Despite its widespread normalization in cultures across the globe, alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances, and it is also one of the most harmful. Many of us drink alcohol regularly, and many know or have met someone who has a serious alcohol addiction. A study showed that in 2019, 25.8 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they engaged in heavy binge drinking. In the same year, the NSDUH estimated that 14.5 million people ages 12 and older had alcohol use disorder (AUD).
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
For many of us, alcohol is intertwined with our social life. Whether having a drink with friends, with co-workers at a social function, or on a date, alcohol is one of the few drugs that is common practice amongst almost everyone. Although the effects of alcohol consumption at any level can be harmful, drinking socially on occasion is not considered AUD. Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, is defined by a hindered ability to quit or control alcohol use, especially when social, financial and health consequences are present in one’s life.
The Physiology Of Alcohol
Unlike other abused substances that usually attach to receptors in certain cells in the body, alcohol can pass into every cell in your body, as it is water- and fat-soluble. Ethanol, the form of alcohol safe for human consumption, causes significant stress and damage to cells. Ethanol is toxic to the body from the get-go and must be converted into something else once in the body. Once ingested, ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde, an even more toxic substance, as well as adenosine triphosphate, a nutrient-empty calorie. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that indiscriminately kills cells, and it is also what causes you to feel drunk by disrupting neural networks in the brain. Andrew Huberman, researcher and professor at Stanford, said this:
“Being drunk is a poison-induced disruption in the way your neural circuits work.”
Potential Signs Of Relapse
Getting clean is no easy task, and relapsing is strikingly common. Noticing if a loved one is drinking again can be crucial to preventing even further damage to their brain, body, and life. Some signs of relapse include:
1. Behavioral Changes. Alcohol significantly dulls the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which controls thinking, planning, and the suppression of compulsive behavior. Furthermore, alcohol represses the neural networks involved in memory formation and storage. Alcohol use can also cause depression, anxiety, and irritability. If you notice someone in recovery begin to exhibit such symptoms, they are likely to be drinking again.
2. Social Withdrawal and Isolation. Often, addicts will distance themselves from others for a variety of reasons. They may feel ashamed or guilty about their habits, and so try to hide them from loved ones. Or they may want to make it hard for anyone to stop them from continuing to drink. The aforementioned neural degeneration causes skewed thinking.
3. Financial Troubles. Drinking regularly will lead to an increase in tolerance to the euphoric effects, meaning drinkers need more to get the same buzz. It is common that when alcoholics are drinking, they spend more and more money on booze, which can be noticeable to a partner, family member, or close friend. Alternatively, an alcoholic who has relapsed may struggle with or neglect work, and in turn, be fired or make less money.
4. Changes In Physical Appearance. Alcohol causes your body and skin to become dehydrated (lose fluid). This can be noticeable as dry skin wrinkles more easily and can look dull and grey. Furthermore, alcohol can cause water retention in your face, making one look bloated and puffy. Also, alcohol abuse can have an effect on appetite and therefore weight.
5. Straying From Support Systems. Once again, because of disruption in the neural cortex, alcoholics in relapse often exhibit poor judgment and make rash decisions. This often includes leaving rehab or treatment facilities, skipping more and more meetings, ignoring sober companions, and straying from other support systems one may have in place.
If someone you know exhibits some or all of these signs of relapse, it may be crucial to their well-being to intervene. Recovery from alcohol use disorder is a lifelong process and almost always involves multiple relapses before getting it right. There is no shame in relapsing, but it is important to get back on the right track as soon as possible, to prevent long-lasting or permanent damage.