Alcoholism is an addiction to alcoholic beverages that can have long-lasting and life-threatening affects on the human body. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines alcoholism as a disease with four important characteristics. These characteristics include:
Craving: The alcoholic experiences an urgent need to drink.
Loss of control: The alcoholic finds it impossible to stop drinking once started.
Physical dependence: The alcoholic suffers from withdrawal symptoms when denied alcohol.
Tolerance: The alcoholic must consume more in order to find that sought-after euphoria.
It is important to note that not all people who will suffer the adverse effects of alcoholism are bona-fide alcoholics. A person may abuse alcohol without meeting all of the criteria for alcoholism. Much like someone who uses drugs for the first time can suffer an overdose, a person who drinks to excess “occasionally” can still damage his or her body or suffer other ill effects.
The long-term health effects of alcoholism cover a wide range of disorders that affect several systems. The problems range from psychological to neurological and physical, as well as the emotional toll placed upon the alcoholic’s families and friends.
Physical Effects of Alcoholism
Alcohol is ingested orally. Every part of the body that the alcohol touches can therefore be adversely affected. The overall effects of the alcohol can build up over time and cause difficulties in every major body system.
There has been some debate in the recent past whether moderate or light drinking may be good for the human heart. There are some who believe having one small glass of wine every day could have health benefits.There is no debate, however, whether heavy drinking over very long periods of time is bad for the heart. The American Heart Association indicates that drinking increases triglycerides (fats in the blood) which cause damage to the heart. Drinking excessively on a regular basis significantly increases blood sugar and caloric intake, which can lead to obesity. Binge drinking can lead to stroke, an enlarged heart, and even to heart attack.
Malabsorption is the inability of the intestine to absorb certain nutrients from the food we consume. Many alcoholics may find themselves malnourished as a result. Malabsorption causes immediate physical effects, including diarrhea, as well as long-term effects such as malnutrition. The old saying, “nothing but beer and bones” stems from this condition.
The risk of cancer from drinking alcoholis profound. The exact correlation between alcohol consumption and several types of cancer is not understood on all levels, but studies have shown increased risk of each of the following types of cancer from excessive drinking:
Colon and rectum
The risk for each of these kinds of cancer is directly proportionate to the amount of alcohol consumed. For instance, a heavy drinker or alcoholic will have significantly more risk of developing cancer than an individual who has a glass of champagne at a wedding a few times each year.
Cirrhoses is the name for a condition that involves excessive scarring of the liver. The liver has many functions in the human body, but most of them can be broken down to the process of digesting food and beverages. Every drop of alcohol that we drink will eventually find its way to the liver. Alcohol is made of ethanol. It doesn’t matter if the alcoholic drinks beer, wine, really expensive wine or liquor. There is ethanol is every kind of alcoholic beverage available, and it is caustic. When an alcoholic drinks to excess, the liver is scarred. When an alcoholic drinks to a certain point, the liver is scarred enough to destroy liver function, which can ultimately be fatal.
Slurred speech, blurry vision, impaired judgment and significantly decreased motor skills are all the evidence needed to know that alcohol affects the brain. What many people don’t realize is that these are also the effects of long-term alcohol abuse. Even after the individual has become sober, these very significant symptoms of alcohol use can remain.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
The adverse health effects of alcoholism, specifically for a woman, may go beyond damaging her own body. Fetal Alcohol Syndromewas recognized in the early 1970s by the Drs. Jones and Smith in Seattle, Washington. They determined that overuse of alcohol by pregnant alcoholics resulted in the birth of children with several standard traits:
Low birth weight
Failure to gain weight after they were born
Central nervous system dysfunction
Psychological Effects of Long-Term Alcohol Abuse
In addition to a host of negative physical effects of alcohol abuse, there are a few significant psychological effects as well. When a person is unable to control their drinking, the decisions that lead to a physical dependency on alcohol can drive a wedge between the person they are, the person they used to be, and the person they have the potential to become.
Alcoholism can perpetuate a vicious cycle of major depression and drinking. Many alcoholics will claim that they drink because they are depressed, not realizing that the problems created by excessive drinking can lead them further into the very depression they are trying to “medicate”.An alcoholic may ultimately drive their loved ones away, which may make the alcoholic feel unlovable, unworthy or abandoned. This can lead to an even deeper depression that will “require” more alcohol to mask.
On the far side of a depressive cycle lies mania. Mania is the euphoric feeling that an alcoholic experiences when they are drunk. Unfortunately, artificial happiness brought on by alcohol, drugs or manic conditions can lead the individual to make uninformed, irresponsible decisions that can have horrendous effects on their own safety. Typical behaviors for someone in a manic state brought on by alcohol include:
Irresponsible decisions regarding sexual contact
Driving under the influence
Insulting or embarrassing behavior in public
Anxiety and Panic Disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition that is characterized by a feeling of overwhelming worry about everyday matters. A situation that an unaffected person might see as a small concern requiring a reasonable amount of attention becomes, for the GAD-afflicted person, an insurmountable problem that brings on sweating, vomiting, shaking, trembling and other associated symptoms. An alcoholic may suffer a panic attack in situations when they are unable to use alcohol to cope with their problems.
People who drink to excess may be doing so to hide from the problems they have neglected to face throughout their lives. The problems caused by drinking only serve to create more issues from which to hide. In an abstract published in the Oxford Journal, researchers made several conclusions concerning the issue of alcohol use, abuse and suicide. In addition to the fact that most successful suicide victims had high levels of alcohol in their systems at the time of death, they also concluded that people who drank to excess attempted suicide more often, with more lethal methods.Another factor that may contribute to this particular mental health issue is of a more physical nature. Studies have shown that alcohol can affect the production of serotonin in the human brain. Lower serotonin in the system can have a detrimental impact on aggressiveness and impulse control. A lack of these two factors in the human psyche is indicated in suicide attempts. Where a sober individual might “think” about harming himself, the inebriated alcoholic is more likely to make the actual attempt.
The risk of death from alcohol poisoning is much higher for a person suffering from alcoholism. The sheer inability to stop drinking once the binge has started has resulted in the deaths of many people. Alcohol poisoning occurs when the body has become completely saturated with alcohol and it simply cannot be metabolized. Legally Intoxicated Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) for a person of normal body weight and stature is .08. This means there are eight parts of alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood in the body. Alcohol poisoning begins at approximately .14- to .15, the point at which Brown University’s Student Health Services indicates an individual needs a medical evaluation. Death can occur at any point beginning at .30, which is the point at which Brown University indicates an individual would need to be hospitalized.
Other Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism
Not every long-term problem associated with alcoholism is physical, emotional or psychological. There are several ramifications of heavy alcohol use that can make the alcoholic’s life more difficult than it needs to be.
Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Driving While Intoxicated Every state in the United States has a limit for the amount of alcohol that a person can consume before slipping behind the wheel of a car. This amount is measured not in the amount of alcohol consumed, but rather by the rate of metabolism in the human body. Generally, it is safe to consume two alcoholic beverages per hour if driving will be required. However, the very nature of an alcoholic includes the inability to stop drinking or to drink responsibly. This greatly increases the risk of drinking and driving.The penalties for drinking and driving vary by state, but can include:
Suspension of driver’s license
Misdemeanor or felony charges
Jail time, probation or community service, if convicted
Payment of fines and restitution, if convicted
A jail sentence can result in the loss of a job or the inability to find high-paying employment after being released. In addition, auto insurance rates, in most cases, increase significantly after a conviction for drunk driving, which can add additional burdens to a life that is already spiraling out of control.
Personal Injury and Wrongful Death The risk of having an accident, either in a car or as a pedestrian, is much higher for an alcoholic than a person who does not drink to excess. Alcoholics have been known to walk into traffic, fall down stairs or cause major car accidents that result in serious bodily injury to other people and themselves. In some cases, the alcoholic may choose to drive and take the life of another person. Not only will the driver probably spend a considerable amount of time in prison, but he or she must live with the knowledge they have taken the life of an innocent person. This is perhaps the worst possible life-altering effect of alcoholism there is.
When judgment is seriously impaired, it is difficult to make good decisions. The poor decisions made by people suffering from alcoholism can have adverse effects for the rest of their lives.