Thursday, September 27, 2012

Alcoholism has devastating side effects

(My Addiction and Recovery column
 in the Times Herald-Record, Sept. 25)

By Bob Gaydos   
Alcoholism is a frustrating disease. It is a disease of contradictions. It is often said that it’s a disease that tells you don’t have a disease, since it is characterized by sometimes mind-boggling denial.
On the other hand, it is one of the most easily preventable diseases -- just don’t drink. On still the other hand, if unchecked, it can kill you in an amazing variety of ways.
Much, if not most, of the societal discussion of alcoholism revolves around the social chaos it causes -- the accidents, the violence, the family conflict, the problems at work. It’s understandable, to a degree. These are the most obvious side effects of the disease.
But it’s worth looking more closely at the other toll that alcoholism --and for our purposes here, alcohol abuse -- can take on the health of the drinker. While motor vehicle accidents are a serious and legitimate cause for society to be concerned about those who consume large quantities of alcohol, and while it is certainly possible to literally drink oneself to death   -- consuming a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time can result in alcohol poisoning --  there are a host of serious health problems that get short shrift by being described as side effects of alcoholism.
Start with malnutrition, a common problem among alcoholics whose diets are more likely to revolve around beer and scotch than on fruits and vegetables. Lack of essential nutrients and the proper amount of calories can throw the body out of balance and lead to many health problems, including damage to various organs, including the stomach. It can produce greater vulnerability to flu and infections. Heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to weight gain because the calories in alcohol contain no beneficial nutrients. Hence, the beer belly. Weight gain can lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to serious problems. In addition, malnutrition can also lead to depression. This is truly the slow, un-dramatic way to kill oneself with alcohol.
Still, the word “malnutrition” may not scare most people. But cancer does. Alcoholics are at increased risk of several types of cancer, especially of the mouth, larynx, pharynx and esophagus. Women who drink prior to menopause are at greater risk of breast cancer. Those who drink at more than moderate levels are at greater risk of developing skin cancer. Heavy drinking has also been tied to liver and colon cancer. It’s estimated that up to 4 percent of all cancer cases are alcohol-related.
Perhaps the best-known health side effect of excessive drinking is cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver, is the final phase of chronic liver disease and it can be fatal. A major cause is long-term abuse of alcohol. The liver is designed to break down alcohol at the rate of one drink per hour. Anything above that does damage. The top treatments for those with cirrhosis are three lifestyle changes: Stop drinking alcohol; limit salt in the diet; eat a nutritious diet. Simple, but challenging for an alcoholic.
There’s more. Alcohol abuse can also cause alcoholic hepatitis, kidney disease and pancreatitis and significantly increases the risk of heart disease. It can also lead to sexual impotence, memory loss and damage to the central nervous system. Drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, a primary cause of mental retardation.
Some of these problems may be reversible if one stops drinking; others may not. I stated at the top that alcoholism is easily preventable -- just don’t drink. For the alcoholic that’s meaningless; it’s the stopping that matters. Here, too, there are side effects. The body can react in dangerous ways to the denial of alcohol, upon which it has become dependent. Withdrawal can produce nausea, dizziness, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, stomach distress, seizures and delerium tremens -- the DT’s.
How the body responds to being deprived of alcohol depends on the age and genetic makeup of the person, but mostly on the amount of alcohol that has been consumed and the length of time. Because stopping can also be dangerous to the drinker’s health, it’s important that withdrawal be done in conjunction with medical professionals. It can be the beginning of the alcoholic starting to be good to his body.

Illustration from