse alcohol for many different reasons. Regardless of those causes, risk factors, and triggers, most people abusing alcohol experience some aspects of the substance’s short-term and long-term effects.
Abusing alcohol can affect all aspects of your life. Short-term effects of drinking include blackouts, drowsiness, and dizziness. Prolonged misuse of alcohol can cause serious health conditions that damage virtually every organ in your body, including the brain. Abusing alcohol can also affect your:
Here are some of the short and long-term effects alcohol can have on the body.
The short-term effects of alcohol can range from mild symptoms such as skin flush to more severe symptoms such as vomiting and unconsciousness. Other short-term effects of alcohol include:
Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time can cause chronic physical and mental health issues. Some of the long-term effects of excessive drinking may include:
Unfortunately, diminished gray and white matter aren’t the only impacts of alcohol abuse on the brain. In order to function properly, the brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can disrupt that balance, which can lead to a number of conditions that affect the brain.
For example, abusing alcohol can:
A lot of people joke about how heavy drinking leads to blackouts and memory loss. But experiencing short-term memory loss is no laughing matter. Even though 1 or 2 episodes of blacking out probably won’t permanently damage your memory, chronically abusing alcohol can cause permanent problems with your memory. When you drink, alcohol slows down the communication between nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and maintaining memory. When nerve cell activity in the hippocampus slows down, short-term memory loss can happen. And habitual heavy drinking doesn’t just slow down activity in the hippocampus. Chronic alcohol abuse can actually damage the hippocampus and destroy nerve cells, which can increase your risk of long-term memory loss.
Normally, the brain shrinks as you age. But alcohol abuse speeds up this process, causing the brain to shrink earlier than it should. Common symptoms of brain shrinkage include dementia, seizures, loss of motor control, and difficulty speaking, comprehending, and reading. Your risk of dementia can also increase because alcohol interferes with how well the body uses thiamine, or vitamin B-1, which provides energy to nerve cells in the brain.
If your vitamin B-1 levels are too low, you may develop “wet brain,” a chronic brain disorder characterized by a decrease in mental ability, confusion, leg tremors, double vision, memory loss, hallucinations, and loss of muscle coordination. Increased vomiting and poor nutrition can also increase your risk of developing wet brain syndrome.
Alcoholism can also lead to alcoholic neuropathy, a neurological condition that occurs when the peripheral nerves have been damaged by too much alcohol. When you’re healthy, the peripheral nerves transmit signals between the body, spinal cord, and brain. When these nerves are damaged, you can experience a wide range of symptoms such as:
All of these changes in the brain can also start to affect your mental health.
Many people drink to relax or to escape depression, anxiety, and other stresses. However, most people don’t realize that drinking alcohol and the negative consequences it can cause can actually trigger phobias, mental health challenges, mood disorders, and psychosis. In fact, excessively abusing alcohol can worsen any mental health symptoms you currently have or increase your risk of developing a wide range of mental health challenges such as:
If you’re already battling depression, alcohol can enhance the severity and duration of your symptoms. For example, alcohol can make you feel even more sluggish and lethargic. Drinking can also make you feel restless and irritable, which can make concentrating difficult. If you don’t have depression, excessive drinking can lower your serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which help regulate mood. Lower levels of these neurotransmitters can make individuals feel anxious, irritable, worthless, foggy-brained, and depressed. Abusing alcohol can also deplete the body’s folic acid levels and interfere with your ability to sleep which can negatively affect your mood.
Even though alcohol may seem to temporarily relax the body and relieve stress, the aftereffects of alcohol can trigger dysthymia, a less severe form of depression. People with dysthymia may not appear to battle depression, but they tend to have low self-esteem and feel down often. People with dysthymia who drink excessively have more frequent and severe depressive episodes. They’re also more likely to contemplate suicide. Abusing alcohol can also hinder the effectiveness of antidepressants prescribed to people living with dysthymia.
Abusing alcohol can also make you overly anxious. Even though drinking alcohol floods the brain with an excessive amount of dopamine, the “feel-good” effects only last for a short period of time. When your dopamine levels diminish, you become more vulnerable to anxiety. Abusing alcohol over a long period of time reduces connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Generally, the amygdala, which is responsible for your fight or flight response, works with the prefrontal cortex to help you respond appropriately to perceived threats. By disrupting the communication between these two parts of the brain, alcohol increases your risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder, which can make you worry excessively. GAD can also make you hypervigilant and can greatly affect your ability to concentrate and regulate your emotions.
Even though alcohol may seem to help you relax, people who abuse alcohol have a greater risk of developing suicidal thoughts. In fact, studies show that people who excessively drink alcohol can be up to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than those who don’t drink heavily. Additionally, abusing alcohol can make you act impulsively which can increase your risk of injury, accidents, or self-harm.
Drinking heavily can also cause psychosis, a severe mental condition characterized by hallucinations and delusions. Generally, alcohol-induced psychosis falls into 1 of 3 categories:
Unfortunately, the dangers of alcohol abuse don’t end there. Excessively consuming alcohol can affect your body so much that your risk for developing certain diseases and health conditions increases. In fact, research shows that abusing alcohol can actually increase your likelihood of developing more than 60 kinds of diseases. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most common alcohol-related diseases.
Luckily, there are many different ways to effectively treat alcohol abuse.
Research shows that detoxification, behavioral therapy, counseling, and peer support groups can effectively help treat alcoholism. Enrolling in a professional treatment program is one of the best ways to receive each aspect of addiction treatment. Here at Meta, we provide 3 different tiers of outpatient recovery.
Outpatient rehabilitation is a flexible recovery program that allows individuals to receive addiction treatment as they maintain their daily lives. Our clients don’t need to live onsite at a facility in order to receive treatment. Instead, they meet during scheduled times of the week to receive treatment, counseling, clinical services, and behavioral therapy.
Here’s how each aspect of treatment works.
This is the first step of treatment. Detoxification rids the body of alcohol. This process can be difficult, especially when cravings and withdrawal symptoms occur, but most people start to experience the positive effects of sobriety 2 weeks after their last drink.
After the body is alcohol-free, individuals need to start to develop healthier habits. Behavioral therapy is a great opportunity to identify thoughts and experiences that may have triggered alcohol abuse and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Here at Meta, our clinical services include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and case management. This aspect of treatment can help individuals exchange harmful beliefs and behavior patterns into positive thoughts and healthy habits.
Many researchers and behavioral experts believe that a positive alternative to addiction is community. Individuals looking to successfully recover from addiction need positive, peer support. Here at Meta, we incorporate peer support into each of our outpatient recovery programs. Through our peer support groups, our clients:
Here at Meta, we know that alcohol abuse is a struggle many people face, but we also know that there’s hope. Our flexible outpatient programs for alcohol treatment can help people overcome their addiction challenges without compromising their daily lives and responsibilities. Addiction doesn’t have to be the end of anyone’s story. We can help you write the next chapter of your life right here in the Boston area. Let us help you begin or continue your recovery journey. We can help equip and empower you to take charge of your recovery and regain your independence. Contact us to learn more about alcohol treatment near you.