Ethyl alcohol: society as we know it glamorizes this intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine and liquor. Many young people consider drinking a rite of passage. Entire aisles of stores, if not entire stores, are dedicated to featuring the finest labels, the prettiest lit bottles, all to be put on your counter and shared with your dinner guests. Alcohol is a legal drug, but it is just as addictive as many illegal drugs.
The simple fermentation process of sugars, starches, and yeast produces a depressant that, when delivered from the small intestine and stomach into bloodstream, creates significant changes in the central nervous system. The effects of alcohol on each person are different and have a lot to do with how old that person is, as well as the weight and age, gender, and physical genetics of the individual. Overall health condition also plays a part. All people are affected by alcohol when they drink it. Alcohol always has an effect on the brain, in any amount. This is true when it is taken regularly or just once. Over time, in excess, it can wreak havoc on health.
Communication pathways within the brain are disrupted with alcohol use. Overall, the body’s natural immune systems are inhibited and weakened as well. This makes chronic drinkers more at risk for contracting common sicknesses, especially within 24 hours of being drunk. While moderate use of alcohol is supposed to have potentially protective powers against coronary heart disease, alcohol abuse frequently leads to more serious heart, pancreas, and liver problems, and even to cancer.1
Problem drinking can look different for every person. Heavy drinking is defined by SAMHSA as having five drinks in one occasion on at least 5 separate occasions during a 30 day period. Generally, low-risk to moderate drinking would be defined by having never more than two or three drinks a day, never totaling more than seven drinks in a week.
This is a progressive disease. We know what the ultimate results are. What we are asking of you is to at least reach out. There is hope.
It’s very important to be aware of what constitutes “a drink.” Many people who struggle with alcohol prolong denial of the problem by inaccurately calculating what a drink means. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines one drink in these very specific measurements:
- 12 fl oz of beer
- 8-9 fl oz of malt liquor
- 5 fl oz of table wine
- 3-4 fl oz of fortified wine (such as sherry or port; 3.5 oz shown)
- 2-3 fl oz of cordial, liqueur, or aperitif (2.5 oz shown)
- 1.5 fl oz of brandy or cognac
- 1.5 fl oz shot of 80-proof distilled spirits
Heavy drinking is defined by SAMHSA as having five drinks in one occasion on at least 5 separate occasions during a 30 day period.
So, if you are having a 10 ounce restaurant serving of wine in one glass, you are having two drinks. Each bottle of wine usually serves five drinks. One long island iced tea usually contains much more than one serving of alcohol. It’s important to get used to measuring alcohol in this way so as to avoid inadvertently consuming too much.
Alcohol use disorders are serious business. It is important to know the signs of a problem. Like most issues, alcohol use disorder (alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse) often go undiagnosed until problems become severe. If you are concerned about your drinking or the drinking of a loved one, be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms:
- Continuing to drink even after unpleasant, embarrassing or dangerous consequences
- Feeling cravings or a strong need to consume alcohol
- Trying to cut down on alcohol use, but being unable to go without alcohol
- Drinking more than was intended, often for longer periods of time than intended
- Hiding drinking or estimating less drinks than were actually consumed
- Inability to stop drinking after one drink
- Engaging in risky or out-of-character behaviors while drinking, or in order to begin drinking
- Developing a tolerance— needing more alcohol than before to feel drunk
- Experiencing withdrawal— feeling shaky or ill when not drinking, or taking another substance to avoid withdrawal
There are special considerations for those with certain health problems that often render drinking alcohol in any amount unwise. With many medications, alcohol should be avoided. Because of the effect of alcohol on the brain, judgment capabilities are altered and people tend to behave in a ways they normally would not. Likewise, if an individual plans to operate any type of machine or to drive a car, that person should not have a drink within a few hours of doing so. Young persons who are under the legal drinking ages should not even sample alcohol until they are of legal age. Alcohol should never be consumed in any level during pregnancy or when desiring and planning or likely to become pregnant.3
A person should seek help with their use of alcohol if they:
- often drink more than you intend to
- have tried unsuccessfully to cut back
- experience cravings for alcohol
- give up other more important activities to drink
There is much help available for drinking problems, which are quite common. Taking a break from alcohol for a designated period of time is a good way to measure the level of control that one has over their own drinking habits.
1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s effects on the body. Found online 1/26/16 at http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body.
2 .National Institute of Health Rethinking Drinking. Found online 1/26/16 at http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/What-counts-as-a-drink/Whats-A-Standard-Drink.aspx
3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Found online 1/26/16 at http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm.