There is an old saying that goes: “Alcohol is a terrific solvent. It dissolves marriages, careers, bank accounts, …” This attempt at dry humor does a pretty good job of putting the alcohol problem in this country in perspective. The abuse of alcohol is truly a “family disease” that affects every one of us. There are many people who are able to drink responsibly, but what causes a person to lose control and cross the line? Perhaps if we can understand alcoholism better we might be able to better answer this important question.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a disorder that involves the abuse of and dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is a progressive and chronic condition that becomes life-controlling for the alcoholic. It creates a multitude of health, personal, and social problems for alcoholics, their families, and society at large. This socially acceptable drug has spawned one of the largest substance abuse problems in the world.
Alcoholism often is characterized by physiological addiction to alcohol, but the condition is a complex mixture of physical, psychological, and social factors. Excessive drinking is a huge public health problem. It is estimated that approximately 18 million Americans abuse alcohol, and more than 100,000 deaths are attributed to alcohol-related causes annually. Nearly 50% of all traffic deaths in the U.S. involve alcohol. Social problems such as homelessness, violent crime, suicide, unemployment, spousal and child abuse, and broken homes are significantly influenced by alcohol. The cost to the U.S. economy for dealing with alcohol-related issues is a staggering $130 Billion per year. And the rate of alcoholism is even higher in some other countries around the world.
What Are the Causes of Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a difficult disorder to pin down to exact causes. There are many factors involved, and researchers are continuing to study and learn. Here are some of the suspected causes that lead to alcohol abuse and dependence:
- Genetics: This is an area that has received much attention regarding the study of alcoholism. No specific genes have been identified that pass along a tendency to be addicted to alcohol, but some interesting findings have come out. Recent studies have shown that if you have a close relative that is an alcoholic, your chance of becoming one yourself is four times greater than if you do not have the disorder in your family history. This could easily be attributed to environmental causes. Statistics show that most problem drinkers come from alcoholic homes. Children grow up learning how to deal with life as their tutors have, no matter how unpleasant that may be. These figures seem to make logical sense, considering family dynamics and the influence of one’s family of origin. However, another interesting fact that has been discovered is that while most alcoholics come from alcoholic homes, the second highest number of alcoholics come from homes where there was no alcohol—teetotalers. Scientists are not quite sure what to make of this. Obviously genetics and environment are involved, but how do they interplay? Studies done on adopted children have shown a higher rate of incidence of alcoholism for them if their biological families had a history of alcoholism, even if their adopted families had no history of problem drinking. We have found several pieces of the puzzle, but are still not sure exactly how they fit together.
- One of the things researchers are focusing on is that certain individuals may metabolize alcohol differently than others, and that this may be an inherited trait. The brains of some people may process alcohol in a way that makes them more susceptible to dependence on it. Prolonged use of alcohol alters the brain chemistry, causing certain substances that are normally present to become out of balance. Examples of such chemicals are gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to control impulsiveness, and glutamate, which is a stimulant to the nervous system. Alcohol also increases dopamine levels in the brain, which contributes to the pleasurable feelings you get under the influence of alcohol. Alcoholics can develop a physical craving for alcohol which is simply the body seeking to restore the balance of these and other chemicals in the brain. Certain people are thought to inherit traits that make this process of physical dependence more likely. So, if Dad and Grandpa had a problem with abusing alcohol, be very careful about your own use of it. You are definitely at increased risk of becoming an alcoholic if you drink.
- Emotional disorders: Individuals who struggle with high stress levels, depression, low self-esteem, or other emotional problems are more likely to become dependent on alcohol. There are certain hormones associated with stress that may have ties to alcoholism. Some studies have shown an unusually high number of adults who suffer from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with alcohol abuse. Many of them stated they felt the need for alcohol to “self-medicate.”
- Social and cultural factors: A lot of abusive drinking and dependence on alcohol may be linked to the way it is portrayed in our culture. Drinking is glamorized by the media as a normal and “cool” thing to do, and this message is particularly aimed at young people. Peer pressure to drink and be part of the “in” crowd is very strong for some folks, especially if they are already struggling socially and emotionally.
- Gender: More men become alcoholics than women. This is probably due to the fact that more men drink than women. However, it seems that women who do drink may have a greater chance of becoming dependent on alcohol. It’s really hard to come up with specific numbers, because we are all different in the way we handle alcohol, both physically and psychologically. But, here are some statistics that give general guidelines: The risk for physical dependence in men is increased if they consistently consume more than 15 drinks per week, and for women the threshold is only 12 drinks per week. Women also process alcohol differently than men, and it generally takes less alcohol for them to get legally intoxicated and/or experience other physical and psychological problems related to alcohol.
- Age: It is a proven fact that the younger a person starts drinking, the greater their chances are of developing a problem with alcohol. We really need to be aware of this in regard to our children, especially if there is a family history of alcoholism. Studies have shown that anyone who starts drinking at age 16 or earlier is particularly at risk. As we learn to make healthy choices to deal with the stress in our lives and develop a lifestyle that focuses on wellness and prevention of disease, we need to pass this wisdom on to the next generation.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?
If you are concerned about your own drinking or a loved one’s, there are certain warning signs to watch out for. Strictly from a natural medicine point of view, alcohol is a poisonous, toxic substance that should be eliminated from the diet. There are some health benefits associated with moderate consumption of alcohol, but in my opinion, the risks far outweigh the possible benefits. We also need to remember that while alcohol itself is harmful enough, many of today’s alcoholic beverages are also laced with preservatives and other toxic substances that make them even more dangerous to put into our bodies. However, if you choose to drink, here are some of the more common signs that may indicate potential alcohol abuse or dependence:
- Not being able to control the amount you drink once you have begun. Problem drinkers tend to drink faster and consume more in a shorter period of time once they have any alcohol in their systems.
- Drinking alone is a red flag.
- “Blackout,” which is the inability to remember conversations and other events after you have been drinking.
- Planning your day around drinking. Examples might be looking forward to when you can drink, and specifically scheduling your day to make sure that you have opportunities to consume alcohol.
- Hiding liquor in unlikely places, such as in the car or at work. Any time you find yourself trying to disguise your drinking or hide it from others, watch out.
- Making excuses for your drinking, or becoming irritated if someone confronts you on it. Denial is the number one characteristic of abusive drinkers. They don’t want to admit they have a problem to themselves or others.
- Increased tolerance to alcohol. If it takes progressively more and more alcohol to feel it’s effects, you are developing a dependency.
- Physical withdrawal symptoms if you do not drink, such as shaking, sweating, or nausea. If you find yourself needing to put poison into your body in order to feel well, you have a problem.
- “Life-controlling” problems in areas such as relationships, jobs, and legal matters.
- Experiencing a compulsion to drink, even though it might cause significant consequences that might hurt you or others, such as loss of employment, financial problems, or difficulties with family relationships.
- The need for a drink first thing in the morning.
What Are the Possible Complications of Alcoholism?
We have already discussed many of the personal and social problems caused by alcohol abuse. But strictly from a physical point of view, prolonged alcohol consumption has severe consequences on the entire body. It is very toxic and can lead to life-threatening complications. Here are a few of the more significant ones:
- Gastrointestinal System: Abuse of alcohol produces grave results in our intestines. The inflammation can cause pain and bleeding in the esophagus, stomach, and related organs. It also makes it difficult for nutrients to be properly absorbed, causing malnutrition. The liver is particularly hard hit by alcohol, and cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and other liver diseases including hepatitis and cancer may possibly result. Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is also very common in alcoholics. One doctor, who has dealt with many chronically advanced alcoholics, described what alcohol does to our guts as a “pickling process.” Death from chronic alcoholism is a terrible way to go. It is a slow and painful process.
- Nervous System: Excessive drinking causes memory loss, sleep disturbances, muscular dysfunction, and other brain damage. Some of these may be the result of an isolated drinking binge, but for the chronic alcoholic, many of these symptoms may be permanent and irreversible.
- Heart: Prolonged use of alcohol leads to hypertension, weakening of the heart muscle, enlargement of the heart, and increased risk of stroke.
- Immune System: Alcoholism is a factor in reducing the number of white blood cells that fight off disease, putting alcoholics at increased risk for infections. This immune system damage is thought to be the reason that alcoholics have a ten times greater chance of developing cancer of any kind than folks that do not abuse alcohol.
Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH is a Naturopathic Practitioner, Clinical Nutritionist, Holistic Health Practitioner and Clinical Herbalist in Houston, TX and Founder / CEO of Oasis Advanced Wellness. Under her leadership, Oasis Advanced Wellness is known and respected as one of the leading companies in providing safe, non-toxic, hi-tech natural health and wellness solutions along with cutting-edge health programs. Dr. Lanphier is the author of five health and wellness e-books including Optimum Health Strategies…Doing What Works. Lanphier is Editor and contributor to the worldwide Free E-newsletter Advanced Health & Wellness