Understanding Alcohol Addiction (Alcoholism)
Alcohol addiction, known also as ‘Alcoholism’ or ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’, is an illness characterised by a persistent and compulsive desire to drink alcoholic beverages, despite serious harm to physical and mental wellbeing. The term ‘alcoholic’ refers to an individual who is suffering from a drinking problem and may be physically dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol addiction is a genuine concern here in the UK, and data is now showing that since the COVID-19 pandemic, many more people could be struggling with alcoholism. It is estimated that only 18% of those who meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, seek any form of treatment in the UK.
Alcohol addiction can be caused by a number of things, including genetics, environmental factors, mental health problems or stress, and/or dissatisfaction with life. While there are different treatment options such as detox programmes, it’s important that individuals follow an alcohol recovery programme that works for them and their family members, for many, this is in the form of residential treatment.
Alcoholism is a serious health problem that can lead to a number of other conditions, including acute hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol poisoning. Many people end up having to miss work because they are unable to function properly when they are hung over or feeling ill with other symptoms associated with alcohol addiction and dependence.
Alcohol Addiction is on the Rise
Alcohol addiction in the UK is on the rise. Currently, there is a 16.8% increase in alcohol abuse in the UK, with an estimated 2 million alcoholics in the country versus to 1.6 million 10 years ago. The number of people who drink more than is recommended for health has risen from 57% to 59%, 14% of 18-24-year-olds and 9% of adults aged 25-44 are thought to be in danger of becoming alcoholics.
As much as half of the population in the UK drink more than is recommended for health, with a great number of these people being in danger of becoming alcohol addicts. Approximately 18 million people are thought to be in danger of becoming alcoholics, so it’s important that you know how to spot the signs and symptoms.
Alcohol addiction is also on the rise during the covid-19 pandemic. There is evidence to suggest that drinking among individuals with mental health problems has increased, while there’s also been an increase in individuals being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Perhaps this is because of the stress of job changes, relationship difficulties, financial stress or other issues that may cause significant distress.
Studies in the UK and other countries of the world have found that increased rates of alcohol addiction during COVID-19 have been linked directly to the pandemic. Those in higher-risk groups are more likely to be affected by alcohol addiction, and studies suggest that COVID-19 may have triggered a number of emotional problems, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to GOV.UK, alcohol related liver disease deaths rose 21% during the year of the pandemic.
Who is at Risk?
Alcohol Dependence and Pregnancy
It’s well known that alcohol consumption can have a negative effect on a developing baby. It is never safe to drink alcohol when pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Heavy drinking is linked to a range of health problems for the unborn baby, including foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are brain and nervous system conditions that tend to show up at birth or during infancy, but can continue into adulthood.
Alcoholism & Families
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence has also found that equal numbers of alcoholics and their family members become dependent to alcohol. They place the blame on a number of factors, including:
- The family environment and lifestyle, which can influence how someone develops alcoholism;
- Genetic predisposition, which is thought to play a role in around 1-2% of cases;
- Psychological reasons such as low self-esteem or depression.
Children brought up by alcoholic parents are often adversely affected by the behaviours associated with alcohol addiction. They are at risk of developing their own alcohol problems later in life.
Children of Alcoholics
The number of children and young people with a drinking problem has doubled in the last 20 years, from 1.4% in 1992 to 2.9% in 2013. Drinking among adolescents is a very big concern for families and family members, because the development of adolescent brains is impacted by alcohol consumption.
Alcohol misuse among children and young people is also a huge issue for schools. There is an increase in truancy, physical and verbal bullying, vandalism and injury. Some parents have even reported that their child has been taken out of school because they have drunk alcohol or smoked cannabis at school.
Alcoholism Affects Everyone
Alcohol addiction affects all individuals, regardless of race, religion, creed or colour. However, certain groups are more vulnerable to alcohol dependency.
Alcohol addiction is more common in men, particularly middle-aged and older people, and those who are employed. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has released a report on the causes of alcohol dependence. It states that approximately 5 to 6% of the population in the UK are addicted to alcohol, which is slightly lower than the number expected or used to be as recently as 10 years ago.
The age group with highest risk of alcoholism is between 18-44 years old, while there is a much smaller risk for people aged over 55. Alcohol dependence is also more common in men compared to women and also among working adults compared to unemployed adults.
The NICE report also suggests that women drinking in excess of recommended limits have a higher risk of becoming alcohol dependent. This has particularly been observed among women who work in the hospitality industry. Other important risk factors include working after their children have left home, being unemployed, being single or living on a low income.
How it Develops
Alcohol addiction develops gradually and may not become apparent for a few years. Alcohol addiction can develop on its own, but it is more likely to develop when someone has an underlying problem like depression or anxiety. Some people have a change in their life that causes a shift in their emotions and leads them to experiment with alcohol.
If they begin to drink regularly, they may begin to associate drinking with positive feelings, leading them to continue drinking as part of the ‘solution’ for their problems. While some people may simply change their behaviour through experimentation, others will become dependent on alcohol. It’s important not to try and stop drinking or reduce your intake too quickly – this can lead to further withdrawal symptoms such as shaking and nausea.
Alcohol addiction is often recognised in stages. The first stage can be called the “dry drunk,” which takes place within the first 6 months of regular drinking. As the person continues to drink, they will gradually consume more alcohol for longer periods with less and less sleep, and may begin to feel hungover or have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. By this time, they will have developed some tolerance to alcohol and won’t feel as bad after drinking as much as they did previously.
The final stage of alcohol addiction is known as ‘end stage alcoholism’, by which point it will be evident that someone is unable to stop drinking, and is showing clear signs of health complications and relationship issues at home or in the workplace.
Seeking treatment at this stage is vital to reversing damage to the body and vital organs such as the liver.
Alcohol Addiction and the Brain
Alcohol addiction & dependence both change a person’s brain chemistry. More specifically, it alters the way the brain works in two main ways:
- The reward pathway – this is the mechanism of the brain that is linked to addiction or drug seeking behaviour. This is where cravings for alcohol come from, and it’s also responsible for making someone feel they need a drink at certain times of day, such as when they arrive home from work or before they go out with friends.
- The working memory pathway – this is where the brain helps us co-ordinate our actions and think about the future. When someone is becoming dependent on alcohol, these pathways can become distorted, which can result in problems with learning and reasoning.
Signs & Symptoms
It’s important that you know the signs of alcoholism, as well as when you need to seek help for alcohol addiction. For example, if your loved one or colleague is drinking more and is experiencing related problems at home and at work, it may be an indication that they are developing an alcohol problem. One of the biggest signs is when someone begins to lie about their drinking habits or hides their alcohol from friends or family in order to appear sober while drinking.
Other signs to watch out for include:
- anxiety or depression
- deterioration in social and occupational functioning (a drop in quality of work, being fired or demoted at work)
- withdrawal from friends and family (“missing them”), as well as isolating themselves from others when they are sober.
There can also be physical signs of alcoholism, which vary from person to person. Some people may start to experience physical changes such as loss of muscle mass or bone density, yellowing of the skin and appearance of liver damage. A decline in body temperature is another sign that someone may have a drinking problem. While drugs or medical problems can cause this to happen, it’s more common among alcoholics.
Dangers of Long-term Abuse
There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that alcohol dependence is a major risk factor for chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, depression, high blood pressure and other cancers. Research has also shown that the more the alcohol dependence progresses in an individual, the more damage they suffer as a result of their addiction.
Long term alcohol abuse can pose significant health risks including:
- Alcoholic liver disease (fatty liver) – drinking can lead to fatty liver disease. This is more likely to occur when someone drinks more than 3 or 4 units a day. Fatty liver can be treated, but it can also become very serious and eventually lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) which will require a liver transplant.
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome – if someone is dependent on alcohol, their body becomes used to having a regular intake of alcohol, whatever the quantity, and they also become used to experiencing the effects of alcohol in their body every time they drink.
When they decrease or stop drinking, they suffer from withdrawal syndrome, which are the symptoms that occur after stopping drinking. Some of the most common and severe symptoms include tremors, shaking, vomiting and even seizures. About 23% of alcoholics suffer from seizures due to alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
- Alcoholic gastritis – this is a common problem among alcoholics because excessive drinking will irritate and inflame the lining of the stomach. This is more common when someone drinks a great deal of alcohol over a long period of time.
- Aneurysm – an aneurysm is a build-up in the blood vessels. Aneurysms can form in the brain, heart or even the renal artery (the main artery to the kidneys). This is another common problem for alcoholics because their lifestyle puts them at a high risk of having these aneurysms develop.
- Depression – alcoholics are at a high risk of developing depression. The loss of coping skills and poor social support as well as the stress of being dependent on alcohol can lead to depression.
The key to overcoming alcoholism is finding a treatment plan that works for you. If you or a loved one have made previous attempts to quit drinking but failed, alcohol addiction treatment in a residential setting may be the opportunity you need for a clean break.
It is never too late to quit drinking, and it is never too early to get help. If you have any further questions or concerns about alcohol use at home, or you’re unsure as to what type of treatment is best for you or a loved one, call our friendly team of addiction specialists today for further support.