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Drinking alcohol is a common social activity in the United States with about 86% of adults having at least 1 drink in the last year. Alcohol is also one of the most commonly misused addictive substances in the US as 13% of American adults meet the criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The widespread social acceptance of alcohol leads many to deny or hide their problem; however, alcoholism can have serious risks and negative impacts.
What Is Alcohol?
Ethanol is the intoxicating agent found in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and liquor. Fermented from the sugars in fruits, berries, and grains, alcohol is a legal, controlled substance in the US and most of the world. Alcohol is a depressant that produces a large number of effects when consumed, ranging from lowering anxiety and inhibitions to nausea and vomiting. These effects and their severity will differ from person to person. Drinking alcohol is often a component of social events for adults across the world.
How Does Alcohol Affect The Mind And Body?
When alcohol is swallowed, it travels to the stomach and the small intestine. About 20% of the substance is absorbed through the stomach, while the other 80% is absorbed through the small intestine. Blood vessels near these organs rapidly transport alcohol through the bloodstream to the rest of the body. Alcohol interacts with and rapidly disrupts the normal functioning of many body systems.
Most of the alcohol that enters the body is metabolized by enzymes in the liver but less than 10% is excreted through urine, sweat, and other mechanisms. Because essentially all alcohol is broken down by the liver, there can be extensive strain put on the organ with long-term alcohol use. Generally, the body processes the equivalent of 1 standard drink (1 glass of beer, 1 glass of wine, or 1 shot of liquor) every hour.
When alcohol enters the brain, it interacts with neurotransmitters, a series of electrical connections in the brain that send messages to the body. This impacts mood, awareness, perception, and much more.
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Types Of Alcohol
Beer is one of the oldest and most popular types of alcohol. Beer is typically made from water, grain, hops, and yeast. There are many types of beer, such as ales, lagers, stouts, porters, bocks, and pilsners, and thousands of brands. Beer typically has less alcohol content by volume (ABV) than wine or liquor, with the average being 4.5%. A standard drink, or the amount of alcohol the body can process in an hour, of most beers is a 12-ounce glass. However, beers with much higher ABV, like craft beer, will take longer to process.
Throughout history, wine has been intertwined with agriculture, cuisine, civilization, and humanity. Still a popular type of alcohol today, wine is fermented juice from grapes. Occasionally, other fruits are fermented along with grapes to make specific flavored wines, such as peach wine. Wines fall into 2 categories: white wines (such as chardonnay, pinot grigio, riesling, and moscato) and red wines (such as merlot, cabernet, pinot noir, and zinfandel). Wines typically have ABV between beer and liquor at about 12% on average. A standard drink of wine is 5-ounces. Greater ABV makes it easier to get more intoxicated on smaller amounts when compared to beer.
Liquor, or hard liquor, is a generic term for a large number of alcoholic drinks. Some of the most widely known types of liquor are whiskey, rum, tequila, gin, vodka, brandy, cognac, and schnapps. Liquor is frequently mixed with other beverages before consumption, creating what are known as mixed drinks. While every type of liquor is made differently, all of them are distilled or refined in some manner which causes a very high alcohol content. The average ABV for liquor is 40%. A standard drink is a 1.5-ounce shot glass. Extreme distillation can produce liquor with more than double that ABV, however. The higher ABV of liquor has a tendency to produce effects faster and to make drinkers feel more drunk.
The way alcohol affects each person will differ depending on the amount consumed, genetics, gender, stomach content, and level of hydration. However, the severity of effects and risk for an alcohol use disorder can be predicted by the distinct degrees of alcohol use. The different drinking patterns are:
Moderate drinking is defined as 1 standard drink a day for women and 2 standard drinks a day for men. A standard drink can be:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of liquor
It is recommended that adults drink alcohol moderately or not at all as moderate drinking is not risk free.
Heavy drinking, or high-risk drinking, is classified by 3 or more drinks a day for women and 4 or more drinks for men a day. This also can be 8 drinks per week for women and 15 drinks per week for men. Drinking these amounts of alcohol increases the risk for serious health issues such as cancer, stroke, pancreatitis, and death.
Binge drinking brings an individual’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to .08 g/dl or higher. This can occur when women consume 4 or more drinks in 2 hours and when men consume 5 or more drinks in the same amount of time. While binge drinking is very common, this drinking pattern can result in fatal outcomes and other serious health risks.
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Over time, alcohol use changes the chemical balance of the brain and other organs. The brain adapts to these changes and becomes dependent on alcohol to perform normal functions. This dependency can negatively affect an individual’s personal relationships, professional life, and health. When an individual continues to drink despite harmful impacts, an alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, has developed.
Alcohol addiction is a progressive disorder which means it gets worse over time with continued use. Because of this progressive nature, it is easier to treat alcohol addiction and abuse in its early stages. Treatment begins with detoxing the body of alcohol. This process should be followed by inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation to treat the root causes of a person’s alcoholism. Aftercare, such as support groups, can help to reduce the risk of relapse and prevent an AUD from forming again.
The Time For Alcohol Rehab Is Now
Whether you or a loved one have been a long-time alcoholic or unhealthy drinking habits are just starting to appear, treatment is always an option. Contact a treatment provider to discuss rehab-related help.
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