Alcohol is one of the most destructive drugs on the planet. Being the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, alcohol is among the most dangerous substances known to man – not because of its potency, but because of its ubiquitous nature. Despite America’s often hard attitude towards drugs, drinking gets special treatment due to cultural relevance and the failures of the prohibition. But the effects remain staggering.
However, while making alcohol illegal is not an effective way to prevent booze-related deaths and illnesses, it’s still important to have a conversation surrounding the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Alcoholism and alcohol use disorder is not exclusive to those that drink heavily on a regular basis – while heavy drinking can be precursor to addiction, many misunderstood how much alcohol counts as “heavy drinking”, and how many Americans become addicted without consuming record amounts of alcohol.
While alcohol has been with us for thousands of years, it continues to be something that doesn’t agree with the human body. Alcohol is one of the more damaging drugs in the world due to how rapidly it affects and deteriorates our organs, heavily contributing to the development of heart disease and cancer. Among underage drinkers, alcohol continues to claim over 4,300 lives per year, through poisoning, drowning, falls, and other alcohol-related problems. But why is booze so popular, and why is it addictive?
Why Do So Many Drink Alcohol?
Alcohol’s addiction factor is only partially influenced by its own addictiveness – major factors to consider when looking at why alcohol is so popular are availability and user base. More people consume alcohol in the United States than any other drug except coffee, and among teens, partaking in drinking is one of many rites of passage from childhood into adulthood.
Caught up in the moment, many teens opt to drink heavily or binge drink rather than taking alcohol more seriously. Among high school students alone, more than a third of students have had alcohol in the past, while as many as 14 percent binge drank. In 2013, over 119,000 emergency room visits by kids aged 12-21 were related to alcohol.
However, while the fact that it can be bought everywhere and everyone’s doing it is one factor, there are others. Age is a major factor. Teens are going through cataclysmic changes in their lives, often switching schools and encountering new people and new stimuli by the time they first start binge drinking.
Furthermore, teens are more susceptible to taking risks, and are less likely to think things through on average. Their expectancies of alcohol also change dramatically from pre-adolescence to adolescence, moving from viewing drinking negatively to appreciating or placing importance on the arousing effects of alcohol. Kids and teens who share mental health problems or begin drinking at an earlier age are much more likely to develop an addiction as a result of their drinking and may be using alcohol to soothe emotional pain.
Among adults, the issues surrounding alcohol’s ubiquitous nature and low-risk investment also make it the perfect tool for self-medication in times of serious stress and difficulty. Some turn to a drink to “unwind”, until the habit of unwinding becomes unavoidable, and escalates into more frequent drinks.
As for alcohol itself, when consumed, the drug travels through the bloodstream into the brain and latches itself onto our neurons, where it stimulates the release and effectiveness of GABA and other neurotransmitters, causing the effects we recognize as drunkenness. Over time, the body and brain get used to a certain amount of drunkenness and begin to signal panic when you stay sober for too long. This is physical dependence, wherein a person begins experiencing withdrawal symptoms after attempting to quit. Because alcohol is a depressant, its withdrawal symptoms can be quite dangerous and rarely fatal, invoking heart issues, respiratory arrest, and potential seizures.
But long before that happens, regular drinking begins to prime the brain for more drinking, in a phase that doesn’t quite count as addiction but mimics it in the sense that you begin to want to drink more than before.
Is There Such a Thing as Responsible Drinking?
When considering how damaging and powerful alcohol can be, it’s also important to recognize that simply trying to curb drinking through legal interventions is more likely to lead to more illegal activities rather than effectively stopping drug use. Yes, there is such a thing as responsible drinking – but there is no good drinking, and no instance of alcohol consumption is ever truly beneficial, neither in the short-term nor in the long-term.
But there is a way to minimize both the amount of alcohol you consume, as well as its effects. Official government guidelines outline a maximum of about four drinks in a day for a grown male, and three drinks in a day for a grown female, with a “drink” counting as roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, or the equivalent of one glass of wine or one bottle beer. However, for a week, that maximum shifts to 14 drinks for men, and seven for women. Research shows that women are more susceptible to the addictive effects of alcohol, hence the disparity in the guidelines.
Anything above these guidelines can count as binge drinking and is shown to be detrimental to a person’s health, as well as posing a potential addiction risk. The question then remains: can you go through an alcohol addiction, “cure” yourself, and then start drinking “normally” again? The answer is that, despite rare exceptions, it’s typically not possible for an individual to be addicted to alcohol, go sober, and then slowly reintroduce alcohol without a full-blown bender. Responsible drinking likely isn’t possible for a person who has struggled with addiction.
Nevertheless, if you aren’t an addict but are a heavy drinker, it’s important to understand that you aren’t guaranteed to become addicted – but you are virtually guaranteed to experience at least one of several long-term physical or mental consequences as a result of repeated heavy drinking, from male impotence and greater risk of dementia to heart disease, various different cancers, and strokes.