The word alcoholism or alcoholic has over time taken on a variety of definitions. In general terms an alcoholic is someone who can’t control his or her drinking and is physically dependent upon alcohol. There is usually a mental component to alcohol addiction as well. Alcoholism is almost always a progressive disease that requires the individual to continue to drink more to achieve the same results. Most professionals agree that alcohol abuse is not necessarily the same as alcohol dependence or addiction. Problem drinkers drink enough that it interferes with their daily lives in a negative way yet they may not be totally dependent on alcohol.
Symptoms of Alcoholism
There are several signs of alcoholism. Each alcoholic may not exhibit each symptom or to the same degree as someone else. The first symptom of alcoholism is the inability to control how many drinks an individual consumes. Developing a tolerance in which more and more alcohol is desired and needed is also a symptom. Another sign is drinking alone or attempting to hide how much is being drank. Other signs include gulping drinks, hiding alcohol, and drinking to the point of blacking out. Having serious problems with relationships, work, or legal issues because of excessive drinking are also symptoms. Binge drinkers and problem drinkers may also exhibit some of these symptoms as well.
Causes of Alcoholism
The causes of alcoholism, while complex and unique for each individual, are usually a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A history of alcoholism in the family puts an individual at higher risk of developing problems with alcohol. Trauma and a lack of family support are environmental factors that can contribute to alcoholism. According to the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism is a process that occurs gradually. However, they also state that some individuals have an abnormal response to the alcohol when they first start drinking. It is interesting to note that people of various racial groups metabolize alcohol in different ways. African Americans and some Native American groups have been shown to metabolize alcohol more quickly than other groups, thus leading to less alcohol dependency. However, Native Americans living on reservations have higher rates of alcoholism than other races. In these cases the trauma of poverty and difficult living conditions may be a stronger influence than the genetic factor.
Alcohol Addiction & Its Treatment – Conventional Treatment
Conventional treatment begins with the detoxification process. This is done in a controlled setting, usually a hospital or rehabilitation center. Detox usually takes anywhere from three to seven days, perhaps longer, depending upon the severity of the addiction. The next step involves the rehabilitation process. Rehabilitation can take place in a hospital, a residential program, or on an outpatient basis. Each of these methods have variations and sub-categories as well. For example, outpatient treatment can range from meeting once or twice a week for an hour at a time, to a more intensive program that involves meeting every day. Continuing support through group or individual counseling follows rehabilitation. Medication is sometimes used as part of the process as well. Traditional treatment for alcoholism stresses complete abstinence and has often been based on a 12 step program.
Some alternatives to treating alcoholism include the herb Kudzu. This plant grows naturally in China and Japan and may also be helpful in treating heart disease and diabetes. Other alternative treatments have advocated a tapering approach to reducing alcohol consumption instead of completely stopping alcohol consumption at one time. Withdrawal can sometimes be so serious in alcoholics as to cause seizures or death. Topamax can help some individual’s taper off alcohol without stopping their drinking cold turkey. The drug works by inhibiting the chemicals in the brain that make people feel good when they drink.
Many medical professionals are now proposing that using a variety of medication in combination with cognitive therapy may be the best approach to treating alcoholism. Cognitive therapy teaches individuals that although they may not always be able to control their circumstances, they can control how they react to them. They are taught to avoid places and situations that may cause them to drink, and how to better cope with stress in their lives. In conjunction with therapy, medication such as Naltrexone and Acamprosate are sometimes used to control cravings.
For some drinkers whose alcoholism is not severe, and especially for those who would be considered problem drinkers, drinking in moderation may be an option that many who support traditional rehabilitation are not open to. When it comes to what type of treatment is most successful it may be a matter of what simply works for each person. Every individual’s emotional, genetic, and physical makeup is unique. Unfortunately, it may take several attempts at treatment to find what type works best for each individual.
Relapse is starting to drink again after a sustained period of abstinence. Between 50 and 90 percent of alcoholics will relapse at least once. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), relapse causes are generally categorized into three areas. These triggers include being exposed to small amounts of alcohol, being in certain situations or environments that an individual is used to drinking in, and stress. JAMA Psychiatry reported that increased activity in a section of the brain called the prefrontal cortex was a strong indication of the potential for relapse. Individuals with increased activity in this area of the brain were up to eight times more likely to relapse within 90 days than those whose brain activity was calmer in this same area. This means that when social drinkers were relaxed the activity in this area of the brain was relaxed as well. Alcoholics, while appearing to be relaxed, still displayed increased activity in this section of the brain. Since overall levels of stress is a cause of excessive drinking as well as relapse, many alcoholics may have a hyperactive brain that subconsciously encourages them to drink.