We do not think of alcohol as a drug, but it is. Alcohol acts as a depressant on your central nervous system, slowing down brain functioning. Whether they drink beer, wine or spirits, the basic ingredient, ethyl alcohol, is the same. A 12-ounce (340ml) bottle of beer, a five-ounce (140 ml) glass of wine or a standard shot (1.5ounces) of spirits such as whiskey or rum all have the same amount of alcohol.
A common effect of drinking alcohol is a sense of well-being. This feeling could be accompanied by drowsiness, dizziness and flushing. After one or two drinks, you may not appear drunk, but you have already lost some of your coordination skills. Drinking more alcohol will affect your speech, balance and vision. When a person drinks too much, they often wake up with a hangover. A hangover is actually alcohol withdrawal. Beginning eight to 12 hours after you stop drinking, a headache accompanied by shakiness and nausea may result. Short-term loss of memory (blackouts) can also occur after a bout of drinking. Severe withdrawal including seizures and a life threatening condition call Delirium Tremens (DT’s) can occur when a person who has been drinking heavily suddenly stops.
Drinking heavily over a long period can lead to serious health problems such as stomach ulcers, sexual problems, liver disease, brain damage, and many kinds of cancer. Excessive drinking is often responsible for financial, legal and family problems. Because no safe level of drinking during pregnancy has been established, experts recommend no alcohol during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Alcohol and Addiction
Most people are able to drink alcohol in a responsible and safe way. They are referred to as social drinkers. However, some people cannot control their drinking and continue to drink despite suffering physical, relationship and work problems. They experience craving to drink and these people have become addicted to alcohol and would need to be assessed and treated.
Tolerance, Addiction, and Withdrawal
With regular alcohol use, tolerance develops. This means the abuser must use more alcohol to achieve the same intensity of effect. As higher doses are used over time, physical dependence and addiction develop. With physical dependence, the body has adapted to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms may occur if use is reduced or stopped. Withdrawal, which in regular abusers may occur as early as a few hours after the use, produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), kicking movements (“kicking the habit”), and other symptoms. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week. Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal.