Many things have been described as good servants, but bad masters: fire, money, habit, technology. Alcohol, however, is the epitome of this phenomenon.
Alcohol as a servant is an important chemical in the manufacturing industry, its antiseptic properties make it a necessity in medical practice, and when drunk in moderation alcohol has both social and health benefits. Alcohol is even used in certain cultural and religious rituals. It is a ubiquitous participant of life as we know it.
But as a bad master alcohol causes many physical, psychological and social problems for the drinker. This bad master is what we call alcoholism.
Alcoholism, as defined by the Mayo clinic, is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking. If you have alcoholism, you can’t consistently predict how much you’ll drink, how long you’ll drink, or what consequences will occur from your drinking.
The effects of excessive alcohol consumption are two-fold. It can be acute, from binging, or long-term.
Binge drinking (where large amounts of alcohol is drunk at a sitting) is a dangerous practice. It is a major cause of personal injury and accidents. Alcohol reduces the level of awareness, dulls the senses and decreases reaction time. These effects are in a linear relationship with the amount of alcohol consumed and as well the incidence of injuries and accidents, road traffic accidents inclusive. Where the amount of alcohol consumed is more than the body can process, binge drinking can lead to coma and death.
Excessive alcohol intake is also known to increase the likelihood of risky social behavior: engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple sexual partners and reveling in the abuse of other substances. Engaging in risky sexual behavior increases the transmission of sexually transmitted illnesses like HIV/AIDS, Syphilis and Hepatitis B.
Long-term effects are many and almost every organ in the body is affected. One of the most damaging long term effects of excessive alcohol intake is alcoholic liver cirrhosis. In this condition the liver is so badly scarred that it is unable to perform its functions, which includes detoxification and energy production. This makes the individual dependent on medication for survival, the only cure being a liver transplant.
Drinking alcohol excessively also increases such dangers as high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, suicide and a myriad of cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks. It is also implicated in cancers of the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region.
Chronic excessive alcohol consumption causes the brain to shrink faster than normal. This leads to problems with memory and other symptoms of dementia. Alcohol can also lead to damage to nerves and a change in the morphology of the brain, which can result in seizure disorders. Chronic alcohol abuse is also associated with depression, though a debate still pertains as to which is cause and which is effect.
Alcoholism is known to inhibit immune function, which makes the body prone to the deleterious effects of infections. It is also strongly linked to stomach irritation (gastritis) and inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
Because alcohol consumption is self-reinforcing, it is difficult for one to judge when he slips from a healthy consumption to addiction or dependence. Also, these individuals are usually in denial of their circumstance and accepting their plight is difficult. If you drink alcohol, kindly take The CAGE Test for Alcohol Addiction [below], to assess whether or not you have a problem with alcohol. It is simple, but surprisingly accurate. Answer yes or no to each question.
- Have you ever thought you should Cut down your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Annoyed when people have commented on your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Guilty or badly about your drinking?
- Have you ever had an Eye opener first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
Score one point for each yes answer.
If you scored 1, there is an 80% chance you’re addicted to alcohol.
If you scored 2, there is an 89% chance you’re addicted to alcohol.
If you scored 3, there is a 99% chance you’re addicted to alcohol.
If you scored 4, there is a 100% chance you’re addicted to alcohol.
A score of 1 or more warrants some medical help.
But the question still remains: how much alcohol is healthy and how much is too much?
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one mini (330mls) beer, a glass (150mls) of wine, or a shot (50mls) of spirit). Anything beyond this is unhealthy and portends pernicious health effects for the consumer.
It is true that there is the possibility of alcohol providing some health benefits, especially for heart health, but the possible benefits do not outweigh the potential risks. Also, it is not possible to predict in which people alcoholism will become a problem. Given these and other risks, the American Heart Association cautions people NOT to start drinking … if they do not already drink alcohol.
It is not without reason that every advertisement of an alcoholic beverage recommends that you drink responsibly. Alcohol can be a bad master. Make sure the little pleasure you derive from drinking does not end you up with the harmful and largely irreversible effects of alcoholism. Moderation [or abstinence] is key.
By: K.T. Nimako (MB ChB)
Dr. Kojo Nimako is a private medical practitioner with an interest in public health and Citi FM’s Chief Medical Correspondent. He is also the Executive Director of Helping Hand Medical Outreach, an NGO focused on health education.
E-mail: [email protected]