Alcoholism is an affliction affecting millions of people across the world today. Warning signs for victims of alcoholism are apparent least of all to the addicted person and more obvious to those around them. The affliction of alcoholism causes a level of extreme denial to the user that allows the disease to continue to flourish. Alcoholism is defined by the American Medical Association as a disease- more specifically, “a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations." Alcoholism is believed to be inherited genetically, and the proof of that is rather prolific, as children and grandchildren of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics themselves, whereas families with no alcoholics present tend to stay that way.
Alcoholism has lasting and devastating negative effects on the body and a persons well-being, such as cirrhosis of the liver, multiple sclerosis, nerve damage, “wet brain” (which is the condition wherein the brain is permanently saturated with alcohol) as well as domestic and legal fallout of the alcoholics life.
Other addictions tend to pair themselves with alcohol addiction, usually in the realm of other substances like opiates, cocaine, marijuana, and so on. The “addict” part of an alcoholic knows no bounds and the disease flourishes across all realms in order to attempt to “fill the bottomless pit.”
Once the alcoholic decides to quit drinking, depending on the severity and the level of the addiction prior to abstinence, alcohol withdrawals, as opposed to the withdrawals from any other substance, can actually be lethal, causing things like seizures and delirium tremens.
Warning Signs of Alcoholism
At first, the rise of alcoholism can be hard to see. It can happen at any age under any circumstances, and in American society (as well as most others across the globe) heavy drinking is not that all uncommon. But eventually, the alcoholic will eventually begin to stand out against the rest of the “normal” drinking population.
First and foremost, the main warning sign that someone may in fact be an alcoholic is their consistent drinking at any time of the day, especially in the evening. It is most common for people to drink during the evening, but usually on weekends. An alcoholic will drink on weekends like everyone else, then slowly more and more during the week, and the drinking schedule will start to become earlier and earlier until they start their drinking first thing in the morning.
The alcoholic will become reckless with their drinking and drink at times such as before driving or important events that require them to be sober. They will stay drunk for long periods of time, as well as start to isolate and drink alone.
Once the alcoholic takes the first drink, an allergic reaction takes place within the body and an obsession to continue drinking takes over their mind. The alcoholics willpower is beyond helping in these situations- the ailment is physical, like diabetes or a mental illness. They cannot control the impulse on sheer volition alone. They “must” keep drinking and everything else takes the back seat to that.
The obsession to drink after the allergic reaction has been triggered, even by the smallest amount of alcohol, causes the alcoholic to drink more and more. Over time, a greater tolerance to alcohol develops, thus causing the alcoholic to drink much more than they did in earlier days, thus leading to the threat of bodily harm. Blackouts will begin to occur, if they had not already, wherein the drinker does not remember what happened during periods of drinking at all. A blackout is where the minds ability to imprint new memory is inhibited by the sheer amount of alcohol in the brain- there is a technical malfunction.
Alcoholism As A Genetic Disorder
According to an article published through WebMD.com outlining a study done on alcoholism, alcoholism and other disorders such as depression and anxiety are linked to the same genetic background. A study released from the University on Chicago in Illinois shows that a gene referred to as the CREB gene in the brain is what is involved in most of the brains activities pertaining to alcohol, such as “alcohol tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms.”
The study used rats that were genetically modified to be deficient in the carrying of the CREB gene versus other rats that were not. The study found that the deficient rats were consuming up to 50% more of alcoholic fluids presented to them versus the “normal” rats. They also exhibited greater signs of anxiety when taken through rat maze tests, versus the normal rats which seemed to exhibit little to no signs of anxiety.
Another observation made was that the rats deficient in the CREB gene displayed less anxiety after drinking alcoholic fluids than the normal rats did, suggesting that using alcohol as a coping mechanism was evident in rats, as it is in alcoholic humans, thus drawing the conclusion that such a mechanism is a genetic trigger. It mirrored the observation that alcoholics use alcohol to cope with their inherent anxiety and depression, both being linked to the CREB gene as well.
The part of the brain that houses the CREB gene and its functions is referred to as the central amygdala. The final observation in the study showed that the CREB protein was found to be at higher levels in the modified rats versus the normal ones, suggesting that the biology of the modified rats dictated the need for a higher ability to metastasize alcohol, possibly due to a higher sensitivity and “need” for it.
This study showed that a higher sensitivity to alcohol and a more dramatic effect created by alcohol in the brain is linked to the CREB gene, concluding that, one, the CREB gene may be referred to as the “Alcoholism Gene” and, two, that alcoholism is both a genetically inherited trait and linked to anxiety and depression, which are found to be paired most prolifically with alcoholism.
The Effects of Alcoholism Upon the Body
The effects of excessive alcohol consumption on the body can be widespread, permanent, and lethal. There are several ways that alcoholism affects the body of the addicted person, both biologically, psychologically and emotionally.
According to an article published online by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the main areas that excessive, prolonged drinking can affect are the brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system.
The way that alcoholism affects the brain is by disrupting the communication pathways that connect the brain. This can lead to the brain actually becoming slightly misshapen, which over long periods of time and heavy drinking can become permanent, i.e. wet-brain and delirium, along with other mental illnesses. This is what also causes blackouts- the communicators in the brain that allow memory to become imprinted are disrupted to the point they cease working for a time. This effect on the brain also causes changes in mood and behavior, leading people to become different things like overly happy and loving to everyone around them, people who cry excessively or become unusually angry, more flirtatious, and so on. People become their “drunk selves”. This is from the warping of the mind and hyperactivity of certain areas of the brain (and by proximity, the dulling of other areas) that is caused from the presence of alcohol.
The physiological effects of alcohol on the heart are similar in appearance to those same effects on the brain. Over prolonged periods of consistent drinking, the heart can also become warped and lead to something called cardiomyopathy, which is the stretching or drooping of the heart muscle. Other things that can happen to the heart are arrhythmias, which is where the heart beats irregularly, clotting in the arteries and veins leading to strokes, and the most common and early symptom of heart problems caused by drinking: high blood pressure.
The liver takes the hardest hit over time from long-term drinking. Something called steatosis of the liver can occur, which is where the liver starts to turn into fat. This alone can be life-threatening, for it can lead to liver failure and eventual coma.
Alcoholic hepatitis is when the liver begins to swell and become damaged, also leading to the possibility of liver failure. As suggested by its name, this also comes solely from excessive, prolonged drinking of alcohol. Loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pains, fever, vomiting and jaundice are all symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis. Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes and can be caused by several different things, such as excessive breakdown of the red blood cells from other disorders, blocking of the bile ducts in the digestive system, and liver failure.
Liver fibrosis is where the liver begins to show signs of it healing itself after damage, mainly caused by excessive alcohol consumption, thus showing that damage is actually occurring. This is not to say that only excessive alcohol consumption is what can cause liver fibrosis- there are an array of different causes- but drinking too much is a main cause. Liver fibrosis is similar in its processes to the way that skin and other tissues heal themselves via scabbing or scarring.
Cirrhosis of the liver is one of the most well-known and dangerous of the afflictions that are brought on by excessive drinking. This is not to say that any affliction brought upon by prolonged, excessive, daily drinking is better or worse than the other, but cirrhosis is one of the most damaging and debilitating of them all, for it cannot be reversed. People who drink alcoholically are at severe risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis can be considered stage two of liver fibrosis, wherein the damage is so great that it begins to spread to the nervous system. The scarring from the liver damage is so deep that it begins to severely disrupt the livers processes. There are several symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver, as reported by NYTimes.com:
- Fatigue or Loss of Energy
- Poor appetite or weight loss
- Nausea or Belly Pain
- Small, red, spider-like blood vessels on the surface of the skin
- Fluid Buildup in the Legs, otherwise known as Edema
- Fluid Buildup in the Abdomen, otherwise known as Ascites
- Redness on the Palms of the Hands
- In men, impotence (sterility of the semen) shrinking of the testicles and swelling in the breasts
- Easy Bruising or Abnormal Bleeding
- Confusion or Problems Thinking Clearly
- Pale, clay-colored Stool
The best treatment for the conditions, obviously, would be to quit drinking entirely. A low-salt, healthy diet is also a treatment option. One should also get vaccinated for all Hepatitis infection strains. Medications that can be taken for these problems include “water pills” (or diuretics to encourage bowel movements and decrease the amount of fluid buildup within the body) Vitamin K to decrease unusual or excessive bleeding, medications that improve clarity of thought and decrease confusion, and antibiotics for infections.
As previously stated, withdrawals from excessive and prolonged drinking can cause severe conditions that can be fatal or extremely damaging. Such withdrawals, and the fallout thereof, are actually classified as a syndrome, simply called Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS).
Symptoms of AWS can start off as simple things that may be symptoms of a vast amount of other disorders. Such symptoms of AWS include:
- Bodily Tremors
- Nausea and/or Vomiting
- Increased Heart Rate
- Irritability and Confusion
- Unusual Nightmares
Those symptoms can be considered mild and early for what is to come later for someone who has completely quit drinking after drinking alcoholically for a long time. Someone who has decided they need to stop after being a heavy, prolonged drinker so seek medical supervision for their withdrawals, preferably in a detox facility, due to the fact that severe withdrawals can be lethal. The previously stated symptoms would appear early on and worsen into something that is called Delerium Tremens, or DTs.
Delirium Tremens are when the body is going through severe alcohol withdrawals. After such prolonged drinking, the body of the alcoholic becomes dependent on the presence of alcohol. Once the alcohol is removed, severe fallout can occur and take the form of DTs. DTs can be rather terrifying and extremely dangerous, thus calling for the need for medical supervision. DTs can take the form of:
- Extreme Confusion or Agitation
- High Fever
- Heart Disturbances
- Seizures of Varying Severity, all the way up to Grand Mal
- Hallucinations, including:
- Tactile (e.g. itching, burning, numbness)
- Auditory (hearing things that are not there)
- Visual (seeing things that are not there)
Due to the severity of these withdrawals and the close inter-linking of alcohol to the biology of the alcoholic, AWS is the only kind of withdrawal process that is treated, very seldomly, with the very substance that it is withdrawing from. In earlier days, when AWS and DTs were starting to become treated and alcoholism was starting to actually become acknowledged as a disease, patients were given small doses of alcohol during their withdrawals in order to keep the body stable and help them wean off of the drink.
In conclusion, alcoholism is a widespread and devastating recognized disease that affects millions of people around the world. The fallout from the disease is numerous and severe, as are the withdrawals. But treatment and reversal are possible by complete abstinence. It is also recommended that a sick alcoholic attend 12-step meetings and/or seek counseling for their affliction, for it cannot be conquered alone.