What Alcohol Dependence Does
THE person who drinks only occasionally, and sparingly, rarely becomes dependent on alcohol. Only a very small percentage of people have no tolerance for it at all.
The vast majority of those who become alcoholics get that way because they drink too much over a long period of time. Without question, the more heavily a person drinks, the greater does he risk becoming dependent on alcohol.
Types of Dependence
To be dependent on alcohol means to be addicted to it. One type of this dependence, or addiction, is psychological. This is a mental or emotional dependence.
In psychological dependence, a person feels a compulsive need for alcohol to relieve his emotional discomforts. He does not want to face life and its problems without the crutch of alcohol. However, he is not yet physically addicted to it.
But psychological dependence often becomes actual physical addiction. Now, not only do the mind and emotions demand the alcohol, but the body does too.
With the prolonged abuse of alcohol, chemical changes take place in the body. The cells and tissues literally become dependent on alcohol and in time do not function well without it. These bodily changes hinder a person’s self-control, so that he craves the alcohol even more.
While he thinks he is relieving his body’s needs by heavy drinking, actually he is setting the stage for a breakdown. Sooner or later, if continued, his addiction will result in severe damage to his body organs and the shortening of his life-span.
The reasons why the body becomes physically addicted are not positively established. Some of the theories include: allergy to alcohol; abnormal sugar metabolism; hormone deficiency of the thyroid, pituitary or adrenal glands; a dietary or metabolic deficiency of vitamins, minerals, enzymes or other nutrients; liver dysfunction; and a defective hypothalamus, which causes an uncontrollable thirst for alcohol.
How long does it take a person who begins drinking too much to become physically addicted to alcohol? For most persons, it takes a number of years. Some drink heavily for 20 or 30 years before becoming addicted; others for ten years; some for three to five years, and a very few experience addiction almost immediately.
Especially when physical dependence sets in does the alcoholic’s life become increasingly affected. His efficiency begins to be cut down, and it is noticed at his work. More days away from the job follow due to “illness.” His self-esteem suffers, as do his relationships with others.
He may try to compensate by being overly generous, spending money freely, even getting deeply into debt. But his social isolation grows as he becomes ill-tempered and difficult to get along with.
Ultimately he may lose his job, friends and family. Drinking becomes more important to him than anything else, including eating. He neglects his appearance, health and responsibilities.
World Health magazine states: “The dependent drinker who continues drinking amasses more and more disabilities . . . and his life expectancy will certainly be curtailed.”
Damage to the Body
Alcohol contains no vitamins, minerals or proteins, although it contains calories. Thus, people who drink a lot may feel full and put on weight, but they are not being nourished. And since the alcoholic often loses his desire for food, his body is more susceptible to disease from undernourishment.
Overuse of alcoholic beverages can damage the lining of the stomach and small intestine, causing inflammation and ulcers. Stomach muscles can lose their tone, digestion is hampered, and nausea may occur.
In the Bahamas, where, as Physician’s Alcohol Newsletter reports, “Alcoholism is the number one health problem,” many have a condition known as “alcoholic foot.” This is the chronic ulceration and gangrene of the foot that at times requires amputation.
A particularly damaging condition that results from too much drinking is cirrhosis of the liver. This ailment ranks as one of the leading causes of death among young and middle-aged adults. In France, according to government figures, over 22,000 died from cirrhosis of the liver in one year. In the United States, twice as many people died from this disease in a recent decade compared with the previous one, largely the result of increased drinking among the population. In Denmark, deaths from cirrhosis rose 40 percent in three years, due to increased drinking. In Italy, these deaths doubled in eleven years.
Dr. Frank A. Seixas, medical director of the National Council on Alcoholism in America, says: “For the first time, we’re getting medical evidence which confirms the observations doctors have made—and dodged—for years: alcoholism and cirrhosis are very closely linked.”
In one experiment, Dr. Charles Lieber of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York gave a group of volunteers a nutritionally superior diet for 18 days. During this period they each consumed six drinks over the course of a day, totaling 10 ounces of 86-proof whiskey daily. While it could be seen that they were under the influence of alcohol, none were drunk to the point where they lost complete control of their senses. Yet all of them had clear evidence of the beginning of harmful liver changes after only a few days.
Chronic heavy drinking also contributes to a variety of heart diseases, the primary cause of death in some countries. In fact, excessive amounts of alcohol can cause heart failure by paralyzing the cardiac nerves. It can also paralyze the respiratory center of the brain, causing breathing to become slow and possibly to stop altogether.
Prolonged heavy drinking destroys brain cells. And the body is not able to replace these the way it does other body cells.
Autopsies of chronic alcoholics have revealed massive destruction of brain cells. Such brain damage can bring on or aggravate various mental disorders, including paranoia, a form of insanity characterized by a persecution complex; and schizophrenia, a “splitting” of the personality. For instance, it is reported that every third bed in France’s psychiatric hospitals is occupied by a victim of alcohol.
In the latter stages of alcoholism, delirium tremens can occur. This happens when alcohol suddenly becomes unavailable, or is available only in very small amounts. They may also occur after a long “bout” of drinking. First, there are tremors, or shakes, all over the body. The appetite is lost, and nausea sets in. The victim becomes feverish and moves about at random. Hallucinations follow. Things are seen that are not there, such as spiders, rats and flies coming out of the walls or floor.
The terror of such delirium, or “madness,” can lead to suicide. It can also cause permanent mental feebleness—or death, as this condition is said to have a 20-percent mortality rate.
If a person in the advanced stage of alcoholism is not to die, he must be “detoxified.” He must stop drinking long enough for his body to eliminate all traces of alcohol and restore itself to a more normal level. But that may take weeks or months. And some damage, such as liver or brain damage, may be irreversible.
In young people, damage to health can occur faster. Their bodies are not mature, are smaller, and so are not able to handle the alcohol as well as is an adult’s body.
Among the most innocent victims of alcoholism are babies. A mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy can result in a baby’s being born mentally retarded or physically defective—or both.
Dr. Jaime Frias, director of a birth defect center at the University of Florida, states: “From the clinical data now gathered, it can be stated accurately that a woman who drinks alcohol chronically during pregnancy stands a 50 per cent chance of having a child with some degree of mental retardation and a 30 per cent chance of having a child with additional multiple physical malformations.”
Dr. David W. Smith, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, says: “Alcohol is today’s principal cause of physical defects in developing human embryos.”
Researchers have reported that babies have been born “drunk.” Their blood had an alcohol content higher than what is considered evidence of legal drunkenness in many areas. Even withdrawal symptoms have been observed in some newborn babies.
Regarding the damage to babies, the Detroit News reports: “Doctors agree that effects of the syndrome are irreversible and that many victims require special care throughout life, either at home or in institutions.”
What is considered “heavy drinking” by an expectant mother? Opinions vary. Dr. Smith says that five drinks a day constitute heavy drinking. And one definition of a drink is a “cocktail containing an ounce of 100-proof whiskey (50 percent alcohol).” Dr. Smith warns that heavy consumption of beer or wine during pregnancy can have the same results.
However, Medical World News stated recently: “Alarmed by rapidly accumulating evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption can harm a developing fetus, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is strongly urging that the government formally caution all pregnant women against more than two drinks a day.” It added that the evidence is “very convincing, and it is very worrying.”
Thus, in every way, the cost of alcohol abuse is enormous. And the problem is worsening, as more and more people are drinking to excess.
But what can be done to avoid becoming dependent on alcohol? How can a person who already is dependent be helped?
[Blurb on page 11]
If a pregnant woman indulges in prolonged heavy drinking, she may seriously damage her child