Alcohol Addiction

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Alcohol addiction, often referred to as alcoholism, alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder, is a medical condition characterised by heavy and frequent drinking despite negative consequences. These might be:

  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Emotional distress
  • Physical harm
  • Health problems
  • Job loss
  • Estrangement from family and friends.

Individuals with pre-existing mental health problems are more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol as a coping mechanism for difficult feelings.

Alcoholism is an illness that requires effective treatment to manage. Like most diseases, long-term recovery requires a variety of life-style changes in conjunction with effective treatment.

At Smarmore Castle we have developed a specialised and effective treatment programme for alcohol addiction.

Defining an Alcoholic

An alcoholic is someone dependent on alcohol, demonstrating increased tolerance (the need to drink more to achieve the same effect) coupled with withdrawal symptoms if drinking is suddenly stopped. Depending on the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed, use should not be discontinued abruptly due to the risk of triggering withdrawal syndrome. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, sweating, restlessness, irritability, tremors, hallucinations and convulsions.

Excessive drinking alone does not make you an alcoholic, but drinking too much alcohol frequently can increase your risk.

Key facts about alcohol from the World Health Organisation (WHO) include the following:

  • The harmful use of alcohol is a factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions
  • Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year result from the harmful use of alcohol. This represents 5.3% of all deaths
  • Overall, 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol problems, as measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In people aged 20–39 years, approximately 13.5% of total deaths are attributable to alcohol
  • There is a causal relationship between the harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioural disorders, other noncommunicable conditions and injuries

What Causes Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence can develop due to several factors such as genetics, culture, and personal psychology.

Genetic Factors

Evidence indicates that alcoholism is a complex genetic disease, with someone’s genetic makeup directly affecting the risk of dependence.1 Alcoholism has long been shown to run in families, with adoption studies showing that alcoholism in adoptees correlates more strongly with their biological parents than their adoptive parents. Genetics affect risk but there is no alcoholic gene, and both environmental and social factors contribute heavily to someone developing alcoholism. Genetics affect the risk not only for alcohol dependence but also the level of alcohol consumption and the risk for alcohol-associated diseases.

Culture

Cultural influences — family environments and societal beliefs regarding alcohol use, which are shaped by traditions, religious beliefs, and other philosophies — also affect whether an alcohol abuse disorder is developed.2 In addition, family plays a significant role in a person’s likelihood of developing alcoholism. Parental alcoholism is associated with an increased risk of children also developing an alcohol use disorder, independent of other significant predictors, such as gender, parental social status, and parental psychiatric hospitalisation with other diagnoses.3

Personal Psychology

Differing psychological factors may increase the chances of heavy drinking and over 50% of treated alcohol use disorder patients also suffer from other psychiatric disorders (s) such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.4 We all handle situations in our unique way but how we cope with our feelings can impact certain behavioural traits. As an example, individuals diagnosed with anxiety-related illnesses are at increased risk of developing alcoholism.5 In these circumstances, alcohol is often used to suppress feelings and relieve the symptoms of psychological disorders which can then compound these health concerns.

Effects of Chronic Alcohol Misuse

However much alcohol you may drink, it has an effect on the mind and the body. Lower to moderate consumption of alcohol typically involves less severe and temporary effects such as slurred speech, vision impairment, memory lapses and lack of coordination. Drinking alcohol too much over time can cause serious health concerns and even be fatal.

Drinking can affect every organ in the body, but some are more at risk of extensive damage. The harmful effects of alcohol problems at times aren’t discovered until much later in life, making it difficult to reverse them.

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Alcoholism & the Brain

Alcohol’s effects on the brain are felt quickly and are often pleasurable which encourages further consumption. However, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works. Prolonged alcohol use is linked to brain defects and associated cognitive, emotional, and behavioural impairments.7

Damage to different regions of the brain – of which the frontal lobes, limbic system, and cerebellum are particularly vulnerable to damage – can significantly impact the body’s functioning and mental health. For example, the cerebellum controls motor skills and alcohol-related cerebellum damage causes motor incoordination meaning you are likely to experience a loss of balance and an increased risk of accidents.

Alcoholism & Heart Health

The heart is vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol, and heavy alcohol consumption over a long period of time, or too much on a single occasion, can damage the heart. Heavy alcohol consumption can: weaken the heart impacting how oxygen and nutrients are delivered to other vital organs; increase triglyceride levels, high levels of which contribute to the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes; and lead to increased risk for sudden cardiac death and cardiac arrhythmias.8

It’s important that patients begin their recovery programme as early as possible.

The Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Liver

The liver is the most complex organ in the body except the brain. The liver is resilient and capable of regenerating itself, however, each time your liver filters alcohol, some of the liver cells die. The liver can develop new cells, but prolonged alcohol misuse over many years can reduce its ability to regenerate and is associated with derangements in liver function and the development of alcohol-related liver disease.

Symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease include feeling sick, loss of appetite, jaundice, confusion, drowsiness, vomiting blood or blood appearing in stools, and swelling in the ankles and/or abdomen. The three stages of ARLD are fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and finally, cirrhosis at which point the liver has become significantly scarred and is generally not reversible.

How Excessive Drinking Affects the Pancreas

The pancreas is part of the digestive system and helps regulate the body’s blood sugar levels. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, inflammation, and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas which prevents proper digestion. This increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, many pancreatic conditions go undetected in the early stages and are therefore left untreated. Symptoms of an acute pancreatic attack may include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, fast heart rate and fever.

Alcohol and the Immune System

Alcohol has adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, impairing the body’s ability to defend and heal itself. This can lead to an increased risk of serious infections such as acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), sepsis, alcoholic liver disease (ALD), and certain cancers.9 Alcohol consumption is also associated with slower and less complete recovery from infections and physical traumas, including poor wound healing.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

The symptoms of an alcohol addiction vary from person to person. Symptoms that you display will depend on several factors including how long you have been drinking, if you have a co-occurring disorder, your personality traits, age, personal circumstances, and external stressors.

The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists 11 symptoms of an alcohol use disorder:

  1. Frequently drinking a larger amount of alcohol or for longer than intended
  2. Wanting to cut down or control drinking but not being able to stop
  3. Spending a lot of time drinking and feeling sick from alcohol’s aftereffects
  4. Experiencing strong cravings or urges to drink
  5. Facing problems at home with family, work, or other commitments as a result of drinking or being sick from drinking
  6. Continuing to drink even though it causes issues with loved ones
  7. Giving up on interesting, important, or pleasurable activities to drink instead
  8. Getting into repeated situations while or after drinking that increase the risk of getting injured or hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)
  9. Continuing to drink despite feeling depressed or anxious, adding to another health problem, or after having had a memory blackout
  10. Drinking much more to get the same effect or finding the usual number of drinks has become less effective than before
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating after the alcohol wears off

Having at least two of the symptoms indicates that you might have alcohol use disorder. Depending on how many symptoms you have, alcohol use disorder can range in severity.

  • Mild alcohol use disorder: two to three symptoms
  • Moderate alcohol use disorder: four to five symptoms
  • Severe alcohol use disorder: six or more symptoms

If you are concerned about your drinking, arrange a free confidential assessment with our team today.