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Alcoholism is a chronic (long-term) health problem with serious consequences. People who suffer from alcoholism are obsessed with alcohol and cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, work, and financially. Alcohol abuse generally refers to people who do not display the characteristics of alcoholism but still have a problem with the substance. These people are not as dependent on alcohol as an alcoholic is and they have not yet lost complete control over alcohol consumption. Some of the characteristics of alcoholism are:
- Continued drinking in spite of negative consequences such as a DUI conviction, divorce, or loss of job
- Desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down drinking
- Drinking larger amounts or over longer periods of time
- Drinking that interferes with your job, family, or friends
- Increased tolerance, meaning that over time more alcohol is required to get drunk
- Withdrawal, meaning unpleasant symptoms similar to having the flu when drinking is stopped
How can some people drink responsibly while others drink to the point of losing their health, their family, or their job? There are no simple answers to this question. Drinking problems are attributed to many interconnected factors which include genetics, how you were raised, your social environment, and your emotional health. People who have a family history of alcoholism or who themselves suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder are particularly at risk. People in these types of situations often use alcohol to self-medicate.
What is considered to be heavy drinking? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking more than the amounts shown below would be considered heavy drinking:
- For healthy men under age 65, consuming no more than four drinks a day and no more than fourteen drinks a week.
- For healthy women under age 65 or healthy men over age 65, consuming no more than three drinks a day and no more than twelve drinks a week.
What are some of the common signs and symptoms of alcoholism?
- Cravings: Drinking may become an irresistible need and fill almost every thought throughout the drinker.s day.
- Loss of Control: The alcoholic may be unable to control the driving compulsion to drink.
- Physical Dependence: The body and brain of an alcoholic become dependent on the drug.s effect. Without a drink, the alcoholic may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, nausea, and tremors. In severe cases seizures may result.
- Increasing Tolerance: Over time, the alcoholic will need more and more alcohol to achieve the same results.
Alcoholism can produce several harmful effects on your brain and nervous system. It may cause fatigue, short-term memory loss, as well as weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles. It can also have these other severe health effects:
- Liver disorders. Drinking heavily can cause you to develop alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. Signs and symptoms may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and tenderness, fever, yellowing of the skin (jaundice), and sometimes mental confusion. Over years of drinking, hepatitis may lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the irreversible and progressive destruction of liver tissue. A healthy liver processes nutrients into molecules your body can use, manufactures bile to help digest fats, and regulates the amounts of sugar, protein, and fat that enter your bloodstream.
- Gastrointestinal problems. Alcoholism can result in inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis), which can lead to tears in the upper part of your stomach and lower part of your esophagus. Alcohol can also interfere with the absorption of many nutrients and B vitamins, particularly folic acid and thiamin. Heavy drinking can also damage your pancreas (pancreatitis). The pancreas has two functions: (1) it produces the hormones insulin and glucagon, which help regulate your metabolism, and (2) it produces pancreatic juices and enzymes that help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
- Cardiovascular problems. Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure and damage your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). These conditions can put you at increased risk of heart failure or stroke.
- Diabetes complications. Alcoholism prevents the release of glucose from your liver and can increase the risk of your blood sugar falling too low (hypoglycemia). This is dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin to lower your blood sugar level.
- Sexual function and menstruation. Alcohol abuse can cause erectile dysfunction in men. In women, it can interrupt menstruation.
- Birth defects. If you drink excessively during pregnancy, your child may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. This condition results in birth defects including a small head, heart defects, a shortening of the eyelids, and various other abnormalities. As these children grow older, they may have various developmental disabilities.
- Neurologic complications. Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness of your hands and feet, disordered thinking, and dementia.
- Increased risk of cancer. Chronic alcoholism has been linked to a higher risk of cancer of the esophagus, larynx, liver, and colon.
Can one recover from alcoholism? Yes! Each and every day people around the world are making full recoveries from their personal battles with alcohol. This is accomplished by attending a drug and alcohol rehab program. Without the aid of alcohol rehab, problem drinking will not go away on its own. Instead, it will often become more and more damaging to both the alcoholic as well as his or her family.
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