As an addiction specialist, I see patients abusing substances of all kinds. Today I’d like to talk about alcohol. It is so ingrained and accepted in our society. Pop culture would have you believe that you can’t have any fun or lead a fulfilling life without alcohol. During nearly every commercial break on television, there is an advertisement for alcohol, full of smiling people having the time of their lives like they’re on a permanent vacation. As a matter of fact, as I write this, I have a television on in the background, and there was just a commercial for a Mexican beer. It was a fiesta, with women in bright costumes dancing around and people cheering and cheersing with cold cervezas. The message: you’re clearly missing out if your life doesn’t resemble the lives of these people, but if you drink their beer, your life can be as awesome as theirs.
Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol for thousands of years. Even early Greek writings warned of the perils of alcohol. In our modern world, the dangers of alcohol are well studied and well known. Despite this fact, alcohol is the most common drug used and abused by people. Here are some sobering facts and figures: an estimated 15 million Americans suffer from alcoholism, and nearly 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. 40% of all car accident deaths in the United States involve alcohol, claiming approximately 10,000 lives a year. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, consuming larger amounts of alcohol can cause more than 60 different health issues and hundreds of physical conditions.
Day in and day out, I witness the ravages of alcoholism, and it’s not pretty. Alcohol in any amount affects every part of a person, inside and out. It’s just a matter of degrees.
What are these effects? Let’s start with the outward appearance. While drinking moderately may not have immediate disadvantages, over time you’ll start to notice them- especially when you look in the mirror. Drinking alcohol dehydrates you, which makes hair follicles dry and brittle and more likely to cause hair to fall out. What hair you have will look crispy with split ends. Heavy alcohol use can lead to permanent damage to the health of your hair. It can also cause hormonal issues like increased estrogen, which can cause problems with hair growth and loss, particularly in men.
Drinking too much also dehydrates and deprives the skin of vital vitamins and nutrients. Instead of being soft and hydrated, your skin will begin to look cracked and wrinkled. This will leave others thinking you may be older than you actually are. Excess alcohol also alters blood flow to the skin, leaving an unhealthy appearance for days.Alcohol can also cause your face to look pale, bloated and puffy.Sometimes the blood vessels on your face burst and the capillaries break, causing a chapped look. Not only can your face become red, but the tiny blood vessels in your eyes become irritated and rupture, causing bloodshot eyes. Not cute.
Over time, drinking heavily can have other, more permanent, detrimental effects on your skin. Rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily is linked to alcohol consumption. Continued alcohol consumption can eventually lead to a condition called rhinophyma, a facial disfigurment that is a subtype of rosacea, where large, red, pus-filled bumps develop on the face, commonly on the cheeks, chin, and especially the nose, where it can cause severe bulbous distortion. If you have rosacea, I strongly urge that you google rhinophyma and that you don’t drink.
Let’s not forget that alcohol is fattening, high in empty calories. A couple of gin and tonics and a pint of beer equal about the same calories as a big fast food burger. You might be surprised to find out what the junk food calorie equivalents are for your favorite drinks. Alcohol also bloats your stomach. “Beer belly” is real people, but not only caused by beer. And then there’s cellulite; many believe the toxins in alcohol contribute to its build up.
A less often discussed result of drinking heavily is B.O. Yes, the bad odor emanating from the body after a long night of drinking is directly related to the alcohol seeping from it. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, over 10 percent of alcohol consumed leaves the body unused through your sweat, breath, and urine. While pretty much everyone can smell it, non-drinkers are generally especially susceptible to the odor. And it is gross. Keep that in mind the next time you wake up after a bender. Your body odor could leave a lasting impression.
Let’s move from external effects of alcohol and go inside the body, starting with the brain. Obviously, when you’re drunk, your brain is impaired. There is loss of inhibitions, confused or abnormal thinking, and poor decision-making. But I want you to understand the chronic effects of alcohol on the brain and cognition, the long term effects. So, how does alcohol impact cognitive ability? Clearly, the impact is directly related to the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed.
Occasional and moderate drinkers:
– Memory impairment
– Impaired decision-making
Heavy and/or chronic drinkers:
– Diminished gray matter in the brain
– Inability to think abstractly
– Loss of visuospatial abilities
-Loss of attention span
In general, heavy alcohol use causes the brain to shrink. Any alcohol use causes clouded thinking, slow thought process or delays in cognition. If you drink at night – even two drinks – the next day, your thoughts aren’t as fluid, you’re not as clear, you’re not as creative. Alcohol use changes behavior. You may develop psychological issues, personality issues. It is well established in the mental health field that alcohol consumption can exacerbate underlying mental health disorders. People become more irritable, anxious, and depressed when they drink. So why do it? People use it as a coping skill. It lowers inhibitions, gives “liquid courage” and allows us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Some people use it to keep a job they hate, or to stay in a miserable marriage. It numbs pain, it’s an escape hatch for the psyche. It becomes a solution to a problem, or a way to mask the problem. Just as we are all different, the way alcohol affects us all differently.
The following factors have been shown to influence how alcohol impacts a person’s brain functioning over time:
-The volume a person drinks
-How often a person drinks
-The age at which drinking began
-The number of years a person has been drinking
-The person’s sex, age, and genetic factors
-Whether the person’s family has a history of alcoholism
-Whether the person was exposed to alcohol as a fetus
-The person’s general health
One of the biggest problems with alcohol that I see is trauma, people getting hurt. When you drink alcohol, your decision making is impaired. The brain that usually protects you is suddenly impaired, so you fall, you fight, you drive a car recklessly, and your coordination is off. You’re going to fall or make a bad decision and get hurt. So many accidents and deaths are attributed to alcohol. It’s especially disturbing because they’re preventable.
There is no bodily system that alcohol does not affect. What are other physical dangers of alcohol? Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast. The common thing that everyone understands is liver damage with alcohol. It causes fatty liver and cirrhosis of the liver which eventually kills you. There are a host of digestive problems with alcohol consumption: peptic ulcers, bleeding ulcers, diarrhea, pancreatic cysts/disease/failure. Alcohol can lead to diabetes, a compromised immune system, lung infections, stroke, and heart disease. It can be associated with memory issues, learning disorders, and neurological problems, where you have numbness in your arms and legs, lack of coordination, and slurred speech.
Alcohol plays a role in other issues as well. Family problems, legal problems, and social problems. One of the biggest concerns with drinking frequently is (or should be) dependency, becoming an alcoholic. Right now, I’m sure almost 100% of you are thinking ‘I‘d never become an alcoholic.’ There’s a television show called Intervention that documents the trials, tribulations, lifestyles, and consequences of alcoholics and drug addicts. None of them planned on becoming alcoholics back when they drank socially or just had a few drinks at night. The great news is that if you never make alcohol a part of your life, guess what? You’ll NEVER have to be an alcoholic or deal with all of the issues that come with it. I can’t stress enough how strongly you should take this to heart.
By now I’m certain that you understand the ravages and damages of alcohol use and abuse. But the dangers are minimized and we’re desensitized to it by pop culture; it’s so ubiquitous that we accept it as a part of life. If you tell someone that you don’t drink, they look at you like you have three heads. It is ingrained in every aspect of our society in terms of weddings, funerals, bars, restaurants, hotels, public events, private events, and clubs.
Have you ever noticed how glorified alcohol is? They put it in these beautiful bottles. I admire alcohol bottles. The artistry and sculpture of the bottles…they’re just beautiful. They look like there must be something very good inside, so you want to find out. When you go to a restaurant, the first question is always, “Would you like a drink?” Now, children’s birthday parties even serve drinks to the adults. If it’s so safe, why don’t we serve it to children? It’s because we know it’s poison, we know it’s dangerous, but it’s minimized. It’s socially acceptable. I’m not for prohibition; I think there is a place for alcohol in our society, but it shouldn’t be so glorified and so easily accessible. We need to acknowledge it’s dangers and be more restrictive with it. Take all-you-can drink mimosa or bloody mary brunches or happy hours for example, where drinks are two-for-one. These things encourage drunkenness, and then people leave with alcohol-induced poor decision skills and car keys in hand. These sorts of events need to be seriously restricted. There should be no event where we encourage people to get drunk. We should not condone its overuse or extoll its virtues.
With all of that said, how does an individual stop drinking alcohol? It’s a simple theory. You make a decision to stop, and then you stop. There is no other way. If you’re not in control of stopping, then who is? I’ve spent more than thirty years medically detoxing and working with people with alcohol and drug addictions, and I assure you that there is no other way to stop other than the person making the decision to stop and living with it. I’m not saying it is easy, especially with alcohol all around us in grocery stores, restaurants, on television, on billboards…it is everywhere. But it can be done. I see it every day, people living fulfilling lives without alcohol. If you want to be one of those people living without alcohol, make an appointment. I can help you. I talk more about this in my books, A Chance to Change and Tales from the Couch, both available on Amazon.Learn More