Alcohol addiction has a long history, and alcohol use is ingrained in numerous societies throughout the globe. Many people grew up with ‘drinking’ being an everyday occurrence within their families and social groups. Because of this cultural ubiquity and normalization, alcohol addiction can often be overlooked as a potential source of severe health complications.
Conducted in 2021, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found the previous year saw an alarming 29.5 million people grappling with AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder). Given its widespread acceptance and easy availability, many people are unaware of the seriousness of the health risks associated with alcohol use.
Fortunately, our understanding of alcohol addiction has advanced a great deal in the last several decades. Research has revealed an intricate interplay of neurological, psychological, and sociological factors. This growing knowledge base has led to the development of a wealth of effective, individualized treatments designed to address these multifaceted aspects.
Maui Recovery has been successfully treating alcohol addiction for over a decade. As a result, we’ve gained a deep understanding of the nuances of this affliction, along with the importance of treating it on a case-by-case basis.
In this article, we’ll discuss the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction, as well as some effective methods of treatment.
Reframing alcohol addiction
In the past, terms like ‘alcoholism’ and ‘alcoholic’ were commonly used to describe those struggling with alcohol addiction. However, over time, these terms accumulated a significant amount of negative stigma, serving more as derogatory labels than helpful identifiers. Because the focus was more on a person’s perceived failings, this resulted in feelings of shame, guilt, and reluctance to seek help.
Recognizing the need for a change in perspective, the medical community redefined this issue in a more compassionate and medically accurate light. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use. It’s not a reflection of character, but rather a health concern that requires care and treatment.
So, why is it necessary to shift from alcoholism to AUD? Well, it helps to destigmatize the condition and reinforces the fact that those struggling with AUD are not to blame for their circumstances. It emphasizes that they are grappling with a health issue, just like anyone dealing with, for example, high blood pressure or diabetes. By adopting this term, we foster a more understanding and supportive environment for those affected.
Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
If you’re struggling with an inability to manage or halt your alcohol consumption, even when it’s causing issues in your home life, work, social life, or with your health, you might be experiencing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
Being a brain disorder, AUD comes in varying degrees: mild, moderate, and severe.
Continued misuse of alcohol can lead to long-lasting changes in your brain, increasing your susceptibility to AUD and making you more prone to falling back into old habits. However, regardless of the severity of the situation, it’s crucial to remember there’s always hope.
Proven treatment methods such as behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups, and medications can assist you in achieving and sustaining recovery from AUD.
The signs and symptoms of AUD
Recognizing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in oneself or others is often challenging. Those struggling with excessive drinking may not immediately realize the severity of their condition.
Key signs and symptoms of AUD include:
- Consuming alcohol in isolation or secretly.
- Struggling to control alcohol intake.
- Experiencing memory gaps or ‘blackouts’.
- Following specific drinking rituals and reacting negatively to comments about these routines (e.g., consuming drinks before, during, or after meals, or after work).
- Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities and hobbies.
- Feeling a strong craving to drink.
- Experiencing irritability when the usual drinking time approaches, particularly if alcohol is not available.
- Concealing alcohol in unexpected places.
- Rapidly consuming drinks to feel their effects.
- Encountering relationship issues, legal troubles, financial difficulties, or work problems due to drinking.
- Increasing alcohol consumption to achieve the same effects.
- Using alcohol in situations where it’s not safe, e.g., when driving.
- Suffering from nausea, sweating, or tremors when not drinking.
It’s worth noting that some people may display some of these signs without being dependent on alcohol. Alcohol use becomes a concern when it begins to dominate all other activities, and dependence can take years to form.
The health risks of Alcohol Use Disorder
The consequences associated with Alcohol Use Disorder are wide-ranging, impacting physical health, mental well-being, and social dynamics. In 2009, former UK drug tsar, Professor David Nutt said that “alcohol is the most damaging drug in pretty much every Western country.”
Despite its widespread use and cultural acceptance, excessive alcohol consumption presents significant health risks that shouldn’t be ignored. These hazards may not always be immediately apparent but can manifest over time.
Potential health risks of excessive alcohol use include:
Chronic alcohol use can lead to various liver disorders such as alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.
Excessive drinking can result in issues like gastritis and pancreatitis. It can also interfere with the absorption of nutrients, leading to malnutrition.
Regular heavy drinking increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Mental health disorders
Long-term alcohol abuse can cause a range of neurological complications, including neuropathy and dementia.
Increased risk of cancer
Chronic alcohol use raises the risk of several types of cancer, including mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer.
Sexual and reproductive health issues
In men, heavy drinking can lead to erectile dysfunction. In women, it can result in fertility issues. For both, alcohol use may lead to risky sexual behaviors, potentially resulting in unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Weakened immune system
Regular heavy drinking can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to diseases.
These health risks illustrate the gravity of excessive alcohol consumption.
It’s crucial to remember that while some people may be able to enjoy alcohol responsibly, misuse can lead to severe and long-term health complications.
The dangers of quitting ‘cold turkey’
Attempting to quit alcohol ‘cold turkey’ without medical supervision can pose serious health risks. This is especially true if you’ve been a heavy and consistent drinker over an extended period. Abrupt cessation can lead to a condition known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which can cause severe physical and psychological symptoms.
Physical symptoms can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening conditions and may include tremors, nausea, vomiting, headache, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and in extreme cases, seizures.
There’s also a risk of developing delirium tremens (DTs), a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that occurs in about 5% of individuals. Symptoms of DTs, which usually start 48–72 hours after the last drink, can include confusion, fever, hallucinations, and seizures. DTs can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
In addition to physical symptoms, psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, nightmares, and confusion can also occur during alcohol withdrawal.
This is why it’s crucial for anyone considering reducing or quitting alcohol, particularly heavy drinkers, to seek professional help. Medical supervision during the detoxification process can manage withdrawal symptoms safely and more comfortably. In a professional setting, you can also receive psychological support and begin a treatment program to assist with your long-term recovery.
What are the available treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder?
Various scientifically-backed treatments exist for AUD and these are predicated on a recognition of your unique needs. What works for one person may not work for another, and treatment can be delivered in outpatient or inpatient settings via specialty programs, therapists, and healthcare providers.
Below are some of the most effective treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has currently approved three medications – naltrexone (both oral and long-acting injectable), acamprosate, and disulfiram – to assist individuals in quitting or reducing their alcohol consumption and preventing a relapse.
These non-addictive medications can be used alone or in conjunction with behavioral therapies or mutual-support groups. However, remember to only take such medications under the guidance of a health professional.
Licensed therapists provide behavioral therapies – also known as alcohol counseling or talk therapy – designed to alter drinking habits. These treatments can range from brief interventions and reinforcement methods to motivational programs and skill-building sessions for coping and preventing relapse.
As this study shows, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) had long-term efficacy in treating comorbid adolescents (those with depression and AUD). Research also shows that mindfulness-based therapies are effective in treating a variety of substance use disorders.
If you’re aiming to stop or cut down your drinking, mutual-support groups can be immensely helpful. These groups typically host meetings at a variety of convenient times and locations (including an increasing number of online options) making them particularly beneficial for those at risk of relapsing.
Studies show that childhood trauma is often the root cause of alcohol dependence. Mutual-support groups allow you to share your story with those who’ve been through similar struggles. Not only can this provide invaluable support for your recovery, but can allow you to open up about the trauma you might have experienced, thereby taking steps to heal it.
When paired with either medications or professional behavioral treatment (or both), mutual-support groups can provide an essential additional layer of support.
How Maui Recovery can help
At Maui Recovery, we understand the complexities and challenges of overcoming alcohol addiction. It’s a deeply personal journey that requires the will to change as well as professional guidance and a supportive environment.
The potential risks associated with abrupt cessation of alcohol highlight the necessity of expert involvement in this process. Our mission is to ensure a safe, nurturing, and supportive space where you can navigate your path to recovery with the necessary medical supervision and mental health support.
We believe that recovery isn’t a destination but a transformative journey. Armed with an ever-evolving understanding of addiction, we offer a wide array of personalized treatments, from experiential therapies to evidence-based treatments like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
Ultimately, if you’re struggling with AUD, we’re here to guide and empower you to realize your boundless healing potential. By taking the first step with us, you’re not only embracing the challenge of change but also reclaiming your life, one day at a time. Remember, at Maui Recovery, you’re not alone; together, we help you overcome alcohol addiction and pave the way to lasting recovery.
If you’d like to talk to us about AUD and how we can help you or a loved one, please contact us.