Is Alcohol a Drug? | Addiction, Health Effects, Withdrawal

Addicts or Not: Is Alcohol a Drug?

Alcohol has been consumed throughout history from ancient Babylon to a Friday night at Applebee’s. It has been used as an anesthetic, a cleaning agent, mouthwash, and a social lubricant for thousands of years. Beer and wine were often alternatives to water in places where drinking water was unclean. Even the Bible recommends its use to people with mental and physical ailments in Proverbs 31:6 saying, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.”

However, alcohol references in the Bible are probably better known for their warnings against drunkenness. Likewise, there is a long history of people who have struggled to understand and control the use of alcohol. So much so that it was banned in many places throughout history including the United States during prohibition.

Today, alcoholic beverages can cover a wide range of potency, from five percent beers to 50 percent liquors. However, since many can drink it responsibly and because it has so many other uses like cooking and cleaning, is it even considered a drug?

What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol is a blanket term for a class of organic compounds that includes ethanol. Ethanol, besides appearing in your gasoline in small amounts, is the active substance that’s used in alcoholic beverages. It’s naturally produced when sugars and yeasts are fermented. This is achieved for recreational use during the fermentation of distilling process at breweries and distilleries.

When it comes to making alcoholic beverages, there is a big difference between fermentation and distillation. Though all alcoholic beverages go through a fermentation process, distilled liquid goes through a few extra steps. The fermentation process of wine and beer involve adding yeast to consume sugars in plant material like wheat hops or grapes, which produces alcohol as a byproduct.

In distillation, other byproducts of fermentation like methanol, a dangerous chemical, are boiled out. Since different chemicals have different boiling points, an exact temperature can boil away various components at different times. Because of this, distilled beverages can have a much higher alcohol content. Where simply fermented drinks like beer and wine will be between two percent to 20 percent alcohol, distilled liquors like whiskey and vodka can be as high as 60 percent.

How Is Alcohol a Drug?

Because ethanol is a chemical substance that is used to cause physiological changes in the body and a habit-forming substance, it is considered a drug. More specifically, it is considered a central nervous system depressant, which means that it affects the brain by lowering neurotransmission levels. Alcohol depresses stimulation, which can lead to relaxation and anxiety relief. Despite its legal status, there is very little that separates alcohol from prescription and illicit drugs.

In fact, it’s legality and wide availability make it one of the most dangerous drugs of abuse. Over 2,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning and in 2015, 10,000 people died in alcohol-impaired driving accidents. While alcoholic beverages can be consumed in moderation to enjoy the taste and mild effects without significant impairment, it is also consumed in excess.

Binge drinking (heavily drinking to get drunk) is a significant problem, especially on college campuses. And alcoholism and addiction can lead to but acute and chronic health problems.

What Are the Effects of Alcohol?

Alcohol can affect a person’s brain and body in a number of different ways, but the severity of its effects depends on many factors. The amount you drink, how often you drink, and your family history all play a role. Your age, weight, and sex also affect your level of intoxication when you drink. The smaller, younger, less experienced with alcohol you are, the faster you will get drunk.

Heredity also plays a role in your resistance to alcohol and your tendency to become addicted to it. If you do drink enough alcohol to have an effect, it changes your body in the following ways:

Brain

When you’ve consumed enough, alcohol affects your brain by interfering with your neural pathways which can improve mood, decrease anxiety and inhibitions, and make it difficult to think clearly. It can also affect your motor functions and coordination.

Heart

If you drink a lot over time or if you binge drink, alcohol can cause damage to the heart. Alcohol can cause cardiomyopathy, which is stretching, thickening, or dilatation of the heart muscle. Alcohol can also cause irregular heartbeats, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Liver

The liver is probably the first organ that comes to mind when you think about body parts affected by alcohol. Heavy drinking can cause some problems including fibrosis, cirrhosis, and Steatosis (fatty liver). These effects can damage and scar the liver, leading to a number of medical complications and symptoms including fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, and bleeding.

Pancreas

Excessive alcohol can also cause the pancreas to produce dangerous toxins. This can lead to inflammation and swelling in the organ, which leads to digestive problems.

Other Effects

Chronic binge drinking can also lead to serious medical complications including cancer in the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast. Your immune system can also take a hit after chronic drinking. After long-term alcohol abuse, you have a higher chance of getting diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Drinking during pregnancy can also lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which can permanently affect an unborn child.

Addiction and Withdrawal

Like some other drugs, drinking alcohol comes with the risk of developing an addiction. Alcoholism is a chemical dependency on alcohol that can manifest in a strong desire to continually drink and uncomfortable withdrawal systems. According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, around 17.6 million people struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence.

Unlike even some of the worst illicit drugs, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly without medical attention. Beside extremely uncomfortable effects like nausea and insomnia, alcohol withdrawal can cause delirium tremens and tonic-clonic seizures, which can be life-threatening.

Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholism is a disease, but it can be treated. If you or someone you know is dealing with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, call The Palm Beach Institute today at 855-534-3574. Start your path to recovery and find out more about your treatment options.

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