April 17, 2014
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Mental Health

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Alcoholism

(Alcohol Dependence, Alcohol Use, Alcohol Abuse)

The Facts on Alcoholism

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.

Causes of Alcoholism

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.





Symptoms and Complications of Alcoholism

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:

  • arrhythmias - abnormal heart rhythms that can instantly kill even young people if they are abusing alcohol
  • beriberi (vitamin B1 deficiency) - lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine), is common in those dependent on alcohol and can accelerate heart damage and mental degeneration
  • brain damage - alcohol kills brain cells
  • diabetes
  • heart damage (cardiomyopathy) involving changes in the heart's size and structure
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • liver disease such as cirrhosis
  • loss of feeling in hands, feet, and elsewhere due to effects on nervous system
  • stomach ulcers and gastritis (inflamed lining of the stomach)

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.

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Depression Symptom Checker Tool

The Depression Symptom Checker tool can help you learn about depression. Use this tool to create a list of your symptoms and rate how much the symptoms impact your life on a daily basis. The checklist is divided into 6 symptom categories that are associated with depression. You can also learn more about symptoms of depression here.

For each statement choose a number from 0 to 4 that describes the impact on your daily life, where 4 has the highest impact and 0 has no impact:

  • 0 = no impact on daily life/no symptoms
  • 1 = mild impact on daily life
  • 2 = moderate impact on daily life
  • 3 = severe impact on daily life
  • 4 = debilitating impact on daily life

It is important to remember that this is not a “score” but a way to help you communicate how much you feel the symptom impacts your daily life. When you finish you will be able to print out your symptoms and share this information with your doctor. Use the Doctor Discussion Guide to prepare for your doctor’s visit.

Rate how much the following symptoms apply to you.

1. Emotions

Depression can affect anyone at any age, although it most commonly appears between 15 and 45 years of age.

0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4

Visit your doctor with these results, when booking your appointment inform your doctor that you may need extra time to discuss these matters. Getting help for your depression can change your life. Don’t wait- depression is an illness that can, and should be treated.

Thoughts about death or suicide are common in depression, and it’s important to take such thoughts seriously. If you feel like giving up or as if you might hurt yourself, get help immediately: call your doctor, go to the emergency room or call 911.

This tool is adapted with permission from similar content found on www.depressionhurts.ca.

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