How to recognize the signs?
Most people partake in drinking alcohol at some point in their lives. While an occasional drink isn’t a problem, it can become one if your drinking gets out of hand. How do you know if you have a problem related to alcohol use? What can you do to correct it?
In order to understand what alcohol abuse is, we need to look at what is considered a safe amount of alcohol to consume. It is outlined as no more than three standard drinks in any single day and no more than seven standard drinks per week for women and no more than four standard drinks in any single day and no more than fourteen standard drinks per week for men. A standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer (about 5% alcohol), 8-9 ounces of malt liquor (about 7% alcohol), 5 ounces of unfortified wine (about 12% alcohol) and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40% alcohol). Any use of alcohol that puts your health or safety at risk is considered unhealthy. This includes binge drinking, which is when a man consumes five or more drinks or a woman consumes four or more drinks in less than two hours. Alcohol use disorder is when you’re unable to control your drinking, you’re preoccupied with alcohol, you continue to use of it even when you know it’s causing problems, you need to drink more to have the same effect (build up tolerance) or you experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking completely or decrease the amount you drink. The disorder can range from mild to severe (alcoholism) and escalate very quickly. There are a variety of factors, such as genetics, psychological, social and environmental, that are thought to play a role in why someone develops alcohol use disorder.
The more alcohol that you consume, the higher the amount of it is in your bloodstream, which results in you becoming more intoxicated and impaired. This is why the more you drink the more likely you are to experience behavior problems and mental changes, such as inappropriate behavior, unstable moods, impaired judgement, slurred speech, diminished attention/memory, poor coordination and blackouts where you don’t remember anything that happened. Some signs that you may be using alcohol too much are being unable to limit the amount you drink, wanting to cut down how much you drink/have tried unsuccessfully to do so, spend a great deal of time drinking/getting alcohol/recovering from alcohol use, have strong cravings to drink, fail to fulfill major obligations due to repeated alcohol use, continuing to drink even though you know it’s causing problems, give up/reduce activities you used enjoy in order to drink/conceal drinking from others, use alcohol when it’s not safe to do so (ex. driving), develop a tolerance or experience withdrawal symptoms if you don’t drink. Withdrawal symptoms can start several hours or several days after your last intake of alcohol. Typically, it requires a period of heavy and/or prolonged alcohol use. Symptoms of withdrawal include sweating, rapid heart rate, hand tremors, difficulty sleeping, nausea/vomiting, hallucinations, restlessness/agitation, anxiety and seizures.
Over time, repetitive consumption of too much alcohol can alter the normal functioning of your brain. It can cause episodes of short-term memory loss, disordered thinking and lead to dementia that is permanent. Unfortunately, it affects more areas of your body than just your brain. Your liver helps to detoxify your blood, so, excessive alcohol intake can cause hepatic steatosis (increased amounts of fat in the liver), alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and cirrhosis (irreversible destruction of liver tissue). Since alcohol passes through your stomach, it can significantly impact it by causing ulcers in your stomach/esophagus and gastritis (inflammation of your stomach lining). Alcohol consumption increases your blood pressure, can enlarge your heart and risk your risk for heart failure and stroke. Also, you are more susceptible to diseases because alcohol weakens your immune system. These are only a few of the body systems affected by alcohol. Certain considerations can increase your risk of developing alcohol use disorder, such as starting drinking at an early age, family history of alcohol problems, having a mental health disorder, experiencing some form of trauma (physical or emotional) and being around social/cultural factors that encourage excessive alcohol time.
Often people who have a problem with alcohol are in denial and it takes an intervention from relatives, friends or co-workers telling the individual that they are concerned about the amount of drinking in order for the person to recognize that there is an issue. Once they realize it, they can seek treatment. The goal of treatment is to completely stop the use of alcohol in order to improve quality of life. This usually includes detox, which is medically managed withdrawal, and is done at an inpatient treatment center or hospital. After detox, the individual learns new skills and follows a treatment plan to be able to maintain an alcohol-free life. This means setting goals, learning new behavior techniques, reading self-help manuals and participating in counseling (group and individual). Counseling is essential because it helps you to understand why you developed a problem with alcohol and helps to support your recovery process. There are several medications available to help reduce cravings and these can be given in pill form or as an injection. It is also important to seek treatment for any medical conditions that are the result of your alcohol consumption.
Part of recovery involves changing your lifestyle. It is key to inform your family and friends that you aren’t drinking alcohol. Keep close the ones who are supportive and can help you through recovery and distance yourself from those who will hinder it. Don’t participate in activities that involve alcohol—form new hobbies or find new activities that don’t make your recovery more challenging. Developing healthy habits, like participating in regular physical activity, eating well, getting adequate sleep and managing stress, can make your recovery process easier. Some ways to decrease stress include yoga, meditation or acupuncture.
The first step in prevention is being aware of how much alcohol you actually consume and then make a consistent, conscious choice to not overindulge. If you are concerned that someone you care about is drinking too much, there are certain signs to look for, such as a lack of interest in activities/hobbies that they once liked, their personal appearance deteriorates, they have red eyes/slurred speech/problems with coordination/memory lapses frequently, they have problems at school/work, they experience frequent mood changes, they have defensive behavior or difficulties with friends. If you notice any of these, then talk to your loved one about the amount of alcohol they are consuming.
Alcohol use disorder is a serious and life-threatening condition. Thankfully, there are ways to over come it. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) at https://www.aa.org/ or Women for Sobriety at https://womenforsobriety.org/ Some good resources for family and friends of alcoholics are Al-Anon (https://al-anon.org/)and Alateen (https://al-anon.org/for-members/group-resources/alateen/)