Alcohol is a drug that few people recognize as a drug, possibly for several reasons: moderate use of specific types of alcohol, like wine, is sometimes recommended as helpful or healthy by medical professionals, moderate consumption is rarely seen to interfere with or adversely affect an individual’s life, many millions of Americans seem able to imbibe small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis without becoming addicted. However, this cavalier attitude overlooks the facts that it is a drug substance that produces physiological changes in the user’s body, and abuse and addiction are a growing problem in the United States.
Statistics of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s 2012 report on alcohol abuse and addiction include the following statistics:
- Eighty-seven percent of surveyed individuals eighteen and older reported they drank at least once in their life
- Seventy-one percent of surveyed individuals said they drank at least once in the past year
- Fifty-six percent of surveyed individuals reported they drank at least once in the previous month.
- Twenty-four percent of surveyed individuals indicated that they engaged in binge drinking in the month before the survey.
- 7 percent of surveyed individuals indicated that they engaged in heavy drinking in the month before the survey.
- Roughly seventeen million Americans have what is called alcohol use disorder – harmful drinking that has not yet reached the level of dependence and addiction, while only fifteen percent of these individuals seek treatment.
- Nearly eighty-five thousand people die each year from alcohol-related causes, including drunken driving and alcohol poisoning.
- Alcohol problems cost the United States approximately $224 billion annually in lost work productivity, health care, and property damage.
- Nearly ten percent of all American children live with a parent who has an alcohol problem.
- Nearly two thousand college students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four die every year from alcohol-related causes, including motor vehicle accidents in which they are an innocent victim.
- Nearly seven hundred thousand college students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are assaulted by an alcohol-abusing fellow student.
- Ninety-seven thousand college students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault.
- Roughly nine million individuals between the ages of twelve and twenty reported they had consumed alcohol in the month before the survey.
Based on these facts, it becomes clear that drinking alcohol is not simply a safe, recreational activity, but rather a highly dangerous one that creates problems for the individual, those close to him, and indeed society at large.
Different Types of Alcohol Consumption
While it must be remembered that alcohol is a drug and that for some individuals, even a slight amount can be highly dangerous, there are three different types of consumption: moderate drinking, binge drinking and heavy drinking.
Moderate drinking is considered to be low risk, meaning that individuals who drink moderately are unlikely to experience tolerance, dependence, and addiction. For men, this means no more than four alcoholic beverages in a single day, and no more than fourteen alcoholic drinks total in a consecutive seven-day period. For women, this means no more than three alcoholic beverages in a single day, and no more than seven alcoholic drinks total in a consecutive seven-day period. Both parameters must be met because a man can drink a maximum of ten alcoholic beverages in a week, which seems safe, but if he does so all in a single day, he is binge drinking, which is highly dangerous. Additionally, individuals who drink slowly and eat plenty of food while drinking may be less affected by their alcohol consumption. Needless to say, even moderate drinkers should not drive or operate machinery during or after drinking, should not drink alcohol with certain medications, and should not drink alcohol while pregnant.
Binge drinking is defined as drinking high levels of alcohol in a short period so that blood alcohol concentration meets or surpasses 0.08g/dl. This could occur if a woman drinks four alcoholic beverages or a man drinks five alcoholic beverages within a two-hour time span. Binge drinking can seriously injure an individual’s health, even after a single occasion, and can cause severe damage to the liver and other organs.
Heavy drinking is routinely consuming more alcoholic beverages per day or per week than is recommended. Heavy drinkers are not only at high risk for serious health risks and damages but are also at high risk for dependence and addiction problems.
One drink is not based on servings, but rather alcohol content. For example, regular beer normally has a five percent alcohol content, while wine normally has a twelve percent alcohol content and distilled spirits normally have a forty percent alcohol content. One standard drink is usually about fourteen grams of alcohol, which equates to about twelve ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine or one and a half ounces of distilled spirits.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain and Body
While many individuals drink for the initial, temporary stimulating effects, alcohol is a depressant drug, working to slow down the vital functions of the body. Once absorbed into the bloodstream it makes its way to the brain where it slows the functioning of nerve cells. Many individuals who imbibe even a moderate amount may exhibit slurred speech, unsteady movement, reduced perceptions and inhibited reaction times.
Over a period, the constant use of alcohol can cause the body to develop a tolerance to the drug. This necessitates higher doses to achieve the desired effects of sedation or numbing. As use continues, the brain and body change in response to the drug, and become physically dependent on the drug, causing cravings that are difficult to resist. Alcoholism and abuse also causes many undesirable side effects in the body.
In the brain, it can affect the way the brain looks, as well as how it works. The individual may experience changes in their mood and behavior and find it difficult to think clearly or experience coordinated movement.
In the heart, it can cause stretching and drooping of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat, stroke, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
In the liver, it can cause fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. The liver’s job is to clean impurities and toxins from the blood, but regular alcohol consumption can overwhelm the liver, damaging it and leaving toxins in the bloodstream.
In the pancreas, it can cause the production of toxic substances which can lead to inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas.
Alcohol can also weakens the immune system, opening the door to a high possibility of serious illness and disease. Cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast may also occur as a result of frequent consumption.
Alcoholism can cause the individual to experience withdrawal symptoms whenever alcohol content drops below a certain level in their body. Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms are anxiety, trembling, sweating, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, depression, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, hallucinations, confusion, seizures, fever and agitation.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
The goal of rehabilitation is to not only eliminate the abuse from the individual’s life but also to assist the individual in restructuring their life to prevent a future return to drinking. Many successful rehabilitation programs recognize that each person is different, and therefore each person has different needs when it comes to their recovery from alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Regardless of the individual’s needs and the design of a particular facility and program, some of the most critical components of a successful alcohol rehabilitation program include:
- Detoxification – Withdrawing from alcoholism can be a tough, uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous process. A rehab program that helps the individual come off alcohol consumption as gently and comfortably as is possible is critical. It is also critical that such a program be medically supervised since alcohol withdrawal has been known to result in seizures, hallucinations, delirium tremens and in some extreme cases, death.
- Counseling – Individuals who have been using alcohol to suppress unwanted sensations in their life need help in discovering why they turned to alcohol and how they can handle life problems without alcohol.
- Life skills – Life skills education can help an individual learn how to rearrange their life so that they are not in a situation where alcohol use is accepted or likely. Life skills courses can also help an individual learn how to solve life problems without alcohol.
- Aftercare treatment – Achieving a successful recovery from alcohol use is often a difficult process, but it alone does not guarantee ongoing sobriety. An individual needs to receive further support, whether this includes further counseling, meetings for individuals recovering from alcohol abuse and alcoholism, like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or other continuing care.
Alcoholism can be efficiently and fully resolved if the individual receives the right support, encouragement and rehabilitation treatment. Remembering that there is always an underlying cause for alcoholism that can be addressed and resolved gives one hope for a productive, happy and sober future.
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