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Updated on July 28, 2021

Alcohol Effects, Addiction Treatment, and Resources

What is Alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages that causes intoxication. People usually consume ethyl alcohol in a diluted concentration. These concentration levels are measured, which is where the term 'alcohol proof' comes from. This is done mainly to improve taste and reduce the harmful effects of alcohol

Many people around the world drink alcohol as a form of celebration and socialization, or even for cultural reasons. Although drinking in moderation is generally accepted, alcohol is not for everyone. This because it is a highly addictive drug, and drinking in excess for an extended period can lead to an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism, is a disorder that occurs when someone struggles to control their alcohol consumption. Someone who has an AUD tends to be preoccupied with drinking and alcohol basically controls their life. The person will likely experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking.

What Does Moderate Drinking Mean?

According to HHS, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink for women and up to two drinks for men in one day. Consuming more than this amount is considered excessive, or heavy, drinking. 

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Are You Drinking Too Much Alcohol?

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are not considered forms of “drinking in moderation.”

A binge is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men within 2 hours. Most binge drinkers have a pattern of indulging in high amounts of alcohol. However, even if it only happens once, it is still a binge. Recurrent binges qualify someone as a heavy drinker. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heavy drinking occurs when someone binges five or more times per month.

The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as follows:

  • For men, consuming more than 4 drinks a day or more than 14 drinks per week
  • For women, consuming more than 3 drinks a day or more than 7 drinks per week

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

You may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) if you identify with at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Inability to limit alcohol consumption
  • Failed attempts to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption
  • Spending a significant time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Experiencing cravings to drink
  • Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
  • Continuing use of alcohol despite physical, emotional, or social harm
  • Using alcohol in unsafe situations, such as when driving
  • Neglecting social activities and hobbies
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, or shaking

How Does Alcohol Affect General Health?

The following health risks are associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is a chronic disease that results in a strong, uncontrollable need to drink:

Liver Disease

Consuming alcohol excessively, and for an extended period, contributes to three types of liver disease. This includes steatosis (fatty liver), cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis.

Cardiovascular Problems

Directly after drinking alcohol, your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Once the substance is out of your system, your vital signs return to normal again. However, excessive alcohol consumption can result in an irregular heartbeat and weakened heart muscle. This puts those with AUD at a higher risk of:

  • A heart attack
  • Developing an enlarged heart, which can lead to a stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Death

Gastrointestinal Infections

Alcohol directly aggravates your gastrointestinal tract (digestive system). This is because your digestive system is the first site of exposure after alcohol ingestion. It makes your stomach produce extra acid, which can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis).

Certain Cancers

Drinking alcohol frequently increases your risk of developing certain cancers. This includes oral cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and larynx (throat) cancer.

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How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

Heavy alcohol use negatively impacts memory, reasoning, and brain function. Regularly drinking four or more alcoholic drinks per day increases a person’s risk of hippocampal shrinkage almost six times compared to nondrinkers. The "hippocampus" is the part of your brain that stores memories and aids in learning.

Alcohol consumption also affects the hormonal systems in your body associated with common mental health conditions. Due to alcohol’s depressive effect, those with AUD also have a higher risk of attempting suicide and engaging in self-harm.

Two mental health disorders commonly associated with heavy alcohol use include:

Depression

Depression, which is a group of conditions that lower a person’s mood, affects about 80 percent of alcoholics at some point. Depression comes in many forms, including clinical depression, persistent depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a common condition that leads to constant worrying about daily situations. The symptoms of alcohol-induced anxiety usually appear during alcohol withdrawal. They also tend to resolve quickly with treatment and continued abstinence.

Others Harmful Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol can have severe effects on your physical and mental health. Learn more about how alcohol consumption impacts your life.

Underage Drinking

Underage drinking can lead to several serious health issues. Teenagers’ brains are still developing, which makes them more susceptible to adverse physical and mental health effects. Learn more about the long-term effects of underage drinking. 

Hangovers After Drinking

Hangovers can make you feel horrible the day after drinking. However, for more frequent alcohol users, hangovers can seriously affect the quality of your life and lead to mental, physical, social, and interpersonal issues. 

Physical Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol has dangerous effects on your physical health. Alcohol consumption increases your risks of injuries, liver, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal issues, and even certain types of cancers. Learn more about the short and long term effects of alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorders (AUD).

Psychological Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol consumption also harms your mental health. Heavy alcohol use impairs brain functions, such as memory and reasoning. Scientists have linked frequent alcohol use to depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and self-harm (e.g., suicide attempts and cutting). 

Insomnia and Alcohol Addiction

An estimated 20 percent of adults in the U.S. drink alcohol to help them fall asleep. However, alcohol use has a direct, adverse effect on a person’s quality of sleep. Alcohol addiction can lead to several long term sleep problems, including insomnia. 

Drunk Driving and DUIs

Over 10,000 people died in drunk driving accidents in 2018. Drunk driving puts everyone on the road in danger. Further, a DUI may cause you to lose your license, cost you upwards of $10,000, and even end up in jail. 

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

If you or someone you know suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD), you are not alone. There are treatment centers around the nation ready to help you. Learn about all of the different aspects of alcohol addiction treatment.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detoxification is the first step in treating alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is the period where your body flushes itself of alcohol and gets used to functioning without the substance. This is often the most challenging portion of rehabilitation, and many patients will experience alcohol withdrawal during this time.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when someone with alcohol dependency stops drinking. This can occur outside of treatment, or during the detoxification process of a program. In some cases, medical supervision may be required. Learn more about the causes, risks, and treatments of alcohol withdrawal.

Preventing Relapse

Relapse occurs when someone begins drinking alcohol again after a period of sobriety. Upwards of 60 percent of all patients in alcohol rehabilitation will experience a relapse, so prevention methods are a crucial part of all alcohol use disorder (AUD) treatment programs. 

Other Alcohol Addiction Resources

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complicated and dangerous health disorder. Here are some resources that will answer your questions.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is also commonly referred to as alcoholism or alcohol addiction. It affects millions of Americans and has many adverse effects on your physical and mental health. According to the CDC, there are three traits of AUD. Learn about them here.

Different Types of Alcoholics

Alcohol use disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe. It affects everyone differently. A study undertaken by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) identified five different types of alcoholics.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

The symptoms of AUD range in intensity, from mild to severe. They can have a profoundly negative impact on your physical, mental, emotional, and interpersonal health. Learn how to identify the symptoms of AUD here.

Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder

Many different factors can influence your susceptibility to alcohol use disorder (AUD). These include genetic, psychological, social, and environmental situations. Learn more about the causes of alcohol addiction here.

What Is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is considered an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is characterized by a pattern of heavy alcohol use. Binge drinking is common in the U.S. and poses severe short and long term health risks.

High Functioning Alcoholics

A high functioning alcoholic, functional alcoholic, or working alcoholic is someone who meets the criteria for having an alcohol use disorder but is still capable of meeting the requirements of their work and social life.

Preventing Alcohol Addiction

Like nearly all health issues, preventative measures are the best type of treatment for alcohol use disorders (AUD). Providing people with the education and resources they need to live a healthy life without alcohol will help decrease the rate of addiction in future generations.

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Resources

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“Alcoholism: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms.” Healthline, 2012, www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/basics

“CDC - Frequently Asked Questions - Alcohol.” CDC.Gov, 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#alcoholismAbuse.

“Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Nih.Gov, 2017, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

Alcohol use disorder, Mayo Clinic, July 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

Trauma increases risks for alcohol problems in women, Washington University in St. Louis, February 2011, https://source.wustl.edu/2011/02/trauma-increases-risks-for-alcohol-problems-in-women/

Sartor CE, McCutcheon VV, Pommer NE, Nelson EC, Duncan AE, Waldron M, Bucholz KK, Madden PAF, Heath AC. Posttraumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependence in young women, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, vol. 71(6), Nov., 2010. pp. 810-818, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2965479/

Sartor CE, McCutcheon VV, Pommer NE, Nelson EC, Grant JD, Duncan AE, Waldron M, Bucholz KK, Madden PAF, Heath AC. Common genetic and environmental contributions to post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependence in young women, Psychological Medicine, published online in Nov., 2010. DOI:10.1017/S0033291710002072, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21054919/

Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), March 2021, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help

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