Alcohol: the devil you know?

February 07, 2019 | by Aaron Weiner, Ph.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Opioids are dominating the addiction-related headlines shaping public consciousness: the current epidemic, physician prescribing rates, fentanyl coming in from China. This is for good reason. The opioid epidemic is a public health menace that claimed 47,600 lives in 2017, is growing stronger each year, and requires aggressive action to turn the tide.

But with so much attention on opioids, we’ve taken our eye off of a growing concern that surpasses our nation’s opioid problem: alcohol, and alcohol-related death.

Last year 88,000 people died due to alcohol use — nearly twice the mortality count from opioids, and currently the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Like opioids, this number continues to increase: from 2007 to 2017, deaths due to alcohol increased by 35 percent. For women, the increase was a staggering 85 percent.

Alcohol, and its $1.3 trillion per year global industry, has become so ingrained in our culture that we just accept its presence, despite the tremendous toll it takes on society. But its costs are something we cannot simply accept. Take, for example, the following:

  • 31 percent of all motor vehicle accident fatalities involve alcohol, approximately 10,000 per year.
  • 40 percent of all violent crime is perpetrated under the influence of alcohol.
  • 66 percent of all domestic abuse occurs under the influence of alcohol.
  • 50 percent of all sexual assaults are committed under the influence of alcohol.
  • 40,000 children are born each year with fetal alcohol syndrome, changing the trajectory of a child’s entire life.
  • The United States loses approximately $249 billion every year to the societal costs of alcohol.

Startling as these numbers are, they don’t capture the impact an alcohol addiction has on the lives of family members, particularly children. The fear, uncertainty, neglect, and heartbreak can’t be captured in numbers, and the results can last for a lifetime.

So, what can we do?

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it in the first place.

Alcohol use has become so normalized that many people may not realize that their use has grown out of hand, or is becoming a problem. To determine whether you or a loved one may have a problem, think about the CAGE questions:

  • Have you ever felt that you should Cut down on drinking?
  • Have other people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
  • Eye opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you answered “yes” to any two of the questions above, it could indicate a problem. In addition, other useful questions to examine are:

  • Do you drink a lot more now than you used to in order to get the same feeling?
  • Do you often look forward to drinking at times of day when you can’t drink?
  • Do you drink to cope with problems and stressors in your life?
  • Have you experienced negative consequences (social, legal, work, etc.) related to alcohol, but continued to drink anyway?

If any of the above sound familiar, it may be time to look for some help.

Next steps

How do you move forward? Think of a three-pronged approach:

  1. Professional treatment. The cornerstone of recovery for any disease is receiving help from a professional. There are many treatment options available, each with its own theoretical approach to helping clients achieve sobriety. Some are based in 12-step philosophies, while others place emphasis on psychological principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness. Most quality programs have a mix of research-supported treatments to help clients achieve their goals.
  2. Peer support. The hardest tasks in life are best accomplished in a team, and managing addiction is no different. Peer support groups are an ongoing source of social support, wisdom from those fighting the same battle you are, and a great way to form new healthy relationships. The most common groups are 12-step fellowships (such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous) and SMART Recovery, but numerous other support groups with different philosophies also exist. Finding the right support community is an important piece of sustained recovery.
  3. Medication. If achieving and maintain abstinence is proving difficult, medications also exist to help cope with the biological symptoms of an addiction while the individual builds the skills they need to manage the condition on their own. While numerous medications have been shown to help improve abstinence rates, the two most common are disulfiram (brand name Antabuse®) and naltrexone (brand names of Revia® and Vivitrol®). Ask your primary care physician if either of these medications could be useful, and they will help you decide on the best path for your health:
    • Disulfiram disrupts an enzyme in the metabolism of alcohol. The outcome of this disruption is that the drinker becomes violently ill when they ingest even the smallest amount of alcohol. This is incredibly unpleasant, and not an experience anyone would ever want to repeat. As such, any day someone chooses to take their dose of disulfiram, they are choosing to put a biological barrier between themselves and alcohol.
    • Naltrexone works differently, acting on the reward circuitry in the brain to lessen the strength of cravings, as well as reduce or eliminate the pleasurable feelings derived from drinking. If someone drinks while taking naltrexone, while they will not become ill, they will only feel the negative aspects of the alcohol (e.g., slurred speech, difficulty thinking abstractly, motor impairment), with none of the positives. This makes drinking much less desirable, and has been shown in studies to both reduce drinking days, as well as how much someone consumes on days that they do drink.

Moving forward

We must pay attention to our relationship with alcohol if we want to improve the overall health of our communities. Just because we’re familiar with alcohol does not make it any safer, and just because it’s been a problem for many years does not mean we should ignore it. If anything, the opposite is true.

If you or a loved one believe you may need help with an alcohol problem, please call us at Linden Oaks at 630-305-5027. Our trained clinical staff will help direct you toward resources, including our free in-person assessment to determine the steps you can take to help you achieve your goals.

No matter where you are right now, remember: addiction can be managed, problems can be solved, and it is never too late to live your best life. Let’s get there, together.

Find support at Linden Oaks Behvioral Health.

Related blogs:

Is it a drinking problem?

6 tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol

How to help someone with a drinking problem

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