Is true what they say that you don’t have to be an alcoholic to have a drinking problem? No one wakes up one morning and decides to have a drinking problem, it’s a ripple effect that happens over time even to the best of us, and while not intentional, the problem gets out of hand and before you know it you are labeled an “addict.” Ask anyone who has struggled with alcohol use disorder, and they will probably tell you that they don’t know how having an occasional drink turned into a full-blown alcohol dependence because truth be told, not everyone turns to alcohol only because of stress as many would have you believe.
Alcohol use disorder can also start at an early age, and as the body’s tolerance levels increases, physical dependence on alcohol becomes a comfortable habit. Individuals who do actually turn to alcohol to relieve stress, maybe from their jobs or lack thereof, or from an extremely stressful personal life, or maybe as a result of something that they feel they can’t control are more likely to turn into heavy drinkers.
Did you know that a family history of alcoholism can increase a person’s predisposed to alcohol dependency? This is in part due to genetics or environmental factors such as being constantly around an alcoholic parent, sibling, or relative that directly influences you to emulate their behavior. This may be a hard pill to swallow, but our genetic structure determines all our human traits and numerous studies have been carried out to show that approximately 50% of alcohol dependency is attributable to genetics.
Since our DNA (passed on to us by our parents) dictates our physical characteristics as well as our behavioral characteristics, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism can inherit alcoholic tendencies, thus making them susceptible to alcoholism in the future.
Alcoholism Vs. Binge Drinking
While binge drinking and alcoholism are both forms of alcohol abuse that pose similar health and physical risks, they are not identical, for lack of a better word. In fact, they are two different concepts. Take this for example, we know by now that alcohol is both psychologically and physically addictive, but it’s your attitude about or toward alcohol that can help you determine whether or not you are suffering from alcohol addiction.
You may not realize that you have an alcohol dependence until members of your family or your close friends mention called out on your drinking. Additionally, there are individuals who don’t know they have a drinking problem until it begins to take a negative toll on their health, finances, relationships, work, school, etc.
Binge drinking, on the other hand, is characterized by consuming copious amounts of alcohol in a short span of time. Where a “normal” person will drink one or two drinks in a span of two hours, a binge drinker will consume up to or more than five drinks in a 2-hour period for both men and women. Where most people can drink moderately and have a glass or two to relax, unwind or celebrate, an individual with a binge drinking problem only downs alcohol for the sole purpose of getting drunk or “wasted.”
Statistically speaking, binge drinking is more prevalent than alcoholism. An issue that is very common among young adults and usually turns into a disconcerting problem very quickly. Characteristically, most bingers habitually drink excessively on the weekends and get through an entire week without a single drop of alcohol. Unlike a full-blown alcoholic who will present with all the signs of alcohol dependency, you wouldn’t know a binge drinker unless you are in their company because they seem “normal” and function perfectly fine without alcohol.
While a binge drinker “may” not suffer from alcohol withdrawals or have a compulsion to drink every single day as would an alcoholic who has a physical addiction, both individuals are in the same vicious cycle of alcohol abuse.
When binge drinking becomes a problem
Everything in moderation, right? After all, it promotes the idea of a balanced approach to life, but why is it such an easy concept for some people to adopt yet challenging for others? When you are struggling with a weight issue, and someone tells you to eat in moderation, isn’t it a neat and simple way of saying you can have all the junk food you want, provided it’s in small portions?
The negative effects of imbibing are pretty obvious; however, new studies have shown that pregnant women can drink alcohol “moderately” without harming their babies. In fact, apparently mothers who drink moderately have children with better mental health than children of mothers who abstain. The jury is still out on this one.
Imagine telling a binge drinker to do so in moderation. It is safe to assume that the majority of individuals who develop an alcohol use disorder engaged in or began with binge drinking at one point in their lives. So, when does binge drinking become a full-blown problem because even though habitual binge drinkers might not qualify as alcoholics, they do meet the criteria of heavy drinking, don’t they? Consider the following signs of a binge drinker:
• Drinking more than five drinks in a short span of time
• Drinking more alcohol than originally intended. From just one to more than five
• May not drink daily but drinks excessively on weekends or “holidays”
• Becomes defensive when others express their concern or tries to rationalize their excessive drinking
• Having blackouts and issues with memory after a binge
• Engaging in risky behavior during a binge
• Mixing drugs with alcohol
• Neglecting their responsibilities (work, school, family, etc.) after a bingeing episode
• Neglecting personal hygiene
• Not eating or developing poor eating habits
• Giving up on social or recreational activities
Types of binge drinking
There are certain people who are fortunate enough not to have a drinking problem. They can limit themselves to a certain number of drinks and walk away when they’ve had enough. They do not get drunk and are in control of their alcohol intake instead of letting alcohol take control of their lives or relationships. The term “responsible drinking” probably does not appear in a binge drinker’s vocabulary mainly because drinking is a crutch. What is more alarming is that more women than men aged 16-34 have emerged as the biggest binge drinkers, especially career women with more money to spend on drinking sprees, irrespective of the alcohol-related risks and illnesses.
For one reason or the other, alcohol becomes rooted in a binge drinker’s life that any form of intervention would result in outright denial or defensiveness. And even though a binger will not reach for a drink the second they wake up, it’s a lack of control over the amount one imbibes, regardless of how often they actually drink or the reason for drinking that matters. Consider the following types of binge drinkers:
• De-stressed drinkers who drink to cope with stress
• Depressed drinkers will drink when they crave comfort
• Boredom drinkers use alcohol for stimulation due to their lack of social skills
• Conformist drinkers will drink to seek structure in their lives
• Hedonist drinkers use alcohol to prove something because they crave stimulation
• Community drinkers want to fill the need to belong when they drink
• Macho drinkers as the name would suggest, they drink to stand out from the crowd
• Border dependent drinkers will always be at the pub regardless of the time of day
Regardless of the type of binger you are, excessive consumption of alcohol is considered extremely because, in addition to exposing yourself to physical injury, continued use of alcohol could potentially cause loss of productivity, life-long diseases that can’t be easily treated, and even death.
Effects of binge drinking
Make no mistake about it; alcohol is alcohol and binge drinking is dangerous. There are both short and long-term effects of binge drinking a continuous exposure to ethanol leads to a variety of mental, physical, and emotional problems, some, which are irreversible. For starters, around 2 to 8% of the alcohol you drink is lost through urine, sweat, or the breath, the rest (92 to 98%) is metabolized by your body by an enzyme in the liver known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). How quickly you absorb the alcohol content depends on the concentration of alcohol in your drink, whether your stomach is full or empty, or whether your drink is carbonated.
The amount of alcohol in a standard drink is about 10 grams, which takes an average person about an hour to process it. You can imagine a binge drinker who consumes more than five drinks in less than two hours. When you drink copious amounts of alcohol, the liver has to process it over a very short period of time, which is, essentially what causes people to experience a hangover and consequently cause metabolic harm to the body. From the moment you take your first sip, the impact of alcohol on your body is almost instantaneous, and the cumulative effects of over consumption take its toll slowly but gradually. The following are some of the negative effects of excessive alcohol use:
• Alcohol dependence
• Damage to your nervous system
• Liver cirrhosis /liver damage
• Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, hallucination
• Impaired thinking – up to 30 days after a binge
• Irresponsible behavior – drink driving, risky sexual activities
• Lack of motivation
• Blackouts and memory loss
• Cardiovascular disease
• Damage to the digestive and endocrine glands
• Diabetes complications
• Lung infection that makes you susceptible to pneumonia and TB
• Chronic fatigue
• Sexual dysfunction
• Lack of coordination
• Thinning bones or osteoporosis
• Tingling and numbness in your extremities
• Muscle cramps, weakness, and eventually muscle death
• Death from alcohol poisoning
Causes of alcohol abuse
We all experience “one of those days” where we would rather be run over by a garbage truck than get out of bed. While some have mastered the art of de-stressing without a stiff drink such as exercising, meditating, dancing, and so forth, others not so much. A glass of your favorite drink may help in the short term, but certainly not in the long term because situations arise in everyday living that causes us to experience sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. Individuals who do not handle stress well and those who exhibit impulsivity, novelty seeking, negative emotions and anxiety are more likely to developing alcohol use disorder. These traits are all linked to an increased risk for substance abuse disorders.
As mentioned earlier, genetics also play a major role in the development of alcohol use disorder. However, if someone is not genetically predisposed, there are certain factors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder, for example:
• A mental health problem such as schizophrenia
• Consuming more than 15 drinks (male) and 12 drinks (female) per week
• Binge drinking more than five drinks at least once a week
• Experiencing peer pressure as a young adult
• Low self-esteem
• Drinking alone
Are you a binge drinker?
Maybe no one has mentioned it or pointed out your alcohol dependence, or maybe they have but you are still in denial, or you feel you are in control of your drinking. If the aforementioned negative health effects of excessive alcohol use such as irreversible liver damage, obesity, a chronic dependence and even damage to the brain and entire nervous system haven’t sunk in, consider taking a self-test. Ask yourself:
• Are you happy when you drink or do you drink to get drunk?
• Is drinking affecting your personal, work, or school life?
• Do you feel guilty about drinking and how do you feel after the effects of alcohol wear out?
• Are you an irritable or violent drunk?
• Do you make excuses to have a drink?
• Do you sometimes tell yourself that it would be better if you cut back on your drinking?
• Do you experience blackouts or exhibit reckless behavior during a binge?
• Do you experience severe alcohol withdrawals such as tremors, irregular heartbeat, sweating profusely, high blood pressure, anxiety, nervousness, nausea, vomiting, seizures, hallucination, and delirium?
You may not necessarily experience all the above signs of alcohol misuse, in fact, some of the short-term effects of binge drinking such as headaches, hangovers, nausea and vomiting, unpleasant as they are, wear off pretty quickly. Drawing the line between safe alcohol use and alcohol misuse is the most difficult thing for individuals with alcohol use disorder. Not all hope is lost because you can seek help.
There is help
Any type of addiction is often seen as a sign of weakness or something you can just snap out of. This can’t be further from the truth. Like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, addiction is a disease that is brought on by a combination of biological, environmental and behavioral factors and it involves changes in how the body and brain functions. Researchers are hard at work trying to develop various medications that can return balance to the body’s stress-response system, primarily to prevent relapses in individuals who are recovering from alcohol use disorders.
Withdrawals are the hardest to deal with, especially for people who have been drinking for a long time and many newly sober individuals will return to drinking again to alleviate these symptoms. The thing to understand is, hard it may be to ask for help, consequences of untreated alcohol dependency or any type of addiction for that matter becomes more severe, disabling and life-threatening. While addiction cannot be completely cured, it is a progressive, long-lasting and chronic disease that can be controlled with intensive treatment, continuing aftercare, monitoring, as well as family and peer support to manage it.
Often, individuals struggling with substance dependence are blamed by those around them for suffering from addiction. While we always have a choice when it comes to certain pertinent matters of life, no one can choose how his or her brain and body will respond to drugs or alcohol use. Such is the case with addiction, and even though an addict can stop drinking altogether, it is much harder to maintain recovery without proper treatment including help and support of family and friends.
There are a couple of different medications that can be administered to mitigate alcohol cravings including various treatment options for alcohol use disorder that are designed to help sufferers stop drinking and abstain from alcohol altogether. Individuals who choose to seek help can do so at an inpatient facility that provides 24-hour care to monitor a person’s withdrawals and recovery from alcohol dependence. Depending on individual needs and level of addiction, treatment for alcohol use disorder may include:
• A medically managed program of detoxification and withdrawal at an inpatient treatment center or a hospital
• Rehabilitation involving alcohol treatment specialists to help a recovering individual establish new coping skills, behavior change techniques and much more
• Psychological counseling and therapy to address aspects of alcohol use and to help individuals understand their addiction better
• Support from 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous
• Administration of oral or injected medication that helps to reduce the urge to drink and combats alcohol cravings. Patients may also receive medical treatment for alcohol use disorder-related health conditions
• Certain patients may also require to undergo psychological evaluation and treatment for issues such as depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions that may arise as a result of alcohol use or mental issues that may have led to the addiction
• There are aftercare programs available as a form of continuing support that help people recovering from alcohol use disorder to manage relapses and cope with future lifestyle changes
• Newly recovering individuals can also receive spiritual support
Life without alcohol
Reducing your risk of binge drinking may seem like an uphill battle, but it’s possible. It may seem difficult at first but being able to set solid boundaries for yourself when drinking is a start. Deciding to quit drinking in totality, especially when alcohol begins to call the shots in your life is even better and advisable, your body and mind will thank you for it. It is still not clear how some individuals are able to achieve sobriety on their own, however those who aren’t able to abstain from alcohol need to seek treatment. Remember, you are not alone, statistically speaking, one in six adults binge drink about once a week, that makes over 37 million people who consume an average of seven drinks per binge. Whichever way you choose to look at it, binge drinking is a serious but preventable health problem that has been attributed to thousands of alcohol-related, life-long diseases and deaths.
Recovery from alcohol dependence may take time, but you can change your narrative. Do not wait for the negative effects of alcohol use to get their claws on you when you can do something about it sooner rather than later. Binge drinking will cause damage to your brain cells, increase your risk of developing dementia, cause nerve damage, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, depression, and much more. This is certainly not the life you envisioned yourself living, and you can certainly overcome alcohol dependence by seeking help from the right people.
There are a few things that you can do to help you steer clear of alcohol use especially during the first few weeks of living sober. Adopting an exercise routine is always recommended because not only does working out increase your overall well being, but it also helps the body heal from the damage left behind by alcohol use. Drinking alcohol has been shown to slowly diminish a person’s ability to feel pleasure, which is why most alcoholics abandon social or recreational activities that used to bring them pleasure.
A good workout will not only boost a person’s mood, but it also helps the body release chemicals known as endorphins, or “feel good hormones” that trigger a positive feeling in the body to help ward-off feelings of stress, anxiety, depression. Regular exercise has also been proven to improve sleep, boost self-esteem and self-worth, something that many addicts lack. Therefore, develop healthy habits, adopt a positive attitude, and surround yourself with wholesome people.