When you are addicted to alcohol, the whole of society is your enemy: TV shows, their commercials, your neighbours in your free time, the family at big holiday gatherings, entire aisles in shops that convey the message that “you’ll feel better if you drink alcohol.”
Every year, three million people die because they believed this lie, and bet their lives on it. The World Health Organization says that out of every 100 deaths, five are due to some misfortune brought on by drinking. Drinking is responsible for over 200 diseases and disabilities that don’t take age into account. In fact, alcohol-related deaths and disabilities tend to occur at a relatively young age. For example, according to the WHO, 13.5% of deaths among people between the ages of 20 and 39 are caused by drink—something that is supposed to “make you feel good.”
Addicted to alcohol: The problem
Alcohol is a psychoactive substance, meaning it has effects on the psyche, but it is also a toxic substance that produces addiction, which makes the psychological benefits felt after consumption last for a very short amount of time. Soon enough, they are replaced with irritability, anxiety, depression, and antisocial personality disorders. Specialists have long since discovered that alcoholism is, in most cases, a “dual diagnosis” because it is often applied in conjunction with at least one other psychiatric diagnosis. The more severe the alcohol consumption, the stronger its association with psychiatric disorders, and unfortunately, the reverse is also true: the more severe the mental disorder, the stronger its association with abusive consumption of psychoactive substances.
Common diseases affecting those addicted to alcohol
Alcohol leaves visible traces on the body. Even a single episode of binge drinking (just like binging on a series, it means drinking alcohol until you lose track of time) can result in major physical deficiencies, or even death, experts say. When the body receives more alcohol than it can metabolize, the excess accumulates in the bloodstream. The heart makes alcohol circulate throughout the body, which causes chemical and physiological changes, meaning it affects the normal functioning of the body.
Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, so the liver is the organ that suffers the highest risk of damage. Fatty liver disease occurs in chronic drinkers, because alcohol disrupts fat metabolism, and excess fat is forced to accumulate in the liver. Alcohol is also to blame for inflammation of the liver, which, maintained for a long time, leads to alcoholic hepatitis, which damages the liver tissue by scarring it. When scar tissue completely invades the liver, making it hard and irregular, we can also speak of cirrhosis, a condition in which the liver can no longer perform its functions that support the life of the body. Cirrhosis is a disease that produces symptoms only when it is in a very advanced stage. The final stage of untreated cirrhosis, as well as that sustained by continuous alcohol consumption, is the failure of other vital organs that depend on the liver, and death.
However, the liver may not be the first to suffer. When it metabolizes alcohol, the body turns it into a substance called acetaldehyde, which is both toxic and carcinogenic (it causes cancer). Among the most common types of cancer caused by chronic alcohol consumption are oral cancers: mouth cancer, cancer of the oesophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum, and even breast cancer. People who accompany alcohol with tobacco have an even higher risk of cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract and respiratory system.
Pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas, which often requires hospitalization, is another consequence of alcohol consumption. Chronic alcohol exposure is the cause of 70% of pancreatitis cases. Then there are gastrointestinal issues: ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, and gastritis (the inflammation of the stomach lining). Vitamin deficiencies, which can become so severe that they lead to anaemia or even osteoporosis, are also frequent.
People who consume excessive amounts of alcohol are much more likely to risk breaking their spine than those who don’t drink. Moreover, teenagers who drink alcohol are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis later in life. How many of them, or even adults, know that an episode of binge drinking can lead to complications as serious as a heart attack?
The effects of alcohol on weakening the immune system and predisposing the body to infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even HIV are equally little known to drinkers. Even fewer know that alcohol causes brain damage that goes beyond blurred vision, memory loss, or impaired speech and coordination. Alcohol prevents the functioning of receptors and neurotransmitters, and this can affect the cognitive functions of the drinker, their mood, emotions, and reactions on many levels. Excessive and long-term alcohol consumption can speed up the natural aging process of the brain, leading to the premature and irreversible onset of dementia.
Because the brain continues to develop even after 24 years old, young people are especially vulnerable to this. Specialists in the treatment of alcohol abuse say that the first episode of acute intoxication occurs most often in mid-adolescence, and the age of the onset of addiction peaks between 18 and 25 years old.
Bread and butter
With so many severe consequences on the horizon, society remains the biggest threat to an alcoholic because it is what sprinkles glossy marketing over this plague, which is profitable for the alcohol industry, but destructive for the consumer. Alcohol is a source of tax revenue for the government, but also the bread and butter for those who work at bars, restaurants, and even for those in the agricultural sector, who supply the ingredients for alcoholic products.
What helps those addicted to alcohol?
Alcohol withdrawal, which occurs when stopping or reducing alcohol consumption, is considered an emergency because, in its most serious manifestations, it can lead to convulsions, hallucinations, and delirium, which can endanger the life of the patient and those around them.
Patients admitted for alcohol detoxification receive drug treatment designed to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and help the patients to safely overcome the acute period that follows the cessation of consumption. Patients suffering from alcohol abuse may be hospitalized voluntarily (by wilfully going to specialist consultation, usually performed by a psychiatrist) or involuntarily (when the patient is aggressive and poses a danger to themselves or those around them, they can be hospitalized even without their consent, by a relative, ambulance medical staff, or the police). For voluntary hospitalization, the patient must provide a referral from their family doctor, a certificate from their workplace showing the number of days of medical leave taken in the current year, their health certificate proving that they are insured, and their identity card, both the original and a copy.
The first step towards hospitalization is an appointment with a psychiatrist, who will gather information about the patient’s medical history and their consumption habits. They will assess the overall health at the time of consultation and will recommend specific tests (such as the ones which assess liver health). The patient is then put onto a pharmacological treatment that will support them during the critical withdrawal period, but also after it. The patient in treatment needs to rest, sleep about 12 hours a day, hydrate by consuming more than 2 litres of water daily, and correct the vitamin deficiencies (especially of the B complex) that occur in most cases of alcohol abuse. Patients who suffer from other psychiatric disorders in addition to alcoholism will be supported by treating these conditions simultaneously with their addiction.
In addition to drug treatment, alcohol addiction can also be combated by non-pharmacological means. According to specialists, psychosocial interventions can be used alone or in combination with pharmacotherapy, with strong evidence demonstrating their effectiveness in reducing alcohol consumption, increasing the number of days of abstinence, and improving overall functioning. The most commonly used psychosocial approaches that have received consistent empirical support are short interventions, motivational approaches, and various forms of cognitive-behavioural therapy (including skills training, self-management, relapse prevention, and couples therapy).
The beginning of a journey
The most important thing to remember from the information above is that alcohol addiction can be combated with the appropriate medical, specialist, and social support. Withdrawal symptoms, which frighten many, are by no means the end of the journey but, on the contrary, the beginning of a new one.
Abstinence, cleansing the body of alcohol toxins, and restoring physical and emotional balance are possible. Experts from ALIAT (Romanian Alliance for the Fight Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction) advise those who want to stop drinking to look for communities of people who have gone through the symptoms of withdrawal successfully: “It is desirable to look for a support group (today, on Facebook, it is very easy to find them) because they can help you in unsuspected ways. Human solidarity works wonders.”
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.