April is “Alcohol Awareness Month” and a time when we should stop to take a look at our consumption of alcohol. Many people like to have an occasional drink before dinner or while they are out for an evening with friends. Then there are others who like to have a few drinks before dinner, a bottle or two of wine with their meal, then a nightcap before going home.
These two drinking scenarios are the difference between social consumption and alcohol abuse, maybe even addiction. So why is it that some people are aware of their limits when drinking alcohol and others cannot seem to stop after two or three? Dr. Harold C. Urschel III, Addiction Psychiatrist, and author of Healing the Addicted Brain, states that many patients ask me why this is happening to them. “Everybody I know drinks,” they’ll say. “How come they can drink a little and stop, but I can’t?”
While we cannot say exactly why some people abuse or become addicted to alcohol, we do know that there are certain risk factors that make one person more susceptible to addiction than another. Some of the factors include:
- Genetics – Certain genetic factors, like a family history of substance abuse, may increase one’s vulnerability to addiction.
- Emotional state – High levels of stress, anxiety or emotional pain can lead some people to use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to “block out” the turmoil. The levels and persistence of certain stress hormones may be associated with an easier slide into addiction.
- Psychological factors – Suffering from depression, stress or low self-esteem may make you more likely to use alcohol or drugs excessively. Adults with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder also may be more likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs.
- Social and cultural factors – Having friends or a close partner who drinks or uses regularly — even if not to the point of addiction — could promote excessive drinking. It may be difficult to distance yourself from these “enablers,” or at least from their drinking/using habits. In addition, the way that drinking alcohol is portrayed in the media sends the message that it’s okay to drink excessively.
- Age – People who begin drinking at an early age, by age sixteen or earlier, are at a higher risk of alcohol dependence or abuse.
- Gender – Men are more likely to become dependent on or abuse alcohol than women.
So is there a difference between alcohol abuse and addiction? The answer is yes. People who abuse alcohol, drink regularly enough to affect their family or work responsiblities and their drinking can put them in dangerous situations, but they do not have a physical dependence upon it. People who are alcoholics — those addicted to drinking alcohol — have a chronic disease causing them to be physically dependent, meaning they have developed a tolerance to alcohol, requiring more and more of it to make them feel the same effects. When they try to cut down or stop drinking, they have withdrawal symptoms like sweating, nausea, shakiness, anxiety, severe shaking and confusion. Because of high-tech tools that allow us to view the brain and its functioning, we have learned a great deal about how the excessive consumption of alcohol damages it over time.
“Perhaps the most obvious damage is brain shrinkage caused by the destruction of cells. Months, years, or decades of excessive alcohol consumption cause a healthy, normal-sized brain to shrink. As a result, alcoholics and heavy drinkers literally have less brain matter to work with. This is a fact that has been documented many times,” says Dr. Harold Urschel III, Chief Medical Strategist, Enterhealth.
Most of the shrinkage of the brain occurs in the cortex, which is located just behind the forehead. It plays an important role in memory, judgment, impulse control, problem solving and other intellectual skills, and also influences the regulation of social and sexual behavior. “Damage to this area of the brain makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the addicted person to understand why getting “blitzed” all the time is so dangerous and why it’s important to pay attention to things like work, family, and health.”
The cerebellum and other parts of the cortex are also severely affected by prolonged alcohol use. These parts of the brain regulate thought processes, including reasoning, planning and organizing. They also regulate balance, coordination and all other movements. This is why people are unable to walk a straight line when they get pulled over for drunk driving and why they cannot keep the details of their life in order to properly care for their family or keep a steady job.
The loss of critical brain function is why stopping addiction is more than just a matter of willpower. It requires a change in lifestyle, therapy and possibly medication, plus the continual support of family and friends, and the advice from a medical professional to ensure that the body and brain have a chance to heal.
Be good to your body. Take a serious look at your drinking habits and make a pledge with your loved ones to all follow these recommendations…
- No more than 7 drinks per week for women
- No more than 14 drinks per week for men
…from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Cheers!
April is “Alcohol Awareness Month”
Help for Today. Hope for Tomorrow.
Enterhealth and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
hope you will join this celebration by setting aside 3 days
to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages.
To learn more about Enterhealth’s residential addiction treatment center or Outpatient rehabilitation programs, call 1.800.388.4601 or contact us using this form to talk to your trusted advisor, today!