Alcohol is heavily engrained in Western culture. Beer and wine are staples at social gatherings and as a way of winding down at the end of a long day.
Despite its prevalence in our culture, alcohol is a major problem for millions of people around the world. In the United States alone, alcohol use is associated with around 88,000 deaths each year.
What makes alcohol go from a casual Saturday night beverage to a life-altering addiction? How much is too much and what can you do if you find yourself or those you love addicted to alcohol?
The Effects of Alcoholism
When we drink alcohol frequently, over several months or years, the body starts to form a tolerance to it. This means that it takes more alcohol to produce the same effects as before.
This is actually an attempt for the body to maintain balance in the body, which is being affected by the frequent alcohol intake.
Neurotransmitters especially are very highly regulated in the body, and anything that causes them to function in different levels — such as alcohol or other drug use — needs to be addressed.
If we were to stop drinking alcohol suddenly, the force pushing us out of balance is no longer there and we counterbalance too far. This is what we refer to as withdrawal.
Withdrawal causes the body to need the substance — in this case, alcohol. Without it we lack the ability to remain in balance (homeostasis), producing a wide range of uncomfortable — and in some cases lethal — side effects.
What most people experience as a hangover is actually a mild form of alcohol withdrawal. That’s how fast our body adapts to the alcohol in an attempt to keep us in balance.
For people that are chronic alcoholics, this is significantly more severe.
They lose the ability to sleep without the alcohol, they become anxious, depressed, and may go into convulsions.
The symptoms are usually more severe the longer they were addicted to alcohol. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be separated by timeframe. This is for chronic alcoholism, not for those having a single binge-drinking session.
Alcohol withdrawal 6-12 hours after ingestion:
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea & vomiting
Alcohol withdrawal 12–48 hours after ingestion:
- Hand tremors
- Severe heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Excessive sweating
- Delirium Tremens
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
Once the initial alcohol withdrawal symptoms have ended, and the body regains its ability to maintain balance (homeostasis) without needing to consume alcohol, there are some more mild, long-term effects.
This is especially common in severe alcoholism. The symptoms of PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year.
Symptoms of PAWS include:
- Low energy
- Poor memory
- Frequent falling
- Slow reflexes
Treatment Options for Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a particularly difficult addiction to treat because it’s often dangerous to quit the drug suddenly. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be so severe, it can result in death if care is not taken to wean off of it first.
Alcoholics often need to go through several weeks or months of treatment to gradually reduce the tolerance and support the body’s ability to maintain balance without the help of the alcohol.
The most Common Treatment Options for Alcoholism
1. Inpatient Rehabilitation
This is the best option for severe alcoholism. It’s the most intensive form of care and involves a full-time stay in a facility with trained nurses, doctors, and counselors to monitor the situation.
Medications and support groups are the mainstay of this form of treatment to help the recovering alcoholic get through the painful symptoms fo withdrawal faster.
Inpatient programs can be 30, 60, or 90 days long depending on the individual program.
They can be very expensive but are the most effective form of treatment for those with severe, life-threatening alcoholism.
2. Outpatient Rehabilitation
Outpatient rehabilitation is a more cost-effective solution but isn’t suitable for severe alcoholism because it means that sufferers will still be around the same triggers and social environments for alcohol consumption.
This form of treatment involves monitoring from counselors, doctors, and nurses, but the patient doesn’t stay in a specified rehabilitation site.
3. Counselling & Support Groups
This is the most common option for most alcoholics because of its low barrier to join, can cost.
Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon are two well-known examples of this form of treatment.
Most patients who go through an inpatient or outpatient treatment program will also go through this stage as well after treatment to help them remain sober and form new habits.
This is a great option for those with mild alcoholism, or who refuse to go to a full-scale rehabilitation center for any reason, but is committed to quitting alcohol with the right support.
- Sacks, J. J., Gonzales, K. R., Bouchery, E. E., Tomedi, L. E., & Brewer, R. D. (2015). 2010 national and state costs of excessive alcohol consumption. American journal of preventive medicine, 49(5), e73-e79.
- World Health Organization, & World Health Organization. Management of Substance Abuse Unit. (2014). Global status report on alcohol and health, 2014. World Health Organization.
- Stahre, M., Roeber, J., Kanny, D., Brewer, R. D., & Zhang, X. (2014). Peer reviewed: contribution of excessive alcohol consumption to deaths and years of potential life lost in the United States. Preventing chronic disease, 11.