Alcohol and Alcoholism

What is alcohol?

Alcohol refers to any intoxicating beverage, usually created by fermenting grains, sugars or starches. Alcohol is the common element in wine, beer, whiskey, gin, vodka and all other “alcoholic” beverages.

Nearly 14 million Americans – 1 in every 13 adults, abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. Several million more adults engage in risky drinking that could lead to alcohol problems. These patterns include binge drinking and heavy drinking on a regular basis. In addition, 53% of men and women in the United States report that one or more of their close relatives has a drinking problem.

Alcohol Addiction

After alcohol-seeking behavior has been established, the brain undergoes certain adaptive changes to continue functioning despite the presence of alcohol. As a consequence of this adaptation, however, certain abnormalities occur in the brain when alcohol is removed. Thus, periods of abstinence are marked by feelings of discomfort and craving, motivating continued alcohol consumption. This kind of motivation, based not on reward but on avoidance of painful stimuli, is called negative reinforcement. Both positive and negative reinforcements are involved in the maintenance of alcoholism.

Physical dependence in alcoholism is the need for continued alcohol consumption to avoid a withdrawal syndrome that generally occurs from 6 to 48 hours after the last drink. Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, agitation, tremor, elevated blood pressure, and in severe cases, seizures. The withdrawal syndrome is distinct from the ongoing process of negative reinforcement described above, although both phenomena results from adaptation of the nervous system.

Source: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Alcohol Treatment

Alcohol treatment can include behavioral therapy (such as counseling, cognitive therapy, or psychotherapy), medications, or their combination. Behavioral therapies offer people strategies for coping with their alcohol cravings, teach them ways to avoid alcohol and prevent relapse, and help them deal with relapse if it occurs. The best programs provide a combination of therapies and other services to meet the needs of the individual patient, which are shaped by issues such as age, race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, pregnancy, parenting, housing, employment, and physical and sexual abuse.

Source: The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website

What effect does alcohol have on the user?

As the definition suggests, the primary effect is intoxication, although the effects of intoxication differ from person to person. Different people “hold their liquor” differently: some can consume as little as a glass or two of beer or wine and be drunk, while others would need several times as much to feel the same effect. In part, this is based on factors including body mass and the amount of food in the stomach (which slows the absorption of alcohol). Frequent and/or heavy drinkers develop a tolerance for alcohol, meaning their system needs more now, to produce the same effect that much less alcohol would have produced in the past.

What are the alcoholism symptoms of someone under the influence of alcohol?

We’re all familiar with the behaviors of a “drunk”- someone who’s ingested a substantial amount of alcohol. The level of inebriation is directly correlated to the severity of the alcoholic symptoms.

With one ounce of alcohol (one shot of hard liquor, two glasses of wine or beer), the drinker may exhibit some slurred speech, slowed reaction time and a mild feeling of euphoria: a pleasant sensation of relaxation. As the amount or frequency of alcohol consumption increases, the symptoms become more severe:

  • Impaired coordination (not being able to walk a straight line, for example)
  • Inappropriate behavior (aggression, sexual flirtation, rudeness, loud outbreaks)
  • Sudden shifts in mood (laughing fits, sullenness, anger, anxiety)
  • Impaired social or occupational functioning, judgment
  • Lapses of attention or memory
  • Stupor or coma, caused by alcoholic symptoms.

What are the potential dangers of using alcohol abuse?

When we see people drinking so frequently in various social situations, it’s difficult to consider that alcohol consumption can be deadly. But the statistics bear this out:

  • In most states, more than 1/3 of traffic fatalities are related to alcohol consumption (2005 survey, compiled by MADD).
  • Thousands of students (high school and college age) die each year from non-automobile accidents following alcohol consumption, including bicycle accidents, falls, drownings and alcohol poisoning (University of Notre Dame study, 2007).
  • Most states set a level of 0.08% as the blood alcohol concentration at which a person will be cited for drunk driving (which can be achieved with 2-3 alcoholic drinks). A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.30% can result in loss of consciousness and possible death.