Alcohol and Alcoholism
Although, chemically, there are many types of alcohol, drinks known as alcoholic beverages contain some percentage of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. Common alcoholic beverages include wine, beer, and distilled spirits (e.g. whiskey, brandy, rum, vodka). For this Tox Topic, we will adopt the generally used though imprecise term, alcohol, to refer to alcoholic beverages. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence attesting to the deleterious and potentially devastating effects of alcohol, the bottom line is that, as with virtually all other substances, the dose makes the poison.
While most people experience pleasantly relaxing and safe experiences with alcohol in moderation, very serious health effects can ensue when people drink excessively, be this at one sitting (i.e. binge drinking) or cumulatively over time. What constitutes moderation can differ significantly according to body weight, age, gender, and genetics. Unhealthy use of alcohol is called alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, and can range from mild to severe. Alcohol addiction implies a physical and/or psychological dependency on the substance. Alcoholics usually are unable to limit their drinking, feel a craving to drink, exhibit risky behavior such as driving intoxicated, develop a tolerance to alcohol resulting in the need to have greater amounts in order to feel its effects, and can experience withdrawal symptoms when not drinking. The consequences for the drinker, his life at home and work, and for those close to him, can be serious. Getting a mild buzz for one’s own pleasure or to smooth social interactions is one thing but abusing alcohol can lead to serious illness, even death, due to the physiological effects of the substance itself or impaired judgement, such as drinking while driving.
Another significant concern is the sometimes complex interaction between alcohol and various medications. A health care provider should be consulted to determine the safety of drinking while taking certain drugs.
Alcohol’s effects on the body are numerous as shown in the graphic below. Among these are its interference with the brain’s communication pathways, damage to the heart, liver inflammation, and pancreatitis. Excess consumption can also increase the risk of developing certain cancers and weaken the immune system.
Alcoholism treatment and recovery programs can vary greatly. Some are faith-based approaches. One on one professional help can work hand in hand with support groups. Both the physical and mental health consequences of drinking need to be addressed. It can be a long and rocky path to break the habit and relapses are not uncommon.
So, although the tipsy imbiber is often the subject of humor, alcoholism is no laughing matter.
Other recommended resources
Alcohol (from the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus) – https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/alcohol.html – A wide array of useful links about excessive drinking, including health effects, recent news, prevention and risk factors, statistics and research, and effects specific to men, women and seniors.
Alcohol and Public Health (from the CDC) – http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/onlinemedia/videos.htm – Links to videos on Preventing Excessive Alcohol Use and Binge Drinking. (Video)
Alcohol use Disorder (from the New York Times) – http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/alcoholism/overview.html – A topic in the NY Times Health Guide series, a frequently updated and comprehensive library of medical topics. A useful guide to the main facets of alcoholism with numerous links to The Times’ own archive of news and features.
Effects of Alcohol – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVMcTH-YpsA – Explains the significance of Blood Alcohol Concentration and the physiological and behavioral effects of alcohol on people (Video)
Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 (from the World Health Organization) – http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/en/ – kA comprehensive perspective on the global, regional and country consumption of alcohol, patterns of drinking, health consequences and policy responses in WHO Member States.
Infographics on Alcohol use (from the CDC) – http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/pdfs/excessive_alcohol_use.pdf – A to-the-point summary, combining text and graphics, of what constitutes excessive drinking.
Medications Used to Treat Alcoholism (from About Health) –http://alcoholism.about.com/od/meds/a/meds.htm – Discusses the three FDA approved drugs for people trying to maintain abstinence – disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) – https://ncadd.org/ – Places alcoholism in the larger context of substance dependence. Provides facts on addiction and useful information for both people in recovery and their family and friends.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) – Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIAAA supports and conducts research on the impact of alcohol use on human health and well-being. – http://niaaa.nih.gov/. Among the many informative sections of their Web site, see Alcohol & Your Health (http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – Alcohol – http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/alcohol
Understanding Alcohol Use Disorders and their Treatment (from the American Psychological Association) – http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/alcohol-disorders.aspx – A fact sheet with a psychological perspective and offering therapy guidance.
Your Brain on Drugs: Alcohol – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkpz7xFTWJo – A short, punchy, video focusing on the effect of alcohol on nerve cells. (Video)
Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) graphic from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholOverdoseFactsheet/images/scale4.png
Health effects graphic from www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
Related topics: Basics of Dose and Exposure; All Natural! All Safe?