ALCOHOL USE DISORDER
Alcohol is a steady presence in most of our lives. It accompanies meals; we celebrate with alcohol; we also turn to it when we need comfort. You can buy alcohol pretty much anywhere, too – something that can’t be said about most other addictive substances.
And for most people, that’s what alcohol is. But for some, alcohol is far worse: every year, 95,000 Americans die from alcohol abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coming out to around 261 deaths each day, alcohol kills by overdoses, fatal DUI incidents, drunken falls, alcohol-fueled assaults, and more.
What Happens When We Drink Alcohol?
When consumed, alcohol affects every system in the body. Step one is the digestive system. Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, gets absorbed into the bloodstream once a drink hits our stomach. This absorption slows down considerably when we eat; drinks hit harder on an empty stomach.
As ethanol travels through our bloodstream, it makes its way to the brain. Once there, we feel its effects. The effects depend on how much we’ve had to drink, ranging from a slight “buzz” to the sensations of being drunk.
Ethanol is broken down by our livers, but there’s a catch – our livers can only process so much alcohol at a given time. As long as ethanol is active in our system, we’ll feel its effects – this is why attempts to sober up with coffee or water doesn’t work. Alcohol processed by the liver gets excreted.
Alcohol has negative effects on the liver as well. Drinking, particularly excessive drinking, can cause fat to build up in our livers, causing fatty liver. Continuing to drink heavily causes more serious conditions to develop, such as alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis. Both of these conditions are medically serious and can be fatal.
How Do People Get Addicted To Alcohol?
There are multiple factors at play when it comes to addiction. When consumed, alcohol causes the brain to release chemicals related to the body’s reward system, creating sensations of pleasure and euphoria – this in turn drives further drinking. For some of us, this release is so powerful it drives further drinking in order to experience the same euphoric feelings again.
However, like all substances it’s possible to build up a resistance to alcohol’s effects, meaning larger amounts of alcohol must be consumed to feel the same effects. Eventually, the body will be trained to need large quantities of alcohol to function normally, which is why heavy drinkers can experience withdrawal effects if they stop drinking suddenly without tapering off.
There may also be genetic factors to drinking. Research by the National Institutes of Health show links between an individual’s genetic makeup and a predisposition to developing alcohol use disorder. Also, alcohol is often used as a coping mechanism, used by some to cope with anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma.
Regardless of why people drink, long-term alcohol abuse always ends in dependence – they’ll need alcohol to function normally. Withdrawal effects from alcohol can be severe and dangerous, including seizures, coma, and hallucinations.
What Happens To Our Brains When We Drink?
Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, affects two chemicals in the brain. One chemical is glutamate is a neurotransmitter which helps nerves send signals to each other. The other is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter which blocks messaging between nerve cells in the brain.
Once in the brain, ethanol binds to glutamate and GABA receptors in the brain. This creates feelings of sleepiness; heavy drinking over a long-term can overload GABA receptors, creating blackouts, and in extreme cases, death. Meanwhile, the brain produces higher amounts of glutamate, causing a chemical imbalance which persists until a person stops drinking.
When a person stops drinking after a long period of heavy abuse, the brain’s functions are strongly interrupted, causing withdrawal symptoms. As we said, withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be very serious – never try to quit drinking on your own.
Is Alcohol Abuse Treatable?
Yes! All substance use disorders are treatable, and alcohol use disorder is no exception. At a recovery center, a person can be guided through alcohol detox in a safe, comfortable, and medically monitored way. Techniques such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) help people resist alcohol cravings as well as withdrawal; various forms of talk therapy allow a person to develop positive coping strategies without the need for addictive substances.
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