April is Alcohol Awareness Month, but at Enterhealth Ranch, a residential alcohol addiction treatment center, we work every day to raise the issues about alcohol abuse, new advances in alcohol treatment and remind everyone that alcoholism is a disease.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the United States, where 17.6 million people—or one in every 12 adults—suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, with several million more people who are binge drinkers at great risk of becoming alcoholics. More than 100,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the third leading cause of death behind cancer and heart disease, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). That’s an average of 241 people per day that die because of alcohol, or 10 per hour. These startling statistics alone are reason enough to increase awareness of alcohol addiction.
The latest scientific research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), compiled over the last four decades, defines alcoholism as a treatable, chronic, medical brain disease. At Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, our science-based treatments and protocols, based on NIH research findings, are at least three times more effective than traditional 12-step treatment programs. We treat alcohol addiction as a medical condition—specifically, as a chronic brain disease—and our treatment begins with a complete medical and psychological assessment from which we identify areas of the brain that have sustained injury due to alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction causes the brain to form deep physical and emotional connections between the substance and the user’s sense of pleasure; therefore, these connections make it very difficult for alcoholics to resist the urge to drink. From a treatment perspective, this means the brain will need at least one year to “reset” itself after undergoing alcohol detox and alcohol addiction treatment.
Gender and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol has long been misused as a means to relax, unwind and manage stress, and changes in society, such as more technology, longer work hours and both husband and wife working have contributed to new levels of stress not seen in generations of the past. According to the NIAAA, one reason people drink alcohol is to help cope with daily stress. At Enterhealth Ranch, our residential alcohol treatment center in Texas, we are seeing an increasing number of women using alcohol to cope with these new stressors. The NIAAA reports that about 5.3 million American women drink alcohol in a way that threatens their health, safety and general well-being. Research shows alcohol deteriorates women’s health at a faster rate than men’s health, even in small amounts.
Although more men become alcoholics compared to women, female alcoholics tend to have more severe medical problems than male alcoholics because females biologically react to alcohol differently. Women metabolize and absorb alcohol much differently than men, because women have less body water compared to men. Regardless of weight and height, women have a larger proportion of body fat compared to men, who have a larger proportion of muscle mass. Muscle mass is about 75 percent water; body fat is about 25 percent water. In general, women have less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol, thus causing their blood alcohol concentration to be higher. Women also have lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Found mostly in the stomach, alcohol dehydrogenase is the primary enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. Women have lower levels of the enzyme compared to men, which means they will absorb higher levels of alcohol into their bloodstream.
Because women process alcohol differently than men, women are more adversely affected by alcohol abuse and more vulnerable to alcohol-related diseases. The NIAAA says that cirrhosis of the liver (or “alcoholic liver”) death rates are about two times higher in women than in men. Women who drink also have a higher risk for developing high blood pressure and stroke than men, making women more susceptible to heart disease. Recent studies also find women who drink two or more drinks per day have an increased risk for developing breast cancer.
Impacts of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Whether you drink to excess over a period of time or only on occasion, both can damage your health.
Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:
Brain: Alcohol, a neurotoxin, interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can severely affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can alter mood and behavior, impair clear and logical thinking and affect physical coordination.
Liver: The liver is especially susceptible to alcohol-related damage because it’s the primary site of alcohol metabolism. Your liver can become injured or seriously damaged if you drink more alcohol than it is able to process. Heavy drinking can lead to a variety of problems such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Heart: Heavy drinking weakens the heart muscle, reducing the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. This condition is called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and swollen hands and feet. Both binge drinking and long-term drinking can disturb your heartbeat. Among heavy drinkers, women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease, even though most women drink less alcohol over a lifetime compared with men.
Cancer: Many studies report heavy drinking increases the risk of breast cancer. Alcoholism is also linked to cancers of the digestive track and of the head and neck. Cancer risk is especially high for smokers who also drink heavily.
Signs to Seek Professional Help
The NIAAA defines Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) as a medical condition that doctors can diagnose and treat when a person’s drinking causes distress or harm. Although the condition can be mild to severe, there are signs that alcohol addiction is occurring or is on the verge of becoming a serious problem. Below are some questions from a standard alcohol addiction assessment (CAGE Questionnaire) that we at Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence use to help determine if someone has an alcohol abuse problem.
• Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
• Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
• Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
• Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (eye opener)?
If you, your loved one, or someone you know is ready to admit he or she has a drinking problem, the first step has already been taken. It takes tremendous strength and courage to face alcohol abuse and addiction head on. Reaching out for support from loved ones and friends is the second step. It’s critical to also seek alcohol detox and addiction treatment from a treatment center developed by and administered by healthcare professionals, such as what you will find at Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence.
Alcohol Addiction is a Treatable Chronic Brain Disease
People facing alcohol addiction cannot control their need for alcohol, even in the face of failing health, social or legal consequences. This lack of control is the result of alcohol-induced changes to the brain. As we know, alcohol addiction grows in severity over time. Alcoholism becomes more difficult to treat and related health problems, such as organ disease, become worse. The silver lining is that there is an alcohol addiction treatment program that is three times more effective than outdated traditional programs. Addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension or asthma, and it is important to understand that only with continued treatment can it be brought under control. Enterhealth, which has residential alcohol treatment and outpatient addiction treatment services, offers a science-based approach administered by a dedicated medical team that works with each patient individually, developing the right treatment plan for each patient. The Enterhealth approach is truly innovative and three times more effective than traditional 12-step programs. Starting with a complete medical and psychological assessment to create a personalized drug and alcohol addiction treatment plan, the Enterhealth team uses neuropsychology, medication and psychotherapy, along with medical breakthroughs that reduce cravings and give time for the brain to heal.
April is national Alcohol Awareness Month, and we at Enterhealth Ranch and Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence strongly urge everyone to pause and reflect on this epidemic. If you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol, please don’t delay and seek help now.