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Alcohol Use

From Recreational Use To Problem Drinking

When people first start to drink, a drinking problem may be a long way from their minds. A glass of wine, a beer, or liquor bring people a sense of relief, make them more confident, and ease their interaction with friends.

But what happens after that one glass of wine turns into two, three … or more? What is the line between a recreational drink and an intoxication? How does the use of alcohol affect a person’s brain and body?

Here, we’ll describe how alcohol problems can be recognized solely by the number daily drinks a person takes. Plus, we’ll reveal more about the use of alcohol and its effects. At the end, we welcome your questions about alcohol use. We do our best to provide our readers with a personal and prompt response to all real-life issues.
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Medical Use Of Alcohol

You might be surprised to know that alcohol is used as medical treatments. In hospitals, doctors prescribe and use ethanol for off-label treatment of methanol and ethylene glycol (antifreeze) poisoning. Ethanol is also used for rare venous and lymphatic malformations. In some cases, alcohol is used as a caloric source in some intravenous preparations. Alcohol is also used as a solvent for some therapeutic medicines, and for hygiene products like mouthwash and skin cleansers. For therapeutic purposes, alcohol is always diluted in varying concentrations and then administered intravenously.

Medical Benefits of Drinking?

Several studies have shown that alcohol has benefits, notably on areas of heart and cognitive function. Several population-wide studies show that low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption can reduce your risk of having coronary heart disease.

Men and women who drink low amounts of alcohol appear to suffer fewer deaths compared to abstainers and heavy consumers.

Several recent studies also showed you can improve cognitive function and cut your risk of having dementia through moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, “moderate drinking” is clearly defined having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This definition refers to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days.

Recreational Use Of Alcohol

So, why do people drink for enjoyment?

Drinkers drink alcohol mainly due to its pleasurable effects. Alcohol causes release of hormones called “endorphins” that result in an increased sensation of pleasure. However, the pleasure caused by drinking can cause you to drink more than recommended levels. Taking more than 5 standard drinks at one sitting is harmful and can result in alcohol overdose, which harms your health.

Drinking alcoholic beverages are also a pastime and social activity in many parts of the world. Some cultures, like in Mediterranean countries, have an established drinking culture where everyday drinking is viewed as peaceful and harmonious. However, some drinkers mix medicines together with alcohol to produce a different effect; this practice is dangerous. Alcohol may enhance the effects of some medications, or result in adverse effects.

What Is Long-Term Alcohol Use?

There is no clear definition of long-term alcohol use. Some people may drink alcohol several times a week for decades without experiencing adverse effects. But others may develop health problems after a few weeks to months of regular drinking. Nonetheless, drinking to excess can result in dependence and health problems.

In any case, excessive alcohol use will cause you problems. If you take more than one standard drink per day for women, or two standard drinks per day for men, you are at risk of developing alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse problem.

NOTE HERE: One standard drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol

Risks Of Prolonged Alcohol Use

Heavy drinking practices can also result in:

  • cancers in the mouth, esophagus and liver
  • cirrhosis of the liver or liver damage
  • heart muscle damage
  • pancreatitis, stroke and hypertension
  • risk of miscarriage, premature birth and fetal alcohol syndrome to pregnant women
  • sudden death due to heart disease
  • suicide and accidental injury that may result to death

Prolonged use of alcohol can also result in dependence and alcohol withdrawal when you try to quit. Regular alcohol intake creates abnormal changes in the functioning of the nervous system. The brain actually has to change its chemistry to accommodate the chemicals found in alcohol. This is why people who are alcohol dependent experience withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.

Detox symptoms (also called alcohol withdrawal syndrome) occur if alcohol intake is reduced or stopped suddenly in a person who becomes physically dependent. Without medical help, alcohol withdrawal can be serious. Withdrawal symptoms are best addressed in an alcohol detox program under medical supervision.

Finally, a person can become an alcoholic drinker after prolonged periods of drinking. A person addicted to alcohol has a compulsion to drinking, a need to drink progressively increasing amounts of alcohol over time. In such case, stopping is no longer a free will option because the need to drink is as strong as the need for food or water…and alcohol addiction treatment may be necessary.

Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication occurs after you a drink larger amount of alcohol than your body is capable of metabolizing. The experience of intoxication begins as an extension of the usual and expected effects of alcohol. The cerebral cortex of the brain is affected by alcohol after you consume one or two 10-g drinks within 1 hour. Many people typically experience a sense of relaxation, well-being, and a loss of inhibition.

However, when you become intoxicated, you begin to act differently.

A person is considered “alcohol intoxicated” if he/she shows the following signs:

  • coma
  • involuntary eye movement
  • lack of attention
  • lack of coordination
  • memory impairment
  • slurred speech

The state of intoxication is time limited.

When alcohol is no longer present and has been eliminated from the body, the person essentially returns to the state that existed prior to drinking. When alcohol consumption ceases, Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) decreases. An individual with a steadily declining BAC reaches a state of relative mood of discontent and physical discomfort, or to be more specific…. a hangover.

As BAC declines, people usually experience nausea, vomiting, headache, aching limbs, sweating, and goose bumps. Excessive urination induced by the large quantities of alcohol in the body can further cause dehydration. The lack of water is the usual cause of headaches. This state is generally accompanied by low energy as restorative sleep is difficult to achieve in a relaxed and natural way because of alcohol intoxication.

How And Why Do You Get Intoxicated?

The more you drink, the greater the effects. The reason people often become more active when they’ve had a drink is due to the fact that alcohol affects parts of the brain responsible for self-control. So, what’s happening inside the body?

Water-soluble alcohol (ethanol) travels through the body and crosses the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.  The brain essentially contains circuits of interconnected neurons that pass or transmit information. These circuits are responsible for controlling people’s actions and behavior.

Once in the brain, alcohol affects brain nerve cells or neurons that generate and conduct electrical signals. 

In reality, alcohol alters the chemical communication or signaling between neurons. This is why causes behavioral effects such as slowed responses, relaxation, or even social inhibition.

As a person increases the intake of alcohol in a short period of time, the body is unable to metabolize it and eliminate it through urine. This is how people actually flood their brain with alcohol. Luckily, alcohol gives people some warning signs as it penetrates into the brain and central nervous system. So if people are able to register these signs, they might be able to moderate their drinking or completely stop.

But for those who do not do this, the continued intake of alcohol escalates to the actual point of intoxication. This state is characterized by the need to vomit, or a visit to the emergency room. Severe cases of heavy drinking can result in alcoholic poisoning, coma, or death.

Intoxication Vs. Drunkenness: Is There A Difference?

Alcohol intoxication is a physical state that occurs after you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is a term often used in a complementary way to describe the behavior of an intoxicated person.

In short, alcohol intoxication is a pathophysiological state, a disturbance of normal physical, mechanical and biochemical functions that comes as a consequence of acute alcohol consumption. Drunkenness signifies the behavior and social effects that tend to be context-specific.

Questions about alcohol use

Do you still have questions about drinking or its effects? Please leave your questions in the comments section at the end. We love to hear from our readers. And we try to respond to all questions personally and promptly.

Reference sources: CDC: Alcohol FAQS
NIH: Overview of Alcohol Consumption
NIH: Alcohol Use Disorder
NIH: Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much
CDC: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths

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