Alcohol misuse is a problem that, when ignored, almost always leads to alcohol abuse and eventual dependence (alcoholism). Alcoholism negatively affects individuals, families and society as a whole with devastating consequences. Making matters worse is the reality that it is almost impossible to overcome alcohol addiction without professional intervention and treatment.
Every year, more than 8,600 people die in some way that is alcohol related. Government estimates suggest that as many as 6% to 7% of the adult population exhibits signs of alcohol dependence. These are stunning numbers that should say something to you. If you are in the early stages of alcohol misuse or abuse, you need to get help now before alcoholism sets in. And, of course, anyone already dealing with alcoholism needs treatment right away.
Physical and Mental Effects of Alcoholism
The alcohol consumed by humans is known as ethyl alcohol, or ethanol if you prefer. It is produced when yeast breaks down sugar to create energy. Ethyl alcohol is a neurotoxin as well as a psychoactive drug with dangerous side effects for both the body and mind.
As a neurotoxic substance, alcohol negatively affects the nervous system in such a way as to damage tissue. Alcohol can actually kill brain cells known as neurons; these brain cells are responsible for carrying signals between the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Excessive exposure to alcohol can permanently affect the way the brain functions.
As a psychoactive drug, alcohol also affects thought patterns and emotions. Exposure to alcohol causes the brain to release certain kinds of chemicals that result in feelings of pleasure along with a sedative, relaxing feeling. Long-term exposure can cause:
- clinical depression
- clinical anxiety
Lastly, alcohol can do significant damage to the liver, heart, pancreas and other parts of the body. It is not uncommon for alcoholics to also develop numerous physical conditions that may or may not be treatable over the long term. For example, there is no cure for cirrhosis of the liver. The alcoholic whose liver has been destroyed by alcohol faces certain death if a healthy liver cannot be found and transplanted.
Practical Effects of Alcoholism
If the physical and mental damage done by alcoholism were not bad enough, there are also practical effects that have to be considered. The most important involves immediate family members. Alcoholism destroys families by destroying relationships. It is not uncommon for the alcoholic to face divorce or separation, along with the loss of relationships with children. For peace of mind and physical safety, spouses and children often have to leave the alcoholic entirely.
Alcoholism drives away friends and extended family members too. This leads to total isolation more often than not. The alcoholic then becomes a person who lives to drink and drinks to live.
Lastly, alcoholism practically affects a person’s ability to earn a living. One cannot maintain a job if alcohol is affecting performance. Upon losing a job, the alcoholic now must depend on social programmes or crime just to provide necessities such as food and clothing. The alcoholic is likely to end up on the street if no one is willing to lend a hand.
Defining Alcoholism Based on Symptoms
Doctors and other medical professionals rely on a list of signs and symptoms that indicate a person has developed alcoholism. Before we get to those signs and symptoms, there is a general rule relating to the volume of alcohol one consumes as an alcoholic.
One unit of alcohol equals 10 ml of pure alcohol by volume. It can be calculated by multiplying the strength of a particular drink (aka ‘ABV’) by the quantity of the alcohol consumed, then divided by 1000. As a general rule, a pint of strong lager contains between two and six units of alcohol while the typical bottle of wine contains tens units. A bottle of spirits is about 40 units on average.
It is generally accepted that a man who consumes 100 units or more per week is alcohol dependent; a woman who drinks more than 70 per week is also dependent. However, you can be an alcohol abuser without being classified as alcohol dependent. You need only exceed the generally recommended guidelines for safe drinking.
Prior to 2016, the government viewed the guidelines for safe drinking as follows:
- Men – 2 to 3 units of alcohol per day; no more than 21 units per week
- Women – 1 to 2 units of alcohol per day; no more than 14 units per week.
The government has since refined its guidelines to now say that both men and women should restrict their alcohol intake to no more than two units per day and 14 per week. This generally means one or two drinks per day, maximum. Anything more than that constitutes alcohol abuse which, if left ignored, could eventually become alcoholism.
Bear in mind that there is quite a bit of variation when applying the raw numbers offered by the government. Individual body size, weight, metabolism and other factors all play a role in determining how much alcohol a person can tolerate. This is why doctors look at the signs and symptoms of alcoholism along with alcohol volume.
Those signs and symptoms are:
- a need for alcohol to be part of all social gatherings
- routinely worrying about alcohol being available
- gradual social isolation; drinking alone
- gradual financial problems due to drinking
- increased defensiveness about drinking habits
- hiding alcohol at home and work
- increased frequency of drinking episodes
- increased binge drinking episodes
- increased consumption in order to continue feeling good.
We have explained the physical, mental and practical effects of alcoholism. Alcoholism is something that should not be taken lightly. If you exhibit any of the symptoms listed above, you may already be an alcoholic. At the very least, you are on the road to alcoholism. Now is the time to get help – before alcoholism ruins your life.