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Updated on February 1, 2022

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 way to socialize or celebrate. Although drinking in moderation is certainly possible for many, some people should abstain entirely.

This is because alcohol is a drug and drinking in excess can lead to addiction (alcohol use disorder or AUD).

AUD occurs when someone struggles to control their alcohol intake. Someone with an AUD also tends to be preoccupied with drinking, to the point of it controlling their life. They're also prone to dangerous withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking suddenly.

Are You Drinking Too Much Alcohol?

According to HHS, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink for women and up to two drinks for men in one day.

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

Binge drinking 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's still a binge.

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

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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:

  1. Inability to limit alcohol consumption
  2. Failed attempts to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption
  3. Spending a significant time drinking or recovering from drinking
  4. Experiencing cravings to drink
  5. Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
  6. Continuing use of alcohol despite physical, emotional, or social harm
  7. Using alcohol in unsafe situations, such as when driving
  8. Neglecting social activities and hobbies
  9. Developing a tolerance
  10. 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 can cause liver pain. It 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
  • 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 6 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.

How Do I Stop Drinking?

In mild cases of AUD, you may be able to quit on your own.

However, like other forms of substance abuse, people with AUD often have co-occurring mental health problems. They may also have issues with other drugs besides alcohol.

If this is the case, you may require treatment at an inpatient treatment center. There, professionals can monitor you during detox. Medication like disulfiram can also help manage withdrawal symptoms.

After detox, therapy is available to treat any mental health conditions that may be driving the addiction.

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Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

If you or someone you know suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD), you're not alone. There are treatment centers around the nation ready to help you.

Learn about all of the different aspects of alcohol addiction treatment:

Other Alcohol Addiction Resources

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complicated and dangerous health disorder.

Here are some resources that will answer your questions:

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Resources

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  1. Alcoholism: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms.” Healthline, 2012.
  2. CDC - Frequently Asked Questions - Alcohol.” CDC.Gov, 2020.
  3. Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” NIH.Gov, 2017.
  4. "Alcohol use disorder." Mayo Clinic, July 2018.
  5. "Trauma increases risks for alcohol problems in women." Washington University in St. Louis, February 2011.
  6. 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, Nov., 2010. pp. 810-818.
  7. 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.
  8. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021.

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