Effects and Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse
- Immediate Effects and Adverse Effects of Alcohol Use
- Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
- How Addiction Changes Your Life
- Alcohol Addiction and Mental Health
About Alcohol AbuseIf you struggle with alcohol abuse, it's easy to lull yourself into a false sense of complacency. After all, alcohol is legal.
It's also one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs in the world, with 7% of the population suffering from an alcohol addiction at any given time.
Immediate Effects and Adverse Effects of Alcohol Use
From your first sip of alcohol, this powerful drug goes to work on your brain and body. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down activity in your brain and spinal cord.
The effects get worse the more you drink, with novice drinkers who have little tolerance facing the worst after effects.
Some of the short-term consequences of drinking include:
- A feeling of fullness, since alcohol is high in sugar; over time, alcohol can cause you to gain weight.
- Impaired judgment.
- Less motor control.
- Slowed breathing.
- Decreased brain activity.
- Lowered inhibitions.
- Poor coordination.
- Gastrointestinal distress.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Blackouts during which you do not remember what happened.
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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Over time, alcohol steadily erodes your health and well-being.
It can also wreak havoc on your finances, relationships, and career, particularly if you become addicted or prioritize alcohol over things that matter more.
Some of the other perils of chronic drinking include:
- Organ failure, especially in the liver.
- Pregnancy-related problems, including giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. Drinking while pregnant may also cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
- Delirium tremens, a life-threatening withdrawal symptom that occurs among some long-term drinkers; marked by hallucinations, aggressive behavior and a dissociative state, such that an individual is unable to remember who they are.
- Sexual dysfunction and infertility.
- Disruption in normal digestion and metabolism. This can lead to fat deposition in the liver (in addition to the aforementioned weight gain), as well as vitamin deficiencies.
- Vitamin B1 deficiency that can give rise to problems such as apathy, confusion, and difficulty interacting with others.
- Cancer. A high correlation has been established between alcohol use and cancers of the esophagus, colon, pharynx, rectum, breast and liver. The burden of cancer risk attributable to drinking alcohol is substantial and frequently mentioned when evaluating the public-health impact of drinking.
- Brain damage.
- Memory problems.
- Esophageal varices (dilated, engorged blood vessels), GI ulceration and hemorrhage.
- Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
- Peripheral vascular dilitation and permanent facial redness (telangiectasia).
- Death. Alcohol abuse kills nearly 90,000 people each year and contributes to 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually.
The toll of alcohol abuse doesn't end with health problems, though. Alcoholism is itself a disease built upon cravings, tolerance and dependence that lead to withdrawal.
Alcohol changes your brain from your first sip to your last. At first, cravings may be little more than fleeting thoughts about how alcohol can alleviate stress or offer a distraction. As you become more and more dependent on alcohol, though, cravings can become so intense that they render it virtually impossible to think about anything else.
Though the psychological desire for alcohol is painful, cravings may also be physical, causing shakiness, panic attacks, gastrointestinal distress, and a host of other unpleasant symptoms. Alcoholics will often do anything to alleviate these cravings, including stealing from loved ones or skipping out on work duties.
Tolerance is the first step on the road to addiction. The more alcohol you drink, the more you can drink without getting drunk. Even non-alcoholics experience this phenomenon.
A 21-year-old novice drinker often gets drunk off of a single beer, but a middle-aged heavy drinker may need half a dozen or more beers to get the same effect.
Among people vulnerable to addiction and those using alcohol to cope with emotional or physical pain, tolerance encourages even more drinking. As drinkers consume more and more alcohol to get the same effect they once got with a lower dose, they become progressively more dependent on the drug.
Dependence is the most clinically significant symptom of addiction. While most people who drink experience a desire to do so, dependence goes much further than mere desire.
When you become chemically dependent on alcohol, your brain fundamentally alters the way it reacts to this drug, causing you to believe you need alcohol to feel normal.
When you don't drink, your body reacts as if you have withheld food or water from it, producing powerful and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
For many problem drinkers, it is withdrawal that drives them back to the bottle.
When you become dependent on alcohol, your body enters withdrawal whenever you go too long without drinking. For many problem drinkers, it is withdrawal that drives them back to the bottle.
Indeed, some alcoholics even find that they no longer get drunk, but instead use alcohol just to feel normal. Some alcoholics experience withdrawal so intense that it becomes life-threatening, producing dehydration, seizures, and other dangerous symptoms.
Withdrawal tends to get worse when you must go for longer periods without drinking, and it peaks within 3-7 days of quitting alcohol. After that, symptoms improve steadily, depending on the level of medical care and responsiveness to pharmacological treatments.
How Addiction Changes Your Life
Alcohol addiction can turn your life into something you hardly recognize. When you become an addict, you no longer have control over your own life. Instead, everything is driven by your desire to get another dose of alcohol.
Alcohol is strongly correlated with aggressive and hostile behavior. Many alcoholics find themselves doing things they never dreamed they'd do--stealing from loved ones, assaulting intimate partners, even abusing their children.
For instance, research suggests that about 90% of acquaintance rapes occur when either the rapist, the victim, or both have consumed alcohol.
Just a few of the changes you may encounter due to your addiction include:
- Strained or destroyed relationships.
- Intense financial challenges due to lost employment.
- Legal issues such as being arrested for DUI.
- Health problems such as liver failure.
- Difficulty focusing without alcohol.
- Doing things you regret while under the influence of alcohol.
- Having to constantly plan for your next alcohol fix.
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Alcohol Addiction and Mental Health
People with a history of mental health difficulties are significantly more likely to develop addictions, but addiction can also render you vulnerable to mental illness. Mental illness makes life more difficult, forcing people to endure unpleasant feelings, as well as mental health stigma. Some turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.
In other cases, addiction leads to mental illness by damaging or altering brain chemistry or by creating painful life circumstances. For instance, an alcoholic who loses his whole family may suffer from depression.
Additionally, alcoholics experiencing delirium tremens may exhibit symptoms that mimic those associated with mental illness.
Unfortunately, the mental health symptoms associated with addiction often become a reason to continue abusing alcohol, since an alcoholic who has already lost everything may begin relying on alcohol as his/her sole source of escape.
The good news is that alcohol addiction--as well as the mental health symptoms it frequently yields--is highly treatable, but it's up to you to take the first steps toward getting the help you need and deserve.