How does someone become an alcoholic? This question gets asked all too often at the end of the process of becoming one instead of at the beginning. Most ask only after the addiction has taken hold, a person’s life has suffered disruption, and alcohol’s devastating physical toll begins to show.
While most people can drink alcohol in moderation and develop few or no ill effects, others carry genetic predispositions and have been exposed to dangerous environmental factors that can lead to alcoholism.
What Is Alcoholism
Alcoholism occurs when prolonged contact with alcohol develops physical and mental dependency. Some of the most common warning signs include:
- Cravings, or a strong urge to drink
- Loss of control or the inability to halt drinking once it starts
- Physical withdrawal symptoms such as shaking (also know as delirium tremens), anxiety, upset stomach, or other symptoms that appear when not drinking
- Increased tolerance, leading to needing more alcohol to get drunk
Knowing the warning signs can help the alcoholic, or his or her loved one, determine when the individual needs medical help to break free of addiction.
Statistics of Alcohol’s Impact on the Country
America has always had a dangerous relationship with alcohol. In the American culture, the social acceptance of drinking combines with the idea that alcohol can fix one’s mood after a bad day or a traumatic life event. The prevalence of alcohol in American life is staggering. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 86 percent of Americans reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Over half reported having a drink in the last month. Over one third of children 15 and older reported drinking at least once.
Alcohol use disorder affects millions. The federal government estimates that over 15 million people suffer from some form of alcoholism or Alcohol Use Disorder. Almost ten million of these are men. Less than seven percent of those estimated to deal with alcoholism seek treatment.
Behind tobacco and inactive lifestyles, alcohol ranks as the third leading health-related killer in the United States, with 88,000 deaths reported every year. These range from traffic fatalities to tragic and painful terminal illnesses.
Studies have shown that early use of alcohol serves as a precursor to alcohol abuse and addiction later in life. In fact, 47 percent of those who used alcohol before the age of 14 eventually developed some dependence or addiction issues. Those who started young developed a wider range of alcohol-related problems and health issues than those who started drinking later. Luckily, the number of people aged between 12 and 20 has declined by three percent between 2001 and 2011. Binge drinking in this age range also declined by an even sharper four percent.
Some Have a Genetic Predisposition to Alcoholism
Although science has not isolated a specific “alcoholism gene,” experts agree that a genetic predisposition that makes certain individuals more vulnerable to alcoholism can exist. The predisposition lies in combinations of traits over hundreds of pieces of DNA, making it impossible to isolate or treat it genetically.
It does mean that when someone comes from a family line of alcoholics, they should remain aware of their potential vulnerability when choosing whether or not to drink, and also how much to drink. The dysfunction that often follows alcoholic families can create environmental impacts difficult to distinguish from genetic effects.
At the end of the day, it does not matter if the predisposition comes from genetics or environment. Children of alcoholic families have a much higher risk of becoming alcoholics.
Family History and Environment Can Contribute to Alcoholism
Non-genetic factors have a powerful impact on the development of alcoholism, particularly when they encourage drinking as an important way to have fun or dull psychological pain.
Family has the strongest impact. Children develop attitudes toward alcohol based upon social cues given by family. When adult family members encourage the notion that fun times must include drinking or that sadness or stress can be alleviated by alcohol, it encourages unhealthy attitudes that can develop into problems later on. This can grow especially harmful when the family does not practice drinking discipline around children or if no respected voices urge restraint or caution.
The environmental factors extend beyond the impact of family. Friends and other adults’ attitudes can have a strong effect, but not as much as that of media and popular culture. Popular music from country’s love of beer and whiskey to rap’s embrace of high-end liquor pushes alcohol use and abuse, as does the rise of advertising and other media encouragement of women consuming more wine. The ultra-cool James Bond character’s most recognizable line refers to how he likes his martini — “shaken, not stirred.”
The encouragement to consume rarely comes with a message of consequences, leaving media reinforcement of alcohol consumption virtually unchecked at times. Those who come from dysfunctional childhood environments may be more susceptible to these messages than those who don’t.
Stages of Becoming an Alcoholic
Alcoholism develops in stages that others can readily notice, but that the individual himself will deny signifies a problem. These stages serve as reliable signs that alcoholism may develop, but the early ones don’t definitively mean the individual has developed dangerous dependency yet.
The first stage of alcoholism comes when a new drinker feels an urge to continually test his or her limits. This often materializes as binge drinking, defined as five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. For women, the defining number is four.
Binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can result in coma or even death. It also lowers inhibitions and reaction ability, leading to more dangerous behavior and increased likelihood of injury or death. When done repeatedly over a period of time, it can affect the brain and body in such a way as to increase tolerances and develop addictive dependence.
Next comes increased drinking. As tolerances drop, the drinker has to consume more alcohol to get the same effect. The potential alcoholic will also increasingly drink outside of social situations to alleviate problems such as:
- Needing an excuse to socialize
- Alleviating anxiety or stress
- Coping with boredom
- Coping with sadness, loneliness, or depression
When the individual combines this with a childhood and environment continually bombarding him with unhealthy messages about drinking, this can push the person further towards addiction.
The person will also develop an unhealthy emotional attachment to drinking when a problem develops. Regular alcohol use grows into a part of life deemed essential by the drinker.
The third stage comes when drinking becomes a problem that interferes with family life, employment, health, and well-being. At this point, the person is getting very close to clinical alcoholism and has started suffering from some of the effects of the disease. Those at this stage of alcoholism often experience a radical change in lifestyle, pulling away from long-time healthy relationships and embracing a new group of friends.
They may also have trouble in their marriage or other long-term relationship if they have one. Job performance will suffer as the drinker will struggle to avoid alcohol at work. Social activity and even the ability to hold a normal conversation will diminish.
Dependency on alcohol serves as the fourth step. Experts agree that at this point, a person has developed the disease of alcoholism. The drinker and those still around him or her all have an awareness of alcohol’s damaging impact, but the individual no longer can control their drinking. Tolerances have grown high and the individual must drink large amounts to get the same “buzzed” or drunk sensation, which further damages the body.
Symptoms of dependence include nausea unrelated to hangovers, increased anxiety or irritability, body tremors, a racing heart, and other signs of physical withdrawal.
In the final stage, alcohol completely takes over the addict’s life. He or she no longer cares about drinking for pleasure. Life centers around obtaining and consuming alcohol to the detriment of all other activities.
Long-Term Alcohol Use Affects the Brain
Long-term alcohol abuse produces a powerful effect on the brain, increasing dependence while decreasing healthy brain function. The brain relies on chemical neurotransmitters to function properly. These govern both physical responses and mental judgment. Alcohol slows their function and also affects their balance, producing the symptoms of intoxication.
Over time, the brain’s function changes to accommodate the effects of alcohol. Studies show that the impacts include reduced cognitive function, an accentuated tendency towards distraction, and the degeneration of problem-solving due to decreasing ability to judge the importance of different types of information. As such, the alcoholic develops learned helplessness and overly depends on others for basic needs.
Physical Consequences of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol functions as an intoxicant, but it affects the body just like a poison in many ways. Long-term effects can cause severe damage to a number of vital organs.
The heart can suffer a variety of dangerous effects from long term alcohol abuse or even a single binge drinking event. One of the most serious conditions that can occur is cardiomyopathy, which is the stretching and drooping of the heart muscle. High blood pressure and irregular heartbeat can also result. Blood flow problems can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Most often, alcohol can severely damage the liver. Livers help to filter toxins from the blood and loss of function can lead to catastrophic failure of other organs. Long term-abuse can lead to cirrhosis, fibrosis, fatty liver, and alcoholic hepatitis. If the liver fails, toxins invade other organs, including the brain, and cause massive shutdowns leading to death. The patient will often feel excruciating pain during this process and lose many physical abilities.
Alcohol can also affect the pancreas, an organ responsible for producing glucose-regulating insulin. It can cause the pancreas to produce toxins while developing the condition of pancreatitis. This is a serious inflammation. Loss of pancreas function leads directly to diabetes since the body will no longer be able to regulate its own sugar.
Alcohol abuse has been linked with the development of cancer by a number of studies. The most common cancers associated with alcohol use and abuse are those of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast.
Recovery from Alcoholism
Alcoholism is one of the most prevalent addictions and also one of the most difficult to escape. When the body has grown dependent on alcohol, the physical signs of withdrawal can pose a serious challenge to recovery. Once the alcoholic has started requiring alcohol consumption to feel normal — for example, to reduce anxiety or eliminate hand tremors — then experts say treatment should only be done under medical supervision.
Alcohol recovery starts with detox, ridding the body of alcohol toxins while dealing with the withdrawal symptoms. Experts warn that detoxing from alcohol could produce dangerous physical effects if the body has grown overly tolerant of alcohol. Depending on the severity of the condition and the body’s dependence on alcohol, a physician could recommend an inpatient or outpatient option.
Inpatient care is for serious cases where the patient needs round-the-clock supervision. This can be needed when the body’s health is significantly impaired by alcohol or when the patient cannot control his or her actions enough to live on their own. Outpatient treatment involves the patient living at home, receiving counseling, and possibly also medication.
Reach Out to Help an Alcoholic Today
If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism, don’t try to tackle the problem alone. Self-treatment can be very risky. Recovery Oasis has a staff of caring medical professionals and counselors with the expertise to understand treatment of all addictions, including alcohol. Contact us today to discuss.
Alcoholism is a disease and the best road to recovery runs through a treatment program staffed by experts who understand addiction along with its impact on patients and families. Reach out to us today to schedule an appointment or to ask any questions about our programs.