It’s the go-to for celebrations, it’s the balm to soothe a broken heart (as every country song will tell you), it’s the “life” of most parties, it’s a social lubricant, and it is also responsible for filling about 40 percent of hospital beds at any given time in the US. Alcohol is legal in all states, accessible in large quantities to those over 21, and is not only socially acceptable but socially expected in many situations.
The old joke goes “What’s the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic? Drunks don’t have to go to all those meetings.” So what really makes someone an alcoholic (besides the meetings)? Additionally, what toll is the culture of drinking taking on our health system and those dealing with a disease that you truly cannot say you have overcome until you die?
Think about it. The only time an alcoholic can say they “beat” alcohol use disorder is on their deathbed after abstaining from the moment they stopped drinking to the time they die. Because alcoholics have a lifetime diagnosis which they will live with every day of their lives. It’s not like cancer, where you can go through treatment and be declared free of the disease. It’s more like Type 1 diabetes, where the person coping with it is faced with the challenges of societal norms and decisions daily.
Recognizing that social drinking has become a problem can be difficult, but defining alcoholism is actually quite simple. Being an alcoholic is more than just someone who drinks every day, or binge drinks on a regular basis. An alcoholic is someone for whom consuming alcohol is an all-consuming force in their life. Their brain is dependent on alcohol and, if they stop drinking, they experience serious withdrawal. It affects their employment, relationships and overall lifestyle. So while most people start drinking to feel good, an alcoholic has to drink so they don’t feel bad and just to feel ”normal”. The website quitalcohol.com has a great article which outlines the signs and symptoms of alcoholism and how to recognize it in your own life.
Drinking by the numbers:
Many will say they went out and only had one drink. But the term “one drink” actually has a definition, which is a beverage containing 14 grams of alcohol. This is equal to one 12 oz beer (5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)), one 5 oz glass of wine (12 percent ABV), or one 1.5 oz shot of hard liquor (40 percent ABV or 80 proof). Most wine drinkers might be surprised to find out that “one” glass of wine they had was actually around 2 “drinks”; and while 12 oz. of commercial beers is usually 5 percent, many craft beers have a much higher ABV content, with some going as high as 15-20%! So that one beer could actually be four drinks!
Moderate alcohol consumption is considered two drinks per day for men and one for women.
Binge drinking– Binge drinking is not simply drinking a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time; it is the process of deliberately consuming more alcohol than the body can metabolize. For men, it’s defined as consuming five (or more) alcoholic drinks within two hours, and for women, it is four (or more) drinks in two hours.
The biggest risk of binge drinking is alcohol poisoning. It is most commonly brought to public attention as the result of the death of college students during pledge week. Basically an alcohol overdose, alcohol poisoning usually involves vomiting, disorientation, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness, and can ultimately result in seizures and cardiac arrest.
The CDC defines heavy drinking as eight or more drinks a week for women, and fifteen or more drinks a week for men. It is important to note that not everyone who occasionally exceeds these limits is an alcoholic. Besides the outward signs, many people do not realize the enormous toll heavy drinking takes on a person’s physical well-being.
Long term effects
Liver disease – the human liver is an amazing organ. More than 500 vital bodily functions are associated with the liver. So if it is not functioning properly, the consequences can range from uncomfortable, to debilitating, to fatal. Since 13% of the body’s blood is contained in the liver at any given time, if that blood contains a high amount of alcohol, it will have adverse effects on the liver itself.
The most common alcohol-related damage to the liver is cirrhosis. Simply put, cirrhosis of the liver is extensive scarring caused by the liver being exposed to harmful toxins (such as alcohol or viral infections) over an extended period of time. For men, this usually means more than 3 drinks a day for 10-12 years, and for women, it’s more than 2 drinks a day for the same amount of time. What’s disturbing is doctors are seeing an increase in liver conditions in millennials. In fact, there was a 10.5% annual increase in the average cirrhosis-related deaths among people in the 25- to 34-year-old age group between 2009 and 2016.
Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart’s muscle tissue as a result of alcohol abuse. The heart itself becomes enlarged, and the muscles become thin and weak due to the toxic effects of alcohol over time. This makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently, leading to heart failure. And, of course, when the heart is not supplying enough oxygenated blood to other parts of the body, other major organs can be affected as well, like the brain.
Brain damage – most of us have seen the immediate effects of someone who has consumed too much alcohol – slurred speech, difficulty walking, blurred vision, slow response times, “blacking out”, and hangovers. But the long-term damage to the brain can be irreversible, even if the person stops drinking. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction estimates that up to 80 percent of alcoholics have a thiamine deficiency which can lead to Warnicke-Karsakoff Syndrome (WKS).
WKS is actually two syndromes
- Warnicke’s encephalopathy – a severe, but short-term condition which can include one or more of the following:
- mental confusion
- paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes (i.e., oculomotor disturbances)
- difficulty with muscle coordination
- Karsakoff’s psychosis – a chronic and debilitating syndrome where the person has severe learning and memory issues, as well as loss of coordination.
The hard truth is alcohol, while legal, can cause irreparable damage to one’s body and well-being. While social norms keep it within reach, there must be a better understanding of how much is too much. So please, drink responsibly, and remember there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption.