Nearly 70% of people in the U.S. consumed alcohol last year, and though many people do so responsibly, almost 15 million people had an alcohol use disorder in 2019 alone. Alcohol abuse, addiction and dependence result in tremendous physical, mental, social and financial burdens, but those addicted often struggle to see the risks.
Alcohol addiction affects millions directly and indirectly, so it is imperative that people understand what makes alcohol so problematic, how to identify problematic drinking, and how to access services for those in need. The problem is significant, but effective help is available.
Abuse, Addiction, and Heavy Drinkers: Know the Difference
The field of alcoholism is full of terms that can be confusing and hard to distinguish. Though the differences may be subtle, they are important to grasp fully. Some of the most common terms used in alcohol treatment include:
- Binge drinking: a quick rate of drinking that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or higher in less than two hours, which equals at least five drinks for men and four for women.
- Heavy drinking: a pattern of excessive drinking defined as drinking 14 or more drinks per week for men or seven or more drinks per week for women. It is also defined as binge drinking for five or more days in the past month.
- Abuse: a loose term used to describe some level of unwanted, dangerous or problematic alcohol consumption. The definition is not standardized so different groups may label alcohol abuse differently.
- Physical dependence: a physiological state where a person’s body and brain require a certain level of alcohol to feel well and function normally. Without alcohol in the system, withdrawal symptoms will occur.
- Addiction: a psychological disease where the person is consumed with thoughts of alcohol and spends excessive time trying to get and use the substance. It has no cure, but treatment can help a person overcome it.
- Alcohol use disorder: a mental health diagnosis that combines aspects of addiction and dependence into one condition, specific to alcohol use. A person with an alcohol use disorder can’t stop or control alcohol use despite negative social, health, financial or professional consequences.
These labels are frequently challenging because addiction and dependence are hard to measure. Additionally, people tend to under-report their drinking to others as they rarely account for larger sessions or more potent drinks.
We can help answer your questions and talk through any concerns.
The 5 Types of Alcoholics
Adding to the challenge is that not all people with alcohol use issues will show similar behaviors or symptoms. Some will be unable to function, while others will maintain their work, relationships and financial stability, complicating the clinical picture.
People who abuse alcohol may fit into one of the five types of alcoholics:
- Young Adult: typically a twenty-something who consumes most of their alcohol during Most young adult alcoholics have a family history of alcoholism. They’re also the least likely to seek help for their condition.
- Young antisocial: people who started drinking at a very early age and continue with binge drinking or heavy alcohol use. More than half of them will show antisocial personality traits like legal involvement, lying, fighting, impulsivity and a lack of remorse.
- Functional: middle-aged drinkers who tend to maintain employment and a marriage. Binge drinking may be a regular part of their lifestyle. They are likely educated and have low rates of legal involvement, which could convince the person that they do not need treatment.
- Intermediate familial: older people who likely grew up with an alcoholic in the family. These people have high employment rates and high rates of other co-occurring mental health and addiction issues.
- Chronic severe: the rarest type of alcoholic that drinks about two out of every three days. This group has a high rate of divorce, mental health issues and rate of unemployment. They note the impact of alcohol on their physical, social, legal and financial health and are the most likely to seek professional treatment.
How Alcohol Affects the Body
Alcohol is a substance that acts as a depressant, slowing down the functionality of the central nervous system and other parts of the body. This is why when you drink, particularly excessively, you may have slurred speech, coordination problems and slowed reaction times.
Alcohol has a significant impact on the thinking and logical reasoning skills of the person drinking it. They will often exhibit impaired judgment, which can lead to a likelihood of participating in dangerous or risky behaviors or activities.
In general, alcohol is classified as a depressant, but many of its effects and intensity depend on how much you drink. For example, a single glass of wine may feel stimulating, and you may feel looser or more relaxed. However, drinking alcohol heavily acts like a depressant. The more you drink, the more pronounced these depressive effects can be.
Excessive alcohol use can lead to severe depressive effects, including alcohol poisoning, unconsciousness, coma or even death. There are different levels of alcohol content in different types of drinks. For example, beer tends to have the lowest alcohol content, and liquor has the highest.
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
What Makes Alcohol So Addictive?
People frequently wonder why alcohol is so addictive. A lot of it has to do with how it impacts chemicals in the brain. When you drink, endorphins and dopamine are released in your brain, and they trigger a sense of pleasure. Endorphins from alcohol are released into a certain part of the brain associated with addictive behavior, judgment and decision-making.
When you introduce a substance to your brain that triggers feel-good chemicals, your brain wants more of what led to that trigger. This creates cravings, and eventually, you may lose control of your drinking altogether. This is particularly true in heavy drinkers because the more they drink, the more endorphins are released.
The problem arises as alcohol consumption becomes more regular or more intense. The brain cells slowly reduce their release of pleasant chemical messengers, so a person will drink more to achieve the same result — a process called tolerance.
When tolerance grows, the brain limits its usual release of chemicals because it is so used to getting the effect from alcohol. At this point, physical dependence is taking hold: the brain can only find balance under the influence of alcohol, and an addiction develops.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Many people begin using alcohol because they believe the substance will somehow improve their life. In reality, though, given enough time, alcohol will harm a person’s physical, mental and social health.
Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
Someone addicted to alcohol will frequently show obvious physical signs and symptoms linked to intoxication like:
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Trouble walking
- Involuntary eye movements
A person may smell of alcohol or have many empty bottles in their home or garbage. They may injure themselves from falling or engaging in risky behaviors, or ignore their self-care and hygiene. In the long term, they could become sick more often, lose weight or experience various health issues related to alcohol use.
Psychological Signs of Alcohol Abuse
As alcohol interferes with the brain’s normal functioning, it begins to have a drastically negative influence on the person’s mental health. Some of the psychological signs of alcohol abuse are:
- Rapidly changing moods
- Aggression and anger
- Poor attention, concentration, and memory
- Poor judgment and decision-making skills
- Periods of depression and anxiety
Behavioral & Social Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol abuse, addiction and dependence could trigger a long list of behavioral and social symptoms. As alcohol becomes the main focus, other priorities will seem less important. Common behavioral and social symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Isolating from friends and loved ones
- Spending more time with a new group of friends
- Spending less time engaging in activities that were previously pleasurable
- Making changes to eating, sleeping and activity schedules
- Appearing secretive or lying more often
- Reduced performance at work or school
At times, these signs begin slowly, which makes them challenging to identify. Anyone concerned with the signs of alcohol addiction should consult with a trusted support person for their impression of the situation.
Risk Factors for Alcoholism
It can be difficult to understand that some people will struggle with alcoholism while others will never be affected, even if they consume more. Risk factors typically cause this difference in outcomes.
People with more risk factors will be more likely to encounter issues with alcohol use, and those with fewer risk factors and more protective factors will face less danger. Some risk factors of alcohol addiction include:
- Drinking at an early age
- A family history of alcohol use disorders or other mental health issues
- A personal history of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia
- History of abuse, neglect and other traumatic situations
- Consistent drinking over time
Based on these factors, a person who started drinking as a teen and has a history of depression, trauma and family members with substance use issues will be much more likely than a person without those risk factors. Despite this guideline, all individual differences are impossible to account for.
The Effects of Alcohol Addiction & Abuse on the User
Alcohol abuse and addiction, especially in the long term, have the power to damage each part of a person’s health and well-being. Physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually, alcohol can destroy lives.
Some possible health outcomes of alcohol addiction include:
- Liver disease
- Digestive issues with the esophagus and pancreas
- Heart problems due to high blood pressure, enlarged heart, arrhythmia and stroke
- New and worsening diabetic symptoms
- Sexual and reproductive problems
- Nervous system issues like memory loss and dementia
- Increased risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, colon, and breast
With increased rates of co-occurring mental health issues, alcohol use greatly affects a person’s psychological health.
The Effects of Alcohol Addiction & Abuse on Loved Ones
Watching a loved one deal with addiction and dependence can be a very stressful and uncertain situation. Loved ones often feel powerless and unable to assist their friends and family members, which can foster hopelessness, anger, sadness and depression. Other times the loved one can be the victim of the person’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse that arises during a period of intoxication or withdrawal.
When a loved one continues to make poor choices, lie, manipulate, endanger themselves and expose others to their changing mood, people want to take effective action, but they often only enable the person. Enabling occurs when a loved one makes excuses and takes responsibility for the addict’s actions. Thankfully, there are resources designed for family members and friends to help.
Diagnosing Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is not technically a disorder that a professional can diagnose. Instead, alcohol use disorder is the preferred term. Like other substance use disorders, alcohol use disorder involves criteria that must be present to receive the diagnosis.
The symptoms of alcohol use disorder involve:
- Consuming alcohol in larger amounts and/or more often than intended
- Repetitive but unsuccessful attempts to reduce alcohol use
- Spending a lot of time and energy getting, using and recovering from alcohol use
- Noting a strong desire to drink, often called cravings
- Having problems completing obligations at home, work or school
- Using alcohol regardless of its impact on social health and relationships
- Drinking in dangerous situations
- Continuing to drink even when it could cause physical or mental health problems
- Needing to drink more to obtain the desired effects
- Feeling odd, uncomfortable or sick when no alcohol is present in the body
If a person has even two of these symptoms, they could meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
Long-Term Outlook for Alcoholism
The outlook for alcoholism tends to be negative and full of unwelcome consequences. Due to the nature of the substance, its damaging effects tend to grow and accumulate over time, which results in more serious consequences to a person’s health and well-being.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 95,000 people die each year from alcohol-related issues, making alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable death. Any time individuals take steps to end their abuse, addiction and dependence on alcohol, their outlook improves greatly.
We can help answer your questions and talk through any concerns.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options
Alcohol addiction treatment options have a good chance of being effective to those who seek out professional options. The best services are tailored to the individual’s needs, strengths and available support. Treatment providers like The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake offer many levels of care to meet the individual’s needs as a part of their personalized treatment program.
The most intensive level of care is inpatient or residential treatment. Although these services are technically different, they overlap as they both focus on providing around-the-clock care in a professional setting.
In inpatient/residential treatment, the individual leaves their home and stays at the treatment center for the duration of their treatment. This separation from their home environment allows people to focus on recovery without distractions and receive a combination of medical and therapy services.
Any treatment that allows the person to sleep at home is considered an outpatient level of care. These treatments involve a person arriving at the facility, receiving care, then leaving to return to their home or work.
Outpatient treatments vary greatly and can range from many hours of treatment each day in an intensive outpatient program to only a few hours each month. Again, the level of care should match the needs of the client. Like inpatient care, outpatient treatments can include a combination of individual, group and family therapy services.
Detoxification, or detox, generally refers to the body’s ability to process and remove substances like alcohol from the system. Medical detox involves medical and mental health experts supervising and supporting the patient to increase their comfort and safety of the withdrawal process.
Detoxification treatment can reduce the discomfort and danger usually associated with stopping alcohol use. Depending on the individual’s level of use, age and previous withdrawal experiences, alcohol detox can be performed on an inpatient or outpatient basis.
Longer periods of treatment relate to longer periods of recovery, so aftercare is always encouraged. Before leaving a rehab facility like The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake, case managers help you create a relapse prevention plan and provide additional resources. Aftercare resources could include professional therapists or counselors or non-professional treatments like support groups.
Support groups, like AA, do not offer treatment from trained and experienced clinicians. Instead, they provide a level of peer-guided assistance, which helps build a sense of community and fellowship no matter where a person is in the recovery process.
Alcohol Abuse Facts and Statistics in Colorado
Many people in Colorado and nationwide are often shocked when they hear current alcohol statistics. Alcohol has become such an ingrained part of life in our society. It’s glamorized on television and in movies, and it seems like a favorite national pastime for many people, but alcohol abuse can contribute to many physical and mental consequences. It’s important for people in Colorado and throughout the U.S. to understand the real facts about alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
The following are some national alcohol abuse facts and statistics:
- More than 85% of people over 18 said they drank at some point in their life, and 70% said they drank in the past year.
- Nearly 27% of people aged 18 and older reported that they had engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
- Only 7% of people aged 12 or older with an alcohol use disorder received treatment in 2019.
- More than 414,000 estimated young people between the ages of 12 and 17 reported having an alcohol use disorder in 2019.
- There are around 95,000 deaths related to alcohol each year, making it the fourth-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
Considering the pervasive impact alcohol has nationwide, The Recovery Village surveyed over two thousand respondents to understand how alcohol abuse impacts them. We found:
- 47% of respondents qualified as heavy drinkers, meaning they binge drank on five or more days in the past month.
- 54% of drinkers reported alcohol negatively affects their physical health, and 45% said it impacted their mental health.
- 42% report drinking damages their relationships.
- Heavy drinkers were 96% more likely to have their abilities as parents affected and 66% more likely to experience a legal issue.
- Heavy drinkers double their risk for dangerous health complications, including liver disease, cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, nerve damage and pancreatitis.
- Heavy drinkers were also 73% more likely to have seizures and 48% more likely to have cancer.
- Sadly, 36% reported that they did not or would not receive help from professionals to improve their symptoms.
Find the Help You or Your Loved One Need
Taking the step towards treatment for an alcohol use disorder takes a willingness to admit there is a problem and the bravery to seek a solution. Anyone hoping to gain control over their alcohol use and begin a period of health recovery should consider The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake.
With evidence-based treatment programs and compassionate staff, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake can encourage the lasting health and recovery needed for you or your loved one. Contact us to start the process today.
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Because alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous – and even kill you – make sure you have medical advice from your doctor or a rehab facility when you decide to stop drinking.
There are many misconceptions about alcoholism that make it sound like an alcoholic is an easy person to spot, however, many alcoholics function effectively and lead relatively normal lives.
An alcohol abuse problem can include binge drinking, having negative consequences such as hangovers with your drinking but continuing anyway, and drinking despite the desire to stop.
In a recent study by The Recovery Village, 44% of respondents reported abusing alcohol in an attempt to ease uncomfortable feelings that stem from underlying anxiety.
Drinking more than three drinks in a single sitting will temporarily cause your blood pressure to rise, but extended binge drinking or regular alcohol consumption can cause a permanent increase in blood pressure.
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American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013. Accessed April 24, 2021.
Thompson, Warren. “Alcoholism: Practice Essentials.” Medscape, March 23, 2020. Accessed April 24, 2021.
Clapp, Peter et al. “How Adaptation of the Brain to Alcohol Leads to Dependence.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008. Accessed April 24, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” December 2020. Accessed April 24, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” Accessed April 24, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Fact and Statistics.” February 2021. Accessed April 24, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” Accessed April 24, 2021.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Alcohol Use in Families.” May 2019. Accessed April 24, 2021.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indi[…]Drug Use and Health.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September 2020. Accessed April 24, 2021.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.