What is Alcoholism?
Alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the world. Alcoholism is a dependence on alcohol to the point of negatively impacting an individuals’ psyche and physiology. It may also have disastrous consequences for personal relationships.
Effects of Alcoholism
Alcohol affects a number of chemicals in the brain and it is this disruption to the body’s natural chemistry that creates the dependence. Alcohol alters the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which normally inhibits impulsiveness, and glutamate, which stimulates the nervous system. It elevates dopamine levels which creates alcohols pleasurable effects. Long term excessive drinking can permanently elevate or deplete these chemicals, thus creating the desire to drink again to restore the feelings of well being.
Excessive drinking is normally a result of environmental and psychological conditions but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that a genetic predisposition may, at least in part, make someone more susceptible to the condition.
Physical Effects of Alcohol
Over time, alcoholism can have numerous detrimental effects on a person’s physical well being. Severe health effects may include:
- Liver damage- prolonged heavy drinking can result in alcoholic hepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis can in turn lead to cirrhosis, a progressive and degenerative scarring of liver tissue, which ultimately requires a liver transplant.
- Cardiovascular damage- excessive drinking can raise blood pressure and damage the heart. Alcoholics are at greater risk of coronary disease, and are therefore more likely to heart attacks and strokes.
- Sexual function- in males, alcoholism may result in erectile dysfunction. In females it can interrupt the menstrual cycle.
Cause of Alcoholism
High stress, anxiety or great emotional upset motivates many to seek solace in some form of drug to ease their minds. For many, the drug of choice is alcohol. Certain stress hormones may influence alcoholism as alcohol can have a short term inhibitory effect on their production. Over the long term, however, alcohol addiction actually causes these levels to increase, resulting in the alcoholic seeking another drink in order to have a temporary reprieve. This, of course, creates a vicious cycle of dependency.
Psychological factors such as low self esteem, depression , and poor impulse control may make someone more likely to drink excessively and therefore develop alcoholism.
Risks of Alcoholism
Often the chemical dependency will occur simply through sustained heavy drinking over a long period of time. Socio-cultural factors may give the impression that heavy drinking is acceptable and even glamorous. Consuming more than 15 drinks a week for men or 12 drinks week for women increases the likelihood of developing a dependency. Other risk factors include:
- Age- the younger someone starts drinking the more likely they are to develop alcoholism
- Sex- males are more likely than females to develop alcoholism
- Family history- the incidence of alcoholism is higher amongst individuals who had an alcoholic parent. This may or may not indicate a genetic link.
- Emotional disorders- in addition to depression and anxiety disorders, there is a greater prevalence of alcoholism among sufferers of ADHD than non sufferers.
Treatment involves engaging in some sort of counselling to determine the underlying roots and triggers of the patient’s alcoholism. This may take the form of one on one sessions or support groups, a famous example of which is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). There are also rehab centres where alcoholics can detoxify and receive help to cope with the withdrawal symptoms. In severe cases of withdrawal, sedatives may be prescribed to avoid seizures.
Alcohol-sensitising drugs are sometimes used to act as a deterrent to drinking. An example is the drug Disulfiram. Drinking while on this drug will cause the patient to experience an extremely unpleasant physical reaction including nausea, headaches, flushing. After a while on this medication, alcohol alone will result in this response, preventing the likelihood of a relapse.
Abstinence is the goal of treatment as alcoholics are unable to control the extent of their drinking. Relapses are common, and for most, it is a lifelong battle.