Did you know that the number of Americans who drink alcohol is declining? According to a 2021 poll, 60% of Americans surveyed say they drink regularly. This number is down from 65% in 2019.
Those polled also said that when they do drink, they’re consuming less alcohol.
Deciding to drink less or eliminate alcohol altogether can positively impact your health. But for many people, this is easier said than done.
In this article, we’ll look at alcohol’s adverse effects on the human body and brain, how to handle issues like alcohol cravings and why giving up alcohol might be the best decision you ever make.
A Brief History of Alcohol and Alcohol Use
The alcohol we drink is ethanol. In the fermentation process, ethanol occurs naturally when yeast or other organisms break down sugars. Since sugars appear in a variety of products, alcohol is extracted from fruits, grains, potatoes, and other organic sources.
Alcohol and Early Civilizations
Human consumption of alcohol dates back to the earliest civilizations, more than 7,000 years ago. Evidence of alcohol distilled from grain and fruit appeared at archeological sites in Egypt, India, China and Greece. However, humans have likely consumed alcohol since the first time someone accidentally fermented grains or fruit and noticed the effect of intoxication.
Human society has had a complicated relationship with alcohol ever since. The ancient Greeks warned of the dangers of over-consumption, yet drinking at public events in Greece was almost mandatory.
How Alcohol is Made
Early societies made do with alcohol from fermentation. However, when chemists turned to alchemy and tried to understand the nature of elements, they also discovered distillation. This process separates alcohol from water and other liquids, making the alcohol much more potent. Distillation brought about beverages like brandy, whiskey and gin.
For hundreds of years, humans mainly used distilled alcohol (or spirits) for medicinal purposes. By the 1700s, drinking spirits had become so commonplace that physicians and community leaders started noticing the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse.
Early Alcohol Laws
Government regulation of alcohol hasn’t always been successful. In the United States, a constitutional amendment passed in 1919 made the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal. However, prohibition only drove the liquor trade underground and created a wave of crime and deaths from tainted alcohol.
The US government repealed the amendment in 1933, and the first Alcoholics Anonymous group met in 1935.
The Science of Alcohol Addiction
More recently, physicians and scientists have learned more about the science of alcohol addiction and treatment. In 1954, physicians began looking at alcoholism as a disease, and the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism was formed. This society was the foundation for addiction medicine in the United States.
Today, almost 15 million US citizens have a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder or meet the medical criteria for the disease. Unfortunately, less than 10% of those affected receive treatment.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Since alcohol is absorbed by the stomach lining, it enters the bloodstream in less than an hour. When alcohol reaches the brain, the effects of intoxication are swift.
Disruption of Memory
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and has numerous negative effects on the brain. One of the most serious of these effects is the interruption of memory. When alcohol levels are high enough, the human brain loses some of its ability to convert short-term memories to long-term memories.
Blackouts are a direct result of this effect.
Suppression of Brain Function
Alcohol also affects the brain’s ability to regulate breathing, heart rate, body temperature, gag reflex and consciousness. Alcohol overdose can depress brain function to the point of unconsciousness or death.
Alcohol Use in Young People
Alcohol is especially toxic to the developing brain. When teenagers and young adults use alcohol in excess, it may interfere with the physical and cognitive growth of the brain. This results in learning difficulties and long-term cognitive impairment that could become permanent.
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Recent studies also indicate that alcohol use can cause long-term brain damage resulting in dementia. Heavy drinking over a long period of time causes significant changes to the brain. These changes are permanent and result in severe impairment.
Alcohol-related brain damage causes symptoms such as those seen in Alzheimer’s patients and other forms of dementia. Memory loss, difficulty with daily tasks, problems with coordination, and personality changes are all related to prolonged overuse of alcohol.
Loss of Judgement
But perhaps impaired judgment is the most serious effect alcohol has on the brain. Too much alcohol interferes with decision-making and causes people to act in ways that are abnormal for them. Poor decision-making includes risky sexual behavior, unusual aggression, and dangerous choices like driving while intoxicated.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
Alcohol isn’t only toxic to the brain. It’s also very toxic to almost all parts of the human body. Extensive alcohol use leaves lasting physical effects.
In the human body, the liver metabolizes alcohol. Since alcohol is a toxin, it must be broken down by enzymes in the liver. Prolonged heavy drinking places a strain on the liver, leaving it unable to process alcohol and other toxins effectively.
Cell damage in the liver results in liver diseases like cirrhosis and alcohol-related hepatitis.
Alcohol affects the kidneys in similar ways. Too much alcohol strains the kidneys and prevents them from filtering toxins out of the blood. Since dehydration is a side-effect of alcohol use, the kidneys are less effective at regulating the body’s electrolytes.
Chronic kidney disease is caused by alcohol use and could result in the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Alcohol use causes high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. These include arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and stroke. Heavy drinking also leads to cardiomyopathy, a condition that permanently changes the shape of the heart muscle.
Risk of Cancer
Alcohol contributes to a number of types of cancer. Liver, stomach, breast, and colorectal cancers are all attributed to heavy alcohol use.
Alcohol damages our DNA beyond repair. Once that damage occurs, the DNA cannot aid healthy cells, which allows cancer cells to spread unchecked.
All types of alcohol come with cancer risk and heavy drinkers are more susceptible.
Vitamin deficiencies are common in people who use alcohol to excess. Alcohol abuse interferes with digestion and prevents the absorption of nutrients. The lack of B vitamins and vitamins A, C, D, and K can cause night blindness, problems with blood clotting, osteoporosis, and neurological diseases.
Risk of Bodily Injury
Alcohol use also results in accidental injuries. Broken bones, head injuries and lacerations are very common in those who use alcohol. Additionally, drinking alcohol interferes with the body’s healing process, and these injuries won’t heal as quickly as they would in someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?
Alcohol is a highly addictive substance. When you stop drinking abruptly, serious medical issues can arise. When you’re ready to quit, seek professional medical advice.
Since alcohol is both physically and mentally addictive, major changes happen when you stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms occur very quickly. Initial symptoms include nausea, vomiting, muscle tremors, insomnia, hot flashes and chills.
Anxiety and depression also occur early in the withdrawal phase. Alcohol cravings can become overwhelming during the first few days. Without intervention, many of those with alcohol use disorder relapse during this phase.
Most of the significant physical withdrawal symptoms diminish after three to five days. However, the urge to drink may still be very strong, and curbing those alcohol cravings requires effort and support.
How to Cope With Alcohol Cravings
Alcohol cravings can be intense, especially in the first weeks and months of sobriety. This is one reason why many people choose inpatient treatment like Mockingbird Hill Recovery Center when they decide to stop drinking.
However, alcohol cravings can happen at any time, even to those who have been alcohol-free for years. These tips can help you understand cravings and learn how to prevent them from turning into a relapse.
Understand Your Triggers
When you drink, your brain associates alcohol with a wide variety of emotions. Over time, these emotions can trigger alcohol cravings. Understanding these emotions will help you identify your triggers and learn how to overcome them.
It’s also important to understand that triggers are usually temporary. Once you can recognize the feelings that make you want to drink, you can deploy another tool in your toolkit to overcome the triggers.
Talk With a Therapist
Having a therapist who specializes in addiction is vital. They can help you understand more about the reasons why you drink alcohol and help you learn how to deal with trauma and negative emotions without turning to alcohol.
Having an ongoing relationship with a therapist also helps you learn ways to cope with everyday issues you may have ignored while you were drinking. Having someone supporting your mental health is one of the best ways to keep your risk of relapse low.
Get Plenty of Exercise
Endorphins are the “feel-good” chemicals that your brain releases when you drink. Fortunately, exercise also brings about an endorphin release which can help with alcohol cravings.
Try to take a walk or get another form of exercise each day. Start slowly and increase your exercise periods over time. Soon you may start to look forward to your daily walks as much as you once looked forward to a drink.
Focus on Nutrition
Your body has been through a lot, and healing is important. Focusing on a nutritious diet can help your body repair cell damage. Good nutrition also helps your mental health, which, in turn, can reduce cravings.
Talk to your doctor first but consider adding a multi-vitamin and a B-complex vitamin to your daily routine. Also, eat fresh fruits and vegetables and try fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel once a week. Fish oil has been shown to increase brain health.
Allow Yourself a Bit of Sugar
Unless you have a medical condition that requires you to watch your glucose, a little bit of sugar can do wonders to cope with cravings.
Alcohol is primarily made up of sugars. When you have a craving, try a piece of candy or a few sips of soda and wait for a few minutes. You might be pleasantly surprised to find your alcohol craving has gone away.
Create a Sober Support Network
When you can talk about your alcohol cravings, you might discover that they’re easier to deal with. Having a friend to call when a craving comes on can help you overcome it.
This is another reason why support groups like AA are especially helpful. Talking about issues like alcohol cravings with people who understand can be vital to continued sobriety.
Try Meditation and Mindfulness
Sometimes people turn to alcohol to escape their thoughts and feelings. When you crave alcohol, it can be helpful to be present in the moment at which they occur.
By focusing on your mind and being present, you may be able to distract yourself from the thoughts of alcohol. Mindfulness takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if you lose focus. However, you should keep trying, as incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your sobriety toolkit will only help you in the future.
Have a Healthy Snack
The science may be anecdotal, but many sober people rely on snacks to help them push through cravings. This may work for you too, but be sure to focus on healthy foods.
Protein-rich foods like hard-boiled eggs or plain Greek yogurt can give you an energy boost. Nut butters have the benefits of protein and a bit of sugar. A small bowl of oatmeal with fresh berries gives your body a healthy dose of carbohydrates and antioxidants, a winning combination.
Find a Distraction
Sometimes, all you need to push through an alcohol craving is a bit of a distraction. Dive into a TV show, pick up a book, write in your journal, or work on a puzzle.
Having something to do with your hands will help you focus your thoughts away from the craving. Plus, adding a hobby to your life will help your mind stay busy, and an active mind might not have time for cravings for alcohol.
Do You Need Help With an Alcohol Addiction?
Asking for help is never a sign of weakness. If you feel like drinking and alcohol cravings are affecting your life in a negative way, it’s time to talk to someone. Physicians and mental health experts can help you assess your alcohol use and determine the best course of action.
Would you like to stay up to date on the latest health trends and information? Be sure to have a look at some of our other articles for tips on how to live your healthiest life.