Evidence of alcohol brewing dates back over 9,000 years, making it the oldest known drug consumed by humans. Over the centuries, humanity has developed a very complicated relationship with alcohol. It shows up at all sorts of religious and social events, yet for some, the effects of alcohol can be devastating. Understanding how alcohol affects people can help you make better choices for your health.
Is Alcohol a Drug?
People often normalize alcohol abuse because alcohol is legal for adults and widely available. However, it’s important to realize that booze is not just a harmless beverage. Drugs are anything that changes how your body and mind function, so alcohol definitely counts as a drug. It might not be a suspicious powder you buy on the street and inject into your veins, but alcohol can be every bit as harmful as other drugs. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol has many effects, including:
- Slowed breathing
- Slurred speech
- Poor judgment
- Mood swings
- Impaired coordination
- Loss of consciousness
There is a real danger in assuming alcohol is safe to drink just because it’s socially acceptable. However, as a drug, alcohol always carries a risk of addiction. Not everyone who drinks will end up being addicted, but it might be more common than you think.
Understanding Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol’s unique position as the most physically and mentally dangerous legal drug means that alcoholism is incredibly common. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.3% of all adults have tried alcohol at some time in their lives. For some, alcohol can be a harmless beverage that they try every now and then. For others, however, it becomes a substance they constantly crave despite negative consequences. Roughly 14.4 million adults and 401,000 adolescents have so many problems with drinking that they qualify as having an alcohol use disorder.
Also called alcoholism, alcohol use disorder is characterized by constant cravings for alcohol. Those with an addiction may continue drinking despite very clear, negative consequences like declining work performance, drunk driving convictions, or arguments with loved ones. Due to its chemical composition, alcohol can cause you to develop a physical dependence over time. Your body starts to depend on alcohol to function normally, and if you quit using it, you’ll feel quite sick.
Alcohol addiction comes in many forms. Beer is a fairly common alcoholic drink made of water, grains, and yeast. It has an alcohol content by volume (ABV) of 2% to 12%. This is a common choice of beverage among social drinkers. However, many people may fall into the trap of drinking beer to ease awkward or uncomfortable situations, and this can lead to an addiction.
Made from fermented grapes and with an ABV of around 15%, wine is another type of alcohol frequently consumed at social occasions and meals. Wine is primarily marketed toward women, with roughly six out of 10 wine drinkers being female. Therefore, women are more likely to suffer from a wine addiction. Since wine is seen as classier, this type of addiction can often hide itself as a hobby.
With ABV ranging from 30% to 50%, liquor is a type of alcohol that is incredibly easy to abuse. It can be mixed into cocktails or drank straight as a “shot,” so liquor can be used to get drunk very quickly. Due to the intensity of this alcoholic beverage, those with a liquor addiction often end up with a very severe alcohol use disorder.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Since drinking is considered socially acceptable, many people may not even realize they have a problem at first. Being able to recognize alcohol addiction is one of the first steps toward improving your life. To see whether you may have a problem with alcohol abuse, ask yourself these diagnostic questions from the DSM-5:
- Do you often drink more alcohol or for a longer amount of time than you meant to?
- Is a lot of your time spent getting alcohol, drinking alcohol, or being hungover?
- Do you want to cut back your usage but keep using alcohol anyway?
- Are your cravings so intense you can’t think of anything else?
- Have you kept drinking even after it caused problems with your friends and loved ones?
- Has your work, school, or other responsibilities suffered due to your alcohol consumption?
- Are you skipping other activities you used to enjoy so you can drink instead?
- Do you have to drink more and more to get the same level of intoxication?
- Have you experienced withdrawal problems like tremors, hallucinations, insomnia, a rapid heart rate, or seizures when you quit drinking?
- Are you taking part in unsafe activities due to your alcohol abuse?
- Do you keep drinking alcohol even though it’s causing physical or mental health problems?
Recognizing Problematic Drinking Patterns
One of the big challenges of managing alcoholism is that many people do not even know they are alcoholics. The idea of doing shots during a night out or having a drink to unwind after a tough day is so ingrained in our culture that it can hide a lot of very dangerous habits. Here are some of the types of drinking behavior that can lead to big issues.
- Binge DrinkingMany people think they do not have a problem because they spend most of their time sober. However, alcohol use can still be dangerous when it comes in the form of binge drinking. According to the CDC, binge drinking is defined as five drinks in two hours for males or four drinks in two hours for females. This form of alcohol abuse is incredibly common, with one in six Americans reporting that they binge drink at least four times a month. Over time, binge drinking can turn into a form of alcoholism.
Binge drinking is most common in those under the age of 34, but it can still occur in people of all ages. It’s characterized by drinking with the sole intention of getting drunk, and a lot of binge drinking takes the form of doing shots of liquor. If you stay sober all week but live for getting drunk on the weekend, you may have a problem with binge drinking. This type of drinking is less likely to result in the issues of traditional alcoholism, but it’s more likely to cause dangerous overdoses, drunk driving, and accidental injuries. It can also lead to chronic liver damage and increased cancer risks.
- High-Functioning AlcoholismHigh-functioning alcoholism is a unique type of addiction not found in many other cases of substance use. People with high-functioning alcoholism present many of the typical signs of addiction, like going into withdrawal when they stop using alcohol, yet they do not display significant social or professional problems. High-functioning alcoholics may drink in the mornings, during lunch breaks, or in the evenings. They usually do not get drunk enough to be noticeable around others, but they may drink steadily or get drunk when alone.
Data from the National Institutes of Health indicates that 19.5% of all alcoholics are considered high functioning. This type of alcoholism is particularly common among middle- and upper-class people with high-stress jobs, such as doctors and lawyers. Though it does not interfere with succeeding in a career or raising a family, high-functioning alcoholism still has devastating effects on a person’s mental and physical health.
- College DrinkingOne of the most common yet least recognized issues is drinking in college. There is a huge drinking culture at most universities, so things like binge drinking, daily drinking, and drinking as a social event are relatively normalized. However, many behaviors that are portrayed as harmless college high jinks are actually masking more serious problems. About 20% of all college students actually meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
Things like doing shots before a football game or getting through finals week by drinking every night can be very unhealthy. Alcohol is actually behind one in four students’ poor academic performance, and it is involved in 696,000 assaults each year. As students graduate, overconsumption of alcohol can be a hard habit to break, often transitioning to more traditional alcoholism.
The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse
Alcoholism is an incredibly dangerous type of substance use disorder because alcohol is technically a toxic substance. Booze can be deadly in multiple ways. If you drink too much in one sitting, it may slow your breathing and other bodily processes enough to kill you. When a person stops drinking alcohol altogether after a long period of abuse, they can end up with heart problems and potentially fatal seizures.
Even if you are not drinking enough to overdose immediately, alcohol abuse is still dangerous. Each time you drink, your liver gets slightly damaged. Though the liver can usually heal itself, frequent, heavy drinking can lead to liver disease. Alcohol is also a recognized carcinogenic substance. It regularly does light amounts of damage to the cells of your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines as it comes into contact with them. This increases the risk of cells mutating into cancerous cells. Alcohol also affects hormone levels, making breast cancer more likely.
Furthermore, the impaired judgment and coordination you face when consuming alcohol comes with its own set of dangers. People who drink alcohol are more likely to fall, suffer from hypothermia, or risk drowning. Alcohol abuse can also lead people to unsafe activities like driving drunk or getting into fights.
Finally, alcohol abuse is dangerous for your mental health. As a depressant, alcohol changes the brain in several ways that can make you more likely to become depressed. It also causes increases in certain hormones that can make anxiety disorders and panic attacks more common. Drinking can even end up giving you dementia. People who have abused alcohol for years end up with changes to their brain structure that make them lose memories and critical thinking skills.
Seek Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholism is a subtle condition that often goes unrecognized until it causes major health or personal problems. Because of the many dangers of alcohol abuse, it’s important to get care as soon as possible. Treatment for alcohol use disorder primarily focuses on visiting a rehab clinic where you can get help overcoming addiction triggers and finding healthier coping skills. You can choose from inpatient facilities where you live on-site and get constant support or outpatient facilities where you can stay at home and continue your regular routine.
At Green Mountain Treatment Center, we’re here to help. Our residential drug rehab facility has helped many people overcome alcoholism. Situated between peaceful apple orchards and awe-inspiring mountains, Green Mountain Treatment Center provides a relaxing place to focus on your sobriety. Our gender-separate, 18+ facilities are designed to enhance resident care. We have a high ratio of staff to patients, so there is always someone present to assist you.
We use a unique blend of treatments that address all the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of alcohol use disorders. For example, the 12-step programs provide peer support and accountability while clinically proven behavioral therapy addresses underlying triggers of addiction. Our licensed medical staff can help with the physical effects of alcoholism while our holistic therapies can help restore peace and well-being. We recognize each patient is different, so our counselors will help you find a custom blend of treatments that’s right for your case. Get started on the path to sobriety by scheduling your assessment now.