Thursday December 8th 2016

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What is alcohol awareness and why is it important?

Harold Clifton Urschel III, M.D., M.M.A.
Chief Medical Strategist, Enterhealth

Alcohol awareness is basically public information about the use and abuse of alcohol. More here on the latest alcohol research, studies, stats, and treatments regarding problem drinking. Then, we invite your questions at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all questions personally and promptly!

Alcohol Addiction Statistics in America

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 engaging in binge drinking that could lead to alcohol problems. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 100,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading cause of death behind cancer and heart disease. That’s an average of 241 people per day that die because of alcohol, or 10 per hour. These startling statistics shine a glaring spotlight on how critical it is to recognize April as National Alcohol Awareness Month.

The latest scientific research, compiled over the last four decades and presented by the National Institute of Health (NIH), defines alcoholism as a treatable, chronic, medical brain disease. At the Enterhealth Ranch and Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, we took the NIH findings and developed a science-based set of treatments and protocols that are much more effective than traditional 12-step treatment programs.

We treat alcohol addiction as a medical condition-specifically, as a chronic brain disease-beginning with a complete medical and psychological assessment. Through these assessments, we are able to identify areas of the brain that have sustained injury due to alcohol addiction. It’s important to understand that alcohol addiction causes the brain to form deep physical and emotional connections between the substance and the user’s sense of pleasure. These connections make it extremely difficult for those addicted to alcohol to resist the urge to drink, meaning the brain will need at least one year to “reset” itself.

Impacts of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Drinking to excess over a period of time, or even on occasion can have a damaging toll on your health. Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:

Brain: Alcohol, which is 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, make it difficult to think clearly and logically, and also affect physical coordination.

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Liver: The liver is particularly 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 can process. Heavy drinking can lead to a variety of problems including: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.

Heart: Heavy drinking weakens the heart muscle, which means the heart can’t pump blood as effectively. This condition is called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and swollen hands and feet. Binge drinking and long-term drinking can disturb the 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 that heavy drinking increases the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is also linked to cancers of the digestive track and of the head and neck. The risk is especially high in smokers who also drink heavily.

Gender and Alcohol Addiction : Women at Risk

As society becomes more technologically advanced, both men and women feel the need to find outlets that effectively help them manage increased levels of stress. According to the NIAAA, research confirms that one of the reasons people drink is to help them cope with daily stress, such as work-life balance, financial stressors, family issues, etc. However, it is not clear just how much stress may lead an individual to suffer from alcohol dependency.

Today, women tend to have more roles to fill in our society, so in turn they have additional stressors. According to the NIAAA, an estimated 5.3 million women in the United States drink in a way that threatens their health, safety and general well-being. At Enterhealth, we are seeing more and more women who are using alcohol to cope with stress, which can be especially damaging to their health. Research shows that alcohol deteriorates women’s health at a faster rate than men’s, even in small amounts.

Although a higher percentage of men become alcoholics compared to women, when a woman does become an alcoholic, the medical problems are much more severe because of how the female body absorbs alcohol. 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 approximately 75 percent water, while body fat is only about 25 percent water. In general, women have less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol, which causes 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.

Women process alcohol very differently than men, and are more adversely affected by alcohol use-making them more vulnerable to alcohol-related diseases. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), cirrhosis, 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 show that women who drink two or more drinks per day have an increased risk for developing breast cancer.

Signs to Seek Professional Help

The NIAAA defines Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) as a medical condition that doctors can diagnose and treat when an individual’s drinking causes distress or harm. Although the condition can be mild to severe, there are signs that alcohol addiction is occurring, or on the verge of becoming a serious problem. Below are some questions derived from a standard alcohol addiction assessment, called the CAGE Questionnaire, which we commonly use to help determine if an individual is suffering from an alcohol 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 or your loved one is ready to admit to having 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 is the second step. It’s vital to find a treatment center that also serves as a support system.

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, addiction grows more serious over time. The illness becomes more difficult to treat, and the related health problems-such as organ disease, become worse. The silver lining is that there is treatment. Ideally, a patient suffering from the disease of alcohol addiction should be ready to participate in a lifelong treatment program.

Addiction is a chronic disease, and while it can be controlled, it’s important to recognize that it cannot be cured. Enterhealth, which has inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment services, offers a science-based approach to alcohol addiction treatment. A dedicated team of medical experts works with each patient on an individual basis to develop a treatment plan unique to that particular person. The approach is truly innovative and far different from traditional 12-step programs.

It starts with a complete medical and psychological assessment to create a personalized drug and alcohol addiction treatment plan. The team uses neuropsychology, medication and psychotherapy, along with medical breakthroughs that reduce cravings and give time for the brain to heal.

Since April is national Alcohol Awareness Month, I strongly urge people to pause and reflect on this epidemic and ask themselves if they or someone they love should seek help for alcohol addiction.

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About Dr. Harold C. Urschel III, MD, MMA, Chief Medical Strategist

Dr. Urschel is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Strategist for Enterhealth, one of the finest residential and outpatient treatment programs in the nation. Known as one of the country's foremost authorities on substance abuse and addiction, Dr. Harold Urschel is the author of the New York Times best seller, “Healing the Addicted Brain.” He is a coveted speaker on substance abuse and the latest treatments of the chronic brain disease of addiction on both the local and national stage.

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