Are you the sort of person who looks forward to a glass of wine with your meal at the end of a long day? Or perhaps you like to break out those custom shot glasses for a wild night in with the gang? Whatever your specific preferences, participating in drinking culture is often considered a highlight of adult life. Many look to consuming alcohol as a way to relieve stress and improve their mood. Others may value the social aspect of coming together over drinks, particularly with the way that liquor relaxes their inhibitions and makes them feel more comfortable and confident in a social setting.
We take it for granted that drinking is a part of life, but how much is too much? Statistics have long shown that in the US, alcohol is more abusable than any other drug. In 2019, for instance, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that 14.5 million people from the ages of 12 and older had been officially diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Millions more reported tendencies to engage in binge drinking or otherwise heavy alcohol consumption, behaviors that could and often do lead to developing the disease down the road.
It’s highly likely, given the above, that you know someone who struggles with an addiction to alcohol – even if they don’t know it themselves. People who suffer from alcohol dependence may not be aware of the severity of the problem or the negative effects it can have on their lives and those of others. They might also be in denial, ashamed, or reluctant to seek help, because of the social stigma associated with alcoholism. Because of the existence of this stigma, as well as the general prevalence of AUD, there’s an urgent need for more education on the condition’s impacts, diagnosis, and treatment.
Read on to find out more and you’ll be better equipped to help others help themselves.
What is AUD, and what does it do to you?
Alcohol addiction, now termed alcohol use disorder, is defined by the National Institute of Health (NIH) as a chronic but treatable disease of the brain. It’s more generally understood as a desire or need to consume alcohol, even if doing so potentially harms the afflicted person or those around them. Cases of AUD may be mild, moderate, or severe, but it’s also important to note that the condition is progressive. As previously mentioned, for example, someone who is prone to occasionally engaging in binge drinking when stressed is likely at risk for developing more severe alcohol problems later on. Unmanaged AUD also becomes notably more difficult to treat over time.
The detrimental effects of excessive drinking on the body are numerous and can target multiple organs. Because it’s a neurotoxin, alcohol has been shown to weaken brain functions such as logical thinking, decision-making, and physical coordination. It’s also likely to seriously damage the heart and liver, impairing their ability to function effectively and leading to the eventual development of related conditions like fatty liver, cirrhosis, and heart disease. Lastly, a wealth of research shows a correlation between heavy alcohol consumption and increased risk of developing certain cancers – such as breast cancer, cancers of the mouth and throat, and others.
Identifying signs of AUD
Among doctors, a standard screening practice for signs of AUD is the use of the CAGE questionnaire. This is a series of four questions that focuses on how the potential patient perceives their own drinking habits, outlined below:
- Do you feel a need to cut down on the amount of alcohol that you consume?
- Did you ever feel annoyed at people who would criticise you for your drinking?
- Have you experienced feelings of guilt with regard to your drinking?
- Do you need a drink as an ‘eye opener’ to start out your day?
Though medical professionals have their own ways of interpreting these questions to determine the potential presence and severity of AUD, they also provide a useful starting point for the average person to begin considering whether they or someone they know might be at risk. It’s also useful to observe the particular patterns of behavior that develop around a person’s drinking habits, including but not limited to the following:
- If they are unable to control how much and/or how long they drink,
- If they regularly give up other significant commitments (For example: work, time with family, or pleasurable leisure activities) to drink,
- If they experience strong cravings for alcohol,
- If they experience negative emotions such as irritability, anxiety, or depressive moods when not drinking.
It’s also possible to spot physical side effects in someone suffering from AUD, particularly if the condition is severe or has gone untreated for a long time. These include dry skin, increased wrinkles, bloodshot eyes, and yellowing around the eyes and skin due to liver damage.
The journey to recovery
If you have a sense someone you know might be suffering from AUD, the first step forward is getting them to talk about it. Initiating compassionate, trustful conversations in a non-judgmental space could be the key to helping your loved one not only recognize their problem, but take their first steps toward getting the help they need. For those that are less willing to have such conversations, however, a more formal intervention might be required to inform them of the negative implications of AUD and encourage them to seek treatment. Such interventions are best planned and carried out by the potential patient’s friends and family, with the support of a healthcare professional or interventionist.
Once the patient has agreed to treatment, pursuing an official diagnosis and treatment programme can then begin. Addiction treatment centres like JourneyPure and Enterhealth take a multi-pronged scientific approach to treatment, combining prescribed medication and medical procedures with psychotherapeutic interventions. These practices aim to mitigate alcohol dependency and cravings, facilitate the brain’s healing, and empower patients to prioritize their well-being. They’re also notably personalized according to each patient’s individual needs, in recognition of the fact that every patient’s struggle with AUD and their subsequent journey to recovery is undeniably unique.
AUD is a chronic disease that, once diagnosed, needs to be actively managed in order to keep it under control. The good news is that greater awareness and the development of more personalised and effective treatment options over time have made it possible for millions of people to live in a state of recovery. And although the journey each patient suffering from AUD takes toward this recovery is bound to be personal, all patients benefit from committing to a structured treatment plan and from having strong support systems to lean on throughout the process.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health and well-being.