What is Alcohol?
When we discuss alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it is important that we have a good understanding of exactly what alcohol is. Alcohol is a chemical compound found in many things used in our daily lives. Liquid drinks such as beer, wine, or liquor all contain alcohol. Additionally, it is found in mouthwash, toothpaste, meats, sauces, cleaning products, fruits, cold medicines, cosmetics, and more. What does this mean? Alcohol’s main components are ethanol and water. The presence of alcohol in drinks results from the fermentation of carbohydrates (sugars) with yeast. Different beverages can contain different amounts of alcohol. For example, “light beers have almost as much alcohol as regular beer. Other drinks comparing alcohol content are:
- 12 ounces of traditional beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
- 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol
The size of the drink does not necessarily correlate to the alcoholic content, as demonstrated above. New guidelines promote limiting intake to 2 drinks or less a day for men.
More than four drinks a day for men, or more than 14 a week, is considered heavy drinking. Research links certain cancers to alcohol consumption. These include mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast cancer.
Alcohol contributes to about 30% of suicides, 50% of drownings and homicides, and 65% of falls. Additionally, alcohol contributes to alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviors and rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
Long-term health risks of excessive alcohol consumption
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.
- Weakening of the immune system increases the chances of getting sick.
- Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
- Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
- Social issues, including family problems, job-related issues, and unemployment.
- Alcohol use disorders, or alcohol dependence.
Alcohol and Mental Health Disorders
Co-morbidity of alcohol and mental health disorders is a significant public health concern in the U.S. and worldwide. Though much progress has been made in treatment, many clinical practitioners still do not use best practices. The impact of alcohol on mental health disorders is known. Sometimes alcohol abuse can blur the underlying mental health condition or exacerbate it. Some examples of mental health dysfunction and alcohol include:
- Antisocial behavior
It is now estimated by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence that alcohol plays a role in
- 40% of all violent crimes are committed in the U.S.
- 38% of murders were committed while intoxicated (“no other substance increases the chances of homicides more than alcohol”)
- 37% of sexual assaults and rape
- 15% of robberies
- 28% of aggravated assaults
- 25.5% of simple assaults
- 43% of child abuse are committed while the perpetrator is intoxicated
What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder is “an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” As with other addictions, a person suffering from AUD cannot stop drinking. Constant drinking of alcohol alters the neurotransmitters’ ability to communicate with other parts of the brain and the body. Will power have no impact on brain chemistry as it relates to AUD.
Abuse of alcohol causes “alterations in the [brain’s] neurons, such as a reduction in their size.” While the brain’s plasticity, its ability to return to health, is impressive, AUD can cause permanent brain and organ damage depending on the length of time spent drinking, the health and age of the person, genetics, financial and social circumstances, underlying mental health disorders, and more.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms and the Dangers of AUD
Anyone who binge drinks will feel the effects the next day. You can experience within 6 hours of ceasing to drink, mild symptoms of withdrawal will occur:
It is possible to abuse alcohol and not suffer from AUD. However, as mentioned above, if you cannot stop drinking or craving more and more alcohol, you have moved passed abuse and into alcoholic use disorder.
Moderate withdrawal symptoms include increased blood pressure, heart rate, confusion, and rapid breathing. Severe withdrawal symptoms include visual or auditory hallucinations and seizures. The problem with alcohol withdrawal is that you may experience dangerous side effects.
Many people of heard about the shakes. But as stated above, it is possible to experience shakes after mild alcohol consumption. However, the more severe form of the shakes during alcohol withdrawal, known as delirium tremens, requires urgent medical care. It is fatal in 1 in 20 people who develop it.
The delirium tremens is the brain’s response to the lack of alcohol and the brain’s need to create balance. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Because of the impact on the nervous system, the brain continues to be hyperactive to function. When alcohol is no longer present, the brain tries to maintain its hyperexcited balance.
Risk factors for D.T. and Seizures
- More severe alcohol dependence, including prior development of withdrawal symptoms
- Higher levels of alcohol intake, resulting in higher BACs
- Longer duration of alcoholism
- Abnormal liver function
- Prior detoxification
- Experience of seizures or D.T.
- Intense craving for alcohol
- Concomitant acute illness
- Older age
- Use of other drugs in addition to alcohol
- More severe withdrawal symptoms when presenting for treatment
The more one drinks heavily, abstains, and then returns to drinking again, the worse the withdrawal symptoms become. It is essential to seek medical attention and alcohol treatment if you have a history of AUD. Continuing to drink heavily can lead to liver damage and something called “wet brain,” or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. If caught at the early stages, people can improve. Either way, treatment to stop alcohol use disorder involves several medical, psychological, and physical approaches to educate the person suffering from AUD about addiction and the tools needed to stay sober.
If you or someone you love is suffering from AUD or drinking too often, help is available and works. Call today to find out how you can break the cycle of AUD and regain your life.
Resources Referenced While Discussing Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal: