Alcohol’s active compound “ethanol” is one of the oldest drugs in the world. Historical evidence indicates that jugs from approximately 10,000 B.C. were used to ferment alcoholic beverages. Social norms in most Western cultures included drinking behaviors, especially at holidays and occasions for family and social celebrations. Weddings, graduations, births and deaths all have ceremonies that include alcohol consumption.
Some religious rites include alcohol and other religious creeds prohibit it. Laws govern alcohol production, sale and consumption limits. Some countries have made alcohol illegal, while others tax it and create profitable markets where alcohol is highly prized. Some nations are famous for production of specific types of alcoholic beverages and others demonize them.
Alcohol is used as a relaxation tool for many people. Social interaction often centers around social drinking such as gatherings in restaurants, bars and other places where people meet and catch up.
Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol acts on the body of the drinker by becoming rapidly absorbed into the tissue and membranes of the body. As it is consumed, it is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine quickly. As it is absorbed, alcohol affects the brain of the drinker in much the same way as other system depressants, such as heroin.
As a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, alcohol lowers inhibitions and reduces stress for most people. The drinker experiences a relaxed state of body and mind, along with mild euphoria. Additional drinking will create impaired motor function, clumsiness, and distorted thinking and slurred speech. The drinker becomes unable to focus vision, attention or to make sound judgments. They may stumble or trip easily when attempting to walk. Balance is impaired, as are other motor skills. For this reason, only very small amounts of alcohol are considered legal for purposes of functioning while driving or operating equipment and/or in most work or social settings.
Drinking on a frequent basis can become toxic to the organs of the drinker’s body. Damage is done to the tissues of the stomach, liver and kidneys, as well as the heart and brain of the drinker. Other damage may occur in all parts of the digestive tract of the drinker. The pancreatic and immune systems can also be heavily impacted by alcohol consumption. Some drinkers may experience damage to these organs with very little drinking history. Others may drink for long periods of time with no permanent damage to their bodies.
Dangers of drinking alcohol occur with even the first episode if heavy drinking is involved. Some people have an allergic reaction to alcohol and its toxic effects on the body. They may experience severe nausea and what is called “alcohol poisoning” with as few as 3-4 alcoholic beverages. Some people exercise impaired judgment and make poor decisions such as driving while intoxicated.
Long-term drinking begins to damage vital organs of the drinker. High blood pressure, pancreatitis, liver disease and failure, heart failure, and various types of hemorrhaging are common causes of alcohol death.
How Addictive Is Alcohol?
Alcohol can be highly addictive. Not everyone who drinks, even if they participate in binge drinking when young, will become an addict. Science has not developed a fool-proof method for determining who will or will not become addicted to alcohol. There are some indicators to look for in a potential alcoholic. Some of these are family history of addiction, early drinking behaviors, and frequency of drinking.
Early symptoms of alcohol addiction are patterns of developing tolerance to alcohol. This occurs when the drinker requires more alcohol to achieve the same benefit they previously got from smaller quantities. They begin to crave alcohol and have withdrawal symptoms without it.
Risk of overdose is common. Those who drink more than one to two beverages within a short period of time, generally two hours, are considered to be binge drinking. This type of consumption can quickly lead to toxic levels of alcohol in the body of the drinker. This is considered an overdose of alcohol and can be fatal. Death from binge drinking is becoming more common today among young drinkers of high school and college age.
Other possible overdose situations are: passing out after over-consuming alcohol and vomiting, then choking; sudden heart attack caused by over-consumption of alcohol; stroke; hemorrhage of stomach or esophagus; accidents caused by impaired judgment and coordination.
Withdrawing from Alcohol
When drinking stops, the user goes into alcohol withdrawal. This may cause little or no discomfort if the drinker has not developed tolerance to alcohol. The drinker may have little or no side effects when they stop drinking. Overconsumption or binge drinking may produce hangovers, an uncomfortable state characterized by headaches, nausea and dehydration that may last for several hours or up to a couple of days after a drinking binge. They are caused by the body’s attempt to stabilize after toxic levels of alcohol have been consumed.
For those who have developed tolerance and/or dependence on alcohol, withdrawal symptoms present when drinking stops. They may or may not experience the effects common to hangovers, but will also exhibit symptoms of tremors, nausea, and possible seizures. The drinker may experience delusions or hallucinations.
After tolerance and dependence have set in, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. It is important to seek medical advice when stopping alcohol consumption.
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse
Alcoholic treatment is available in many formats. Treatment centers, detox units in hospitals and other settings, community support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), and counseling are available. Many agencies have operated around the world for treatment of alcohol dependence.
Most people with long-term or dependence on alcohol consumption will require a medically-monitored detox from alcohol. Some will use other drugs during detox to gain stability for the client. Be sure to speak with a medical professional before attempting to stop drinking if there are any withdrawal symptoms present.