If you or a loved one has a long-term alcohol use disorder you are probably well aware of the short-term adverse affects caused by alcohol abuse. These effects cut a wide swath through a person’s life, negatively impacting physical and mental health, experiencing blackouts and horrible hangovers, excess absenteeism from work or college, reduced job or academic performance, legal problems, relationship troubles, and financial fallout. While all these consequences are possible as a result of problem drinking, the long-term health effects of alcoholism are truly devastating.
Unfortunately, while learning about the health effects of a serious alcohol use disorder should be a deterrent to heavy drinking, if the disease has taken hold of you it is very difficult to overcome the powerful drive to engage in compulsive drinking. Over time, driven by the reward system, the brain has been remapped, with alterations in neural pathways keeping the person caught up in the cycle of alcohol dependence.
Even knowing the health risks at hand, and you want to stop drinking, quitting alcohol requires a comprehensive treatment approach that starts with a closely monitored alcohol detox and then segues into therapeutic activities that help break the addiction-driven thought and behavior patterns. That said, it is important to know that alcohol use disorder is treatable, and the disease can be managed long term. This reality offers hope to anyone who is committed to get professional help and then make the lifestyle changes required to overcome the grip of alcoholism.
How is Heavy Drinking Defined?
When chronic alcohol abuse begins to cause negative consequences or impairment it is considered an alcohol use disorder (AUD). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 14.4 million Americans struggle with an AUD annually. Depending on how many of the diagnostic symptoms are experienced in a one-year period, the AUD is classified as mild, moderate, or severe.
Someone with a mild or emerging AUD may be able to stop drinking alcohol safely by incrementally reduce consumption over a couple of weeks until they are fully abstinent from the substance. Combining alcohol cessation with 12-step meetings and embracing a sober lifestyle can help someone with mild AUD stop the problem before it escalated.
For moderate to severe AUD, however, it is always advised that a medically supervised detox is completed where withdrawal symptoms and vital signs can be carefully monitored. According to the DSM-5, there are 11 criteria for identifying an AUD:
- You consume more alcohol or drink over a longer period than intended.
- You attempt to cut back or stop drinking but couldn’t.
- You spend a lot of time obtaining alcohol, drinking, or recovering from its effects.
- You experience alcohol cravings.
- Your alcohol use caused you to neglect family obligations or caused problems at work or in school.
- You continued to consume alcohol regardless of these problems.
- You lost interest in, or discontinued, activities or hobbies you once enjoyed.
- You engaged in high-risk behaviors due to alcohol consumption.
- You continue to drink even with it causing mental health or medical problems or a blackout.
- You increased your alcohol consumption to achieve the initial effects once experienced.
- You experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when the effects of the alcohol are wearing off, or drink alcohol to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
Having 2-3 symptoms indicates a mild AUD, 4 or 5 indicates a moderate AUD, and over 6 indicates a severe AUD.
What are the Signs of a Drinking Problem?
Alcohol abuse may begin in college. Binge drinking and drinking games are common on college campuses. But it can take years for alcohol misuse to begin to reveal real negative consequences. It is always best to recognize the AUD warning signs early on so appropriate steps can be taken to proactively obtain professional help.
Some of the signs of an alcohol problem include:
- Increased tolerance to alcohol, leading to higher alcohol consumption in an effort to experience the initial desirable effects
- Neglecting daily responsibilities, such as parenting obligations or paying bills
- Lying to others about how much you drink, hiding alcohol around the house, in the car, or at work
- Becoming obsessive about having alcohol available, looking forward to drinking, seeking excuses to drink
- Experiencing problems at work, declining work performance, termination from job
- Isolating from friends and family so you can drink in private
- Have legal problems due to drinking, such as DUI or child custody challenges
- Drinking has a negative impact on personal relationships
- Experience alcohol cravings
What are Long-Term Heavy Drinking Side Effects?
Alcohol abuse can take a heavy toll on your body. Some of the most serious long-term effects of alcoholism include:
- Brain damage. Long-term alcohol use disorder can cause tremendous damage to the brain. Chronis alcohol misuse can result in the following brain conditions:
- Thiamine deficiency that can lead to Wernicke Encephalopathy
- Early onset dementia
- Loss of blood flow volumes and neuronal density
- Causes brain cell death
- Cerebellar Syndrome
- Psychological damage, including depression
- Liver damage. The liver loses its ability to filter the toxins related to the ethyl alcohol, which can cause serious liver damage over time. These include:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Pancreas damage. Alcohol causes direct toxic effects on the pancreas, primarily in causing pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can start as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in alcoholics, and then progress to the more serious disease, alcohol pancreatitis.
- Heart damage. Chronic heavy drinking side effects can include heart damage, including the following heart conditions:
- Irregular heart beats, or arrhythmias
- High blood pressure
- Cancer. Several cancers are associated with chronic alcohol abuse. These include:
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Colorectal cancer
Other long-term heavy drinking side effects include a weakened immune system and cognitive disability.
What Happens During Alcohol Detox?
If you have a moderate to severe AUD you should not attempt alcohol detox on your own. Unpredictable and serious withdrawal symptoms can possibly emerge, creating a medical emergency. A trained medical detox team will provide support throughout the detox process, assisting you through the difficult withdrawal symptoms using medical interventions.
The severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends on the length of time with the AUD and the usual daily levels of alcohol consumption. Other factors that influence the intensity of withdrawal are age, overall physical health, whether there are other drugs of abuse involved, and a co-occurring mood disorder. Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe depending on these factors.
Alcohol detox progresses through the following stages:
Stage 1: Symptoms commence 6-12 hours after the last alcoholic drink. This early phase lasts only one day and includes such symptoms as hand tremors, headaches, irritability, and nausea.
Stage 2: Symptoms generally peak during this phase, which begins on day 2 and usually lasts two days. This stage includes such symptoms as vomiting, sweating, confusion, fever, irritability, mood swings, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia. Those with more severe alcohol dependence may also experience hallucinations, mental confusion, and elevated blood pressure. There is also a risk of seizure.
The DTs may emerge on days 3 or 4 in about 5% of people going through alcohol detox. The symptoms of the DTs include:
- Extreme mental confusion
- Shortness of breath
- Vivid hallucinations, both auditory and visual
- Extreme tremors
Stage 3: Starting on day 5 the withdrawal symptoms begin to subside as the brain stabilizes. While the intensity of the symptoms decreases, some will continue to experience psychological side effects such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability.
How is Alcoholism Treated?
Once the alcohol detox is completed you will begin the addiction treatment program. This is a necessary step in alcoholism recovery, as the chronic intake of alcohol has affected neurotransmitter systems in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine receptors, increased activation of the GABA receptor. These are structural changes in brain functioning that have hardwired the addictive behaviors. Making behavioral changes in recovery is dependent on participating in various forms of psychotherapy and other interventions:
- Psychotherapy. Provided in individual and group formats, the most effective forms of psychotherapy for treating alcohol addiction include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and contingency management (CM). Other therapies might include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and motivational interviewing.
- Education. Extensive education about the affects of alcohol on the brain and how addiction develops can be a deterrent to recurrent alcohol use. Classes include planning strategies for relapse prevention, which involves identifying triggers and planning proactive actions to avoid relapse. Other recovery skills taught are effective communication techniques and emotion regulation.
- Holistic activities. Holistic activities teach individuals in recovery how to regulate stress through breathing exercises, yoga, massage, practicing mindfulness, journaling, guided meditation, art therapy, and regular exercise.
- Recovery groups. Many rehabs incorporate AA’s 12-step programming into the treatment program, where others use alternative recovery support, such as SMART Recovery.
Coming to terms with a serious AUD is a lifelong pursuit that does not end after detox and rehab. Long-term recovery involves a completely different way of thinking and behaving. Continuing with aftercare activities and accessing the coping skills learned in treatment, those new habits will take root and set the scene for a productive and joy-filled life in recovery.
LifeSync Malibu Provides Comprehensive Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
LifeSync Malibu is a physician owned and operated luxury residential treatment program situated in scenic Malibu, California. Our expert team is here to help you move through the phases of alcohol recovery, partnering with you along the way. For more information about our evidence-based treatment program, please contact us today at (866) 491-4426.