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Alcoholism differs from alcohol abuse, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Alcohol abuse refers to unsafe or frequent use of alcohol that interferes with life obligations such as work, family life or school. Alcohol abuse endangers the self or others or results in legal problems. Alcoholism on the other hand is a life-threatening physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse most often accompany one another. Some people who exhibit dangerous or irresponsible drinking behaviors are not physically addicted to alcohol. Some alcoholics do not run into legal, safety or personal issues stemming from their drinking and these people are known as “functional alcoholics”.
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Alcohol abuse is often a key indicator of alcoholism and is generally characterized with the following behaviors and difficulties:
- Drinking in unsafe environments (i.e. While operating heavy machinery or driving)
- Intoxication that interferes with obligations to family, school or work
- Legal troubles may develop, such as DWI charges or assaults that occurred under the influence of alcohol.
- Continued drinking in the face of worsening relationship problems with family or love interests
- Many people who abuse alcohol drink alone, during the working or school day or to feel better after upsetting events.
Alcoholism often accompanies alcohol abuse, and is marked by severe addiction aspects including:
- Tolerance: The need to drink progressively more alcohol in order to feel intoxicated
- An inability to control one’s amount of drinking at a given time
- A strong compulsion to drink at inappropriate times
- Physical withdrawal symptoms as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety can occur when drinking ceases.
Physical withdrawal from alcohol is very serious. Nervousness, anxiety, rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, sweating and extreme irritability are quite normal and are no cause for alarm. However, delirium tremens is an extremely serious condition resulting from alcohol withdrawal in cases of heavy or long-term alcoholics and is potentially fatal. People who exhibit symptoms of this when attempting to stop drinking should only do so under strict medical supervision. Persons suffering delirium tremens usually exhibit the following symptoms:
- Intense, frightening hallucinations
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Beyond the obvious personal and legal issues that an alcohol problem can create, even functional alcoholics are susceptible to the massive health effects of heavy drinking. Alcoholism can damage nearly every organ in the body, and is especially hard on the liver, causing cirrhosis (scarring of the liver.).
Impotence, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure, nerve damage, pancreatic inflammation, the list goes on. Alcoholism is devastating to the body.
Alcoholism also often results in neglect for personal care and nutrition. In fact, the majority of modern cases of severe vitamin deficiencies such as scurvy in the industrialized world occur in heavy drinkers who consume the majority of their dietary calories in alcoholic beverages.
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A drinking problem may result from an attempt to forget or dull the pain of a personal tragedy, feelings of being more interesting/powerful when drunk, peer pressure, a heavy social schedule that often involves drinking, or practically anything. There are probably more reasons for alcoholics to drink than there are alcoholics in the world.
Although some people are able to recover from alcoholism without help, the majority of alcoholics need assistance. With treatment and support, many individuals are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.
Sometimes people wonder why some persons can drink alcohol in a measured way and without problems whilst others become addicted. One important reason is the person’s genetic make up. Research has shown that having an alcoholic family member will put you at greater risk of developing alcoholism. For example children of alcoholics are much more susceptible to developing a drinking problem themselves as they get older.
However genetics cannot explain the condition fully. For example some research suggests that certain factors in a person’s environment can influence that person’s genetic risk for developing alcoholism. The environment includes where and how that person may live; his or her family structure, the bonds of friendship and circle of friends, his or her culture; and the presence of peer pressure. Easy availability of alcohol and its cost can also influence the risks of alcoholism.
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Alcoholism can be treated but there is no permanent cure for it. An alcoholic must work very hard to prevent a relapse because even if the alcoholic has been sober for a substantial period of time and restored himself to good health, he or she remains susceptible to relapse and must continue to avoid alcoholic beverages completely. Reducing one’s alcohol intake will not work; an alcoholic needs to stop taking alcohol completely to achieve successful recovery. Many determined individuals who want to stay sober suffer one or more relapses before they achieve complete and lasting soberness. Just because you suffer a relapses does not mean that you have failed or cannot recover from alcoholism. Relapses are quite common. It must be remembered that every day that a recovering alcoholic remains sober is a day that is appreciated greatly by the alcoholic’s family and friends. It is also a day of recuperation and restoration for his body. If you suffer a relapse, just try again to stop drinking and ask for additional support.
Detoxification programs often consist of therapy and medication and try to safely get the alcohol out of the patient’s body. Interpersonal therapy attempts to find the root cause of the person’s drinking, while medications mitigate withdrawal symptoms or discourage drinking through physical aversion (medications that promote extreme nausea when combined with alcohol). One study shows that long-acting injections of the drug naltrexone (ReVia), combined with psychotherapy are proving successful in fighting alcohol dependence. After drinking has stopped, some prescription drugs such as disulfiram (Antabuse) can help prevent a return or relapse to drinking.
Delirium tremens is often treated with benzodiazepines such as diazepam. This is because long term alcohol use damages the GABA receptors in the brain, inhibiting the actions of the neurotransmitter GABA. Benzodiazepines encourage the binding of GABA to the receptors, lessening the symptoms of delirium tremens.
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Recovery from alcoholism is best done under the supervision of medical professionals, as there is potential for complications.
All vitamins (B-complex vitamins in particular) are recommended in the recovery phase to help correct deficiencies. Chronic drinking is devastating to nutrition and health. Proper eating habits and nutritional support including vitamin supplementation is essential to the recovery of the body.
The amino acid Carnitine assists the liver in breaking down toxins. Carnitine does not come from any plant source so it is recommended to those who prescribe to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Chronic alcohol use causes mal-absorption of minerals into the body. Zinc, magnesium and calcium supplementation are all recommended to help correct this in the initial recovery phase of alcohol cessation.
Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are considered extremely helpful in supporting people who have decided to stop drinking. Millions of members of A.A. around the world have managed to stop drinking in part through the help of this organization.
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