The Dark Side of Drinking

Having a glass of wine with dinner, or enjoying a pint at the local pub can help you unwind, and can even offer some health benefits. But alcohol abuse – when intake rises above moderate levels – presents serious health risks like cirrhosis of the liver, and stroke.

Health Hazards

There are many dangers associated with excessive consumption of alcohol. Some are directly linked to drinking, others are subtle consequences of the damage alcohol can cause.

  • Red wine may cause migraine in some susceptible individuals.
  • Alcohol causes weight gain and obesity – it is high in calories with little nutritional value.
  • Nutritional imbalances are caused if drinking interferes with a proper diet.
  • Alcohol can interfere with normal liver function. Cirrhosis of the liver affects one in five heavy drinkers.
  • Alcohol may cause blood pressure to rise, which is linked to the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.
  • Alcohol may be dangerous if it is mixed with some medications.
  • Alcohol can provoke melancholy or aggression.
  • Frequent drinkers risk developing problem drinking and alcohol dependence.
  • Pregnant women who drink heavily may cause their baby to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Consumption of more than 56 units a week in pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, cleft palate and mental retardation.
  • Heavy consumption of alcohol is linked with infertility.
  • Excessive drinking leads to increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, gullet, stomach and liver, and possibly also breast and colon.

Social Drinking or Problem Drinking?

There are several warning signs that drinking is getting out of control. You should consider cutting down if you find that you are using alcohol to deal with stress and crises, are organizing your life around the availability of alcohol, developing obsessive attitudes towards alcohol or suffering from frequent hangovers.

Common signs of problem drinking are regular absences from work because of hangovers, family conflicts after drinking, and financial difficulties caused by spending money on drink. Other signs that drinking has become a problem include accidents or injuries due to drinking, forgetting what happened during drinking sessions, and feelings of anger, denial or guilt when others comment on alcohol intake or behaviour.

As well as the potential for causing health problems, financial difficulties, job loss, family breakdown and criminal involvement, about one in 20 of those affected by problem drinking will become alcohol dependent.

Alcohol Dependence

A drinking habit that has developed into an addiction is known as alcohol dependence. If the alcohol intake is not maintained, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms result and the person must drink compulsively to avoid them. Withdrawal symptoms include bodily tremors (‘the shakes’), anxiety and restlessness, sweating, delusions, hallucinations and delirium.

People with drinking problems that have reached this stage are unlikely to be able to stop drinking unaided, and will need professional help to conquer their addiction. Once this is achieved they will usually have to abstain totally from alcohol for the rest of their lives – there is a high risk of relapse into alcoholism with even ‘one little drink’.

Recognizing Alcohol Dependence

Signs of possible addiction to alcohol include waking up feeling shaky and sweaty; needing a drink in the morning; needing to drink more to achieve the same effect; and drinking large quantities without feeling drunk. Many of the indicators of problem drinking may also be signs of developing alcohol dependence.

Most problem drinkers deny their problem. If you are concerned about someone’s drinking, signs include changes in mood and behaviour, memory lapses or confusion about recent conversations and events, unreliability at work or at home, drinking alone or in secret and lying about drinking, neglecting their personal appearance, trembling hands and regular vomiting.

Treatment of Alcohol Dependence

The first priority is to get the alcoholic through the symptoms of physical withdrawal when intake is stopped. This process often involves residential treatment.

The next phase is to devise a strategy to help the problem drinker to avoid relapse. Ways of helping a recovering alcoholic to stay off alcohol include counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and aversion therapy.

How to Help an Alcoholic

The only person who has control over a problem drinker’s drinking is the problem drinker, but you can encourage and support his or her efforts to get better. Discuss the problem when the drinker is sober and focus on the effects the drinking is having on his or her life. Encourage the drinker to take responsibility for his or her behaviour and to seek help from a professional or a support group.

If the problem drinker is your spouse or a close relative, be sure to take care of yourself, maintain separate interests and seek support outside the relationship.

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