It’s no secret that America has a complicated relationship with alcohol. Alcohol companies spend about $2 billion annually advertising their beverages. Many Americans pair alcohol with nearly everything they do. From ball games to dinner parties to unwinding at home, drinking is an incredibly popular past-time.
But some alcohol statistics are harrowing. In a 2018 study, over one-quarter of Americans binge drank alcohol in the past month. More than 14 million adults struggle with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Less than 8% of those people received treatment in the past year. Alcohol is to blame for 88,000 deaths a year—the third-leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.
A Brief History of Alcohol
Alcohol consumption goes back centuries. Cultures around the world used fermented fruits and grains to alter their consciousness. As early as 2700 B.C, the Babylonians worshipped their wine goddess. In Greece, the Greeks made a fermented beverage from honey and water. Men gathered around for symposium, where they drank and shared lively conversations. Even their literature warned about the dangers of overdrinking.
By the 16th century, people around the world used alcohol for medicinal purposes. In the 18th century, the British parliament used grain to distill spirits. In Europe, gin consumption quickly surged to 18 million gallons.
By the 19th century, alcoholism had spiked in America. Many people began pushing for more moderation. Eventually, in 1920, the U.S. outlawed alcohol during Prohibition. Despite this ban, people continued drinking. America ended Prohibition in 1933. Today, alcohol use remains rampant around the world.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain and Body?
Alcohol impacts all organs in the body. It’s a depressant, which means it slow down your body’s basic functions. As a result, typical side effects of drinking alcohol include:
- Unsteady coordination
- Slurred speech
- Slowed reaction times
- Impaired judgment
Some people experience blackouts when drinking. Blackouts refer to lapses in memory. Frequent blackouts can result in long-term health damage.
Heavy alcohol use is also associated with liver damage. Research shows that 10% to 15% of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis. Although there are treatments for cirrhosis, it isn’t curable. Only 35% of people with cirrhosis survive 5 years after their diagnosis. It’s the third most common cause of death in people aged 45-65.
People struggling with alcoholism are also at risk for thiamine deficiency. This deficiency can lead to serious brain disorders like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (wet brain). When this happens, people experience ongoing mental confusion and problems with muscle coordination.
What About Drinking in Moderation?
Many people practice safe alcohol consumption, which is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. A standard drink is:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
Binge drinking refers to heavy alcohol consumption in a short period. For women, this means having more than four standard drinks in two hours. For men, this means drinking more than five. Habitual binge drinking can lead to alcoholism.
Even moderate drinking isn’t advised for everyone. People who should avoid alcohol altogether are:
- Children and adolescents
- Pregnant women
- People taking specific over-the-counter medications that interact with alcohol
- People with certain health conditions
- People taking medications that might react negatively with alcohol
- People who are planning to drive or engage in other activities requiring alertness and coordination
- People who cannot control the amount they drink
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Even though your body metabolizes alcohol at the same rate as everyone else, each person feels the effects of alcohol differently because blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can vary from person to person and different situations. BAC is the amount of alcohol in your blood in relation to the amount of water in your blood.
Here’s how long it takes different types of alcohol to metabolize:
- Pint of beer = 2 hours
- Small shot of liquor = 1 hour
- Large glass of wine = 3 hours
- A few drinks = Several hours
Lots of factors can affect your BAC and how you react to alcohol, including:
- Any medications you take
- Binge drinking
- Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
How Do You Know If You Struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder?
AUD can be devastating for both individuals and their loved ones. This disorder ranges in severity, but addiction typically progresses. That means, without treatment, the issues tend to get worse. The symptoms include:
- Not being able to cut back or stop drinking
- Spending excess time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from drinking
- Experiencing intense cravings to drink
- Drinking despite issues at work, school, or in relationships
- Drinking instead of engaging in other important activities
- Drinking alcohol in physically unsafe situations, like before driving
- Needing to drink more alcohol over time
- Experiencing physical or psychological symptoms when you stop drinking
Can You Overdose on Alcohol?
Yes. Alcohol overdoses occur when excess alcohol in your bloodstream shuts down basic brain functioning. In some cases, overdoses can be fatal. The symptoms of an alcohol overdose include:
- Slowed breathing
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty staying conscious
- Clammy skin
- Lack of a gag reflex
- Severely low body temperature
Many people drink alcohol while taking other substances. Some combinations can make overdose more likely. For example, opioids and benzodiazepines can both cause complications even with moderate alcohol consumption.
What Should You Do If You Think You Have A Drinking Problem?
Acknowledging the problem is challenging, but awareness is a crucial first step. Recognizing your relationship with alcohol allows you to think about how good life could be without it.
Many people seek treatment for their alcohol consumption. Treatment provides safety, structure, and compassion, starting with detox and continuing as long as you need it. It also offers useful skills for navigating life in recovery. Learning to live without alcohol may seem overwhelming, but many people find that their decision to quit drinking is one of the best decisions they ever made.