It is estimated that about three-quarters of the population drink alcohol. Of this number, about 10% will find that their alcohol consumption leads to serious problems involving their health, work, finances, and relationships with family and friends. When a person uses alcohol despite apparent harm to their health and well-being, it is called alcohol abuse (or dependence), or alcoholism.
Men are 5 times more likely than women to develop alcoholism. However, the incidence of alcoholism among women has increased in the past 30 years.
Alcoholism is a medical condition. While the exact cause of alcoholism is unknown, research has shown increasing evidence that susceptibility to it may be inherited and the risk of developing this medical condition rises significantly in families with relatives (in particular, parents and siblings) who are dependent on alcohol.
Additional risk factors include having a psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety disorders. Poverty, social isolation, and shyness may also be risk factors.
In addition, how one's body processes alcohol can affect the risk of developing a dependence on alcohol. Research has shown that people who need comparatively more alcohol to achieve an effect are more likely to become alcohol dependent.
All drugs affect a "reward mechanism" in the brain. If a person feels good each time they use a drug, it tends to make them want to use the drug again. This common feature could explain why people abuse drugs, including alcohol. As with most drugs, though, if you use them regularly, your body tends to require increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the same effect. This is called tolerance, and it may be the final factor that contributes to the development of drug or alcohol dependence.
Alcohol is poisonous to many types of human cells. In small quantities it can suppress their activity. In large doses, it can kill them. While most drugs that act on the brain stimulate production of brain hormones like serotonin and dopamine, alcohol actually reduces levels of these chemicals while increasing levels of some others. It's a depressant in that it has the opposite chemical effect to a prescribed antidepressant. Nevertheless, since it also depresses activity in the part of the brain that restrains and inhibits our behaviour, most people find the effect pleasant while quantities are taken in moderation.
At higher doses, it quickly becomes apparent that alcohol is in fact toxic. The main symptoms are vomiting, stupor, behavioural changes, and major impairment of the central nervous system followed by dehydration and a whopping headache. At high doses, alcohol can be fatal by shutting down breathing or stopping the heart.
Even non-lethal doses can kill. Aspiration pneumonia is a condition that occurs when people, sleeping off a very heavy night's drinking, suffocate when their own vomit is inhaled into their lungs. There is a gag reflex that should automatically prevent this, but it can malfunction when the nervous system is depressed.
Anyone who drinks alcohol after going a long time without food can have an attack of hypoglycemia, a sudden shortage of blood sugar, causing nervous symptoms like stupor or abnormal behaviour and, in severe cases, coma or convulsions. If your stomach is empty enough, you could end up in hospital with hypoglycemia despite being under the legal driving limit. This is especially dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin to lower your blood sugar.
Long-term heavy drinking can cause a range of chronic problems. These include:
These are just a few conditions closely linked to alcoholism. In fact, heavy alcohol use increases the risk for almost all diseases.
Drinking during pregnancy has been shown to have a negative effect on babies. Research shows that even small amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can lead to neurological changes in the developing fetus. Moderate amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can lead to the birth of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) - a severe neurological syndrome that causes permanent intellectual and mental impairment.