An estimated eighteen million people suffer from alcoholism in the United States. The actual theory behind what defines or causes alcoholism is debatable; some physicians and scientists contend that alcoholism is not an actual disease. According to Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and author of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
“Alcoholism was never called a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity. Therefore we always called it an illness, or a malady – a far safer term to use.”
Other professionals that do define alcoholism as an actual disease even though the biological functions that dictate the development of alcoholism are uncertain. Research suggests that it may develop due to a genetic predisposition; the origin of those genes and how they function is unknown, however relatively new research has implicated a gene (D2 dopamine receptor gene) that, when inherited in a specific form, might increase a person’s chance of becoming an alcoholic (Emedicinehealth.com).
Overview of Alcoholism
Factors that can produce the symptoms of alcoholism include mental health, physical health, as well as one’s social environment. The term “alcoholic” is a reference to someone who struggles with the symptoms of alcoholism.
The chronic alcohol abuser is very different from those that actually suffer from the disorder of alcoholism. It is very possible to struggle with drinking alcohol but not suffer from all of the symptoms that define alcoholism. This struggle is generally known as “alcohol abuse”; the idea that one drinks too much which then leads to problems in their life, not necessarily a physical dependence on drinking alcohol.
Women have the propensity to develop alcohol dependence about three times faster than men. Their rate of mortality due to alcohol abuse is also much higher. Alcohol metabolizes differently in the female sex due to a particular enzyme (ADH) involved in breaking down the ethanol in liquor, therefore allowing alcohol to absorb into the bloodstream at a much quicker pace. Women prone to alcoholism are more likely to have suffered some type of physical or sexual abuse during their lives.
Those who struggle with alcohol dependence are likely suffering from some type of psychiatric disorder (up to 25 percent battle severe psychiatric disturbances); co-occurring psychiatric diagnosis including panic disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder and depression. The co-occurrence of major depressive disorders and alcoholism is extremely well documented (Grant BF, Harford TC October 1995 – “Comorbidity between DSM-IV alcohol use disorders and major depression”). Instances of impulse disorders or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are also possible co-occurring factors in alcoholics.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
Signs and Symptoms related to Alcohol Dependence Include:
- A physical craving for or mental obsession with alcohol.
- Drinking to relieve the stress of problems and daily life.
- Building a tolerance and needing more in order to feel intoxicated.
- “Blackouts” (i.e., not being able to recall certain events or blocks of time while drinking).
- Hiding, being secretive about levels of usage.
- Structuring activities around drinking habits.
- Personality changes and mood swings.
- Having to drink in order to overcome physical withdrawal symptoms.
- Trying to control drinking by changing types of liquor and or deciding to never before or after certain hours.
Over an extended period of time, excessive use of alcohol can physically affect brain chemistry and develop into a vicious cycle of tolerance, withdrawal, and excessive usage. Alcoholism is a progressive ailment that will only worsen over time. The inability to have any control over the compulsive need to drink, despite awareness of the damage being done to one’s health can strongly indicate addiction.
Long-term alcohol abuse will cause an extensive number of physical ailments that include cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, epilepsy and seizures, and deficiencies in nutrition, dementia, confusion, hallucinations, an increased risk of several types of cancer such as breast cancer (in women) and esophageal cancer. Other physical issues that can occur are damage to the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system (consists of nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord).
Treatment for Alcoholism
Due to the varied theories on alcoholism, treatment can come in many forms. Most approaches towards treatment focus on abstinence and helping an individual build the tools needed in life to prevent them from returning to the use of alcohol. A strong social network and family support are very important in achieving this. Complete abstinence from alcohol can be extremely difficult and many individuals may need to enter alcohol recovery treatment centers on an inpatient or outpatient basis depending on the seriousness of their condition. Through the use of group therapy or psychotherapy, alcoholics have the ability to help resolve any underlying issues that may relate to their addiction. Medication may also be prescribed in order to assist in treatment.
Support in order to remain abstinent in the future is highly suggested; Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a self-help group of recovering alcoholics that offers emotional support and a specific 12-step program to aid in continuing life clean and sober.