On Your Health

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The Warning Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Some Sunday brunches might seem more festive with one or two mimosas. Sometimes a cold beer after a day of yard work hits the spot. Going out on a Friday to share libations with friends can be an end-of-the-week tradition.

But how do you know when your need for alcohol becomes abnormal? When does a craving for a drink signal an alcohol addiction?

If you find yourself drinking more, in both quantity and frequency, to feel the same effects, you might be treading in dangerous waters. Additional warning signs include:

  • Giving up important activities to drink instead.
  • Spending more time drinking than with family or friends.
  • Missing work due to drinking or hangovers.

“Addiction is a process which develops in the brain over a period of time after consistent consumption of a substance. The brain cannot differentiate between a drug and food or water,” says Kimberlee V. Wilson, D.O., M.S., the former medical director of Arcadia Trails INTEGRIS Center for Addiction Recovery.

“The drug is a more powerful stimulator than natural substances, so the reward is sensed more intensely and more rapidly. Cravings for the substance and seeking the substance become the most important things. Specifically, alcohol is noticed by the brain as any other reward, like food or water, which are necessary for survival,” says Dr. Wilson.

“Alcohol addiction is a type of true brain pathology, not a character or personality flaw. It took time to happen, and it takes time to repair.”

Many people struggle to control their drinking at some time in their lives. Approximately 17 million adults ages 18 and older have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and one in 10 children lives in a home with a parent who has a drinking problem, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The good news is that no matter how bad it may seem, most people with an AUD can benefit from treatment.

What is alcohol addiction?

When uncomfortable symptoms occur after someone stops drinking, the body has physically adapted to needing it. Medical experts call this “dependence.”

“When cravings for alcohol are so intense that seeking it takes priority over other activities, and when it interferes with one’s functioning and affects home, family and work, then an addiction has developed,” says Dr. Wilson.

“We don’t call people alcoholics anymore. Instead it’s a person with an alcohol use disorder. Nor do we use alcoholism as a diagnosis. It is now called AUD because there are varying degrees of alcohol use, from mild to moderate or severe,” she says. “Some may use alcohol in low-risk amounts, while others are risky.”

One standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. According to Wilson, risky drinking for males is 14 drinks per week, or more than three drinks per day. For women and those over age 65, it’s more than two drinks per day, or more than seven per week.

“It’s important to recognize and keep track of the amount of alcohol you are consuming. Knowing the limits of low-risk drinking is an important part of staying healthy,” Dr. Wilson says.

Effects of alcohol use disorders on the body

Risky alcohol consumption interferes and impairs many physiological processes in the body. For instance, excessive alcohol use causes damage to the brain, so that a person who abuses alcohol might have trouble remembering, learning new things or making decisions that affect his or her everyday life.

Prolonged abuse can result in encephalopathy, an altered mental state that include a loss of cognitive ability, subtle personality changes, inability to concentrate, lethargy, and progressive loss of consciousness. It can also cause nervous system issues such as peripheral neuropathy, tremors and gait disturbance.

The heart and blood vessels are also affected, and the liver can experience cirrhosis and fluid retention. Excessive use of alcohol even affects your GI tract, causing esophageal tears and gastritis as well as clotting disorders.

The warning signs of alcohol addiction

There are several signs to look for when facing alcohol addiction. Some of the signs are subtle and may go unnoticed unless you’re really paying attention to them. Common signs of alcohol addiction include the following.

  • Drinking more in amount and frequency to feel the same effect
  • An increased amount of time spent seeking alcohol
  • Giving up important activities to drink
  • Spending more time drinking than with family or friends
  • Isolating from others to drink
  • Missing work, frequent tardiness or other problems occupationally
  • Legal problems, i.e. traffic tickets, DUIs or accidents
  • Falls or other accidental injury to self
  • Failure to maintain financial obligations
  • Depressed mood, anxiety, sleep disturbances or problems relating to others
  • Continued drinking despite adverse health conditions as a result of drinking

New addiction treatments

Can medications and personalized medicine help treat alcohol addiction? New research and treatments suggest it might be a possibility.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three medications for treating alcohol dependence, and others are being tested to determine if they are effective. All medications approved for treating alcohol dependence are non-addictive. These include naltrexone, which can help people reduce heavy drinking, and disulfiram, which blocks the body’s ability to break down alcohol, causing feelings of nausea that could keep people from wanting to drink.

Other treatments being studied by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism include the possibility of using Chantix, an anti-smoking drug, to curb cravings; the use of the pain and epilepsy medication gabapentin to reduce alcohol cravings; and using the anti-epileptic medication topiramate to curb problem drinking, particularly among those with a certain genetic makeup that appears to be linked to the treatment’s effectiveness.

What should you do if you think you have an alcohol use disorder? Says Dr. Wilson, “First, you have to be willing to change. That’s the hardest part.”

“Second, ask for help whether it’s from your friends, family, colleague, physician or a stranger. Third, go for an evaluation by a behavioral health or medical provider. Then, find a support person, group or system. That’s very important to help keep on track.”

Arcadia Trails Center for Addiction Recovery

Arcadia Trails, a 40-bed facility opening on May 28, is Oklahoma’s newest and most advanced residential drug and alcohol treatment center.

Situated among the rolling hills and oak forests between Lake Arcadia and Edmond on the medical campus of INTEGRIS Health Edmond, addiction is holistically addressed at Arcadia Trails, along with its co-occurring and compounding issues – mental illness and trauma – while incorporating the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The evidence-based treatments at Arcadia Trails comprise one of the most comprehensive addiction programs the region has seen. It begins with thorough, in-depth clinical evaluations that inform the development of an individualized, integrated, intentional treatment plan for each patient. The program also includes medication-assisted treatment when appropriate, overseen by Dr. Wilson, who is the Arcadia Trails addiction psychiatrist and medical director. Though the program is built on the medical model of addiction as a disease, Arcadia Trails also offers varied spiritual paths as well as an integrated family program and comprehensive aftercare planning.

To learn more, please visit the Arcadia Trails website.