by Fred K. Berger, M.D.
If you had to name one drug that leads to more diseases and potentially life-threatening conditions than any other, what would it be? Heroin? Cocaine? In fact, it’s alcohol.
Not to suggest that cocaine or heroin are good for you, of course. But the truth is, excessive alcohol use causes more health problems in more areas of the body than all other drugs combined, and can shorten life expectancy by about 15 years.
Sobering Health Facts
How? For starters, excessive drinking is linked to a significant increase in accidents. That’s a no-brainer. In addition to the thousands of drunk-driving deaths every year, alcohol is the culprit behind accidents involving boats, bicycles, heavy machinery and simply falling down.
It should come as no surprise that alcohol is the second leading cause of suicide, right behind major depression. Alcohol is a depressant, and it’s not unusual for us to see patients at the Scripps McDonald Center who are taking anti-depressant medications when in reality they are depressed solely because of their excessive alcohol use. We often find that after being clean and sober for at least several weeks, these patients are no longer depressed and no longer need their medications.
Alcohol dependence is also responsible for an increase in cancer, especially cancers of the head and neck, such as the tongue, mouth, jaw and larynx. More often that not, treatment for these conditions can mean painful and disfiguring operations — at best. Moreover, because heavy drinkers also tend to smoke cigarettes, their risk of developing these cancers is even higher.
Excessive alcohol use also leads to higher rates of gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, including the esophagus, stomach, gall bladder, pancreas and liver. On top of that, it’s the liver’s job to break down and get rid of toxic substances in the body such as alcohol. In cases of alcohol dependence, the liver is fighting a never-ending battle to detoxify and remove alcohol from the body. Eventually, the alcohol wins, damaging the liver and, if the drinking continues, ultimately leading to a serious medical disease known as cirrhosis. At that point, the only treatment is a liver transplant.
Alcohol dependence can threaten the cardiovascular system as well, potentially damaging the heart itself or leading to a condition known as cardiomyopathy, leading to an enlarged heart. And, heavy drinking is associated with increased heart attack and stroke rates.
But wait, you say. It’s been all over the news lately that a daily beer or glass of wine is good for the heart. It can prevent a heart attack or ward off a stroke, they say. So what about that?
Yes, there is truth to that.One shot of alcohol a day – the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine or one ounce of hard liquor – can help keep the arteries clear. So can a daily aspirin or fish oil supplement. However, people with alcohol dependence can’t stop at one or even two drinks a day – and therein lies the problem.
The Addiction Factor
Alcohol dependence is largely genetic. Roughly 10% of men and 5% of women in this country have alcohol-dependence.And an overwhelming majority have an alcoholic “gene” that translates into an inability to control their drinking. Whereas people who don’t have this gene will want to stop after a few drinks, people who do have it cannot.
It’s very unusual for us to see a patient with alcohol dependence who does not have some family history of the problem. However, we also know that alcohol is addicting, and we’ve seen patients who have continually pushed themselves past their drinking limits and consequently developed an addiction. As a result, they continued drinking, in part, to avoid the unpleasant effects of withdrawal.
Moreover, people with alcohol dependence usually don’t acknowledge that they have a problem. They “minimize and deny” rather than face up to their situations. Often, it takes a major “wake-up call” such as a serious health problem or problems with work, relationships, or legal matters, to get them to seek help.
Alcohol is the accepted and legal drug in our society, and as a result, many people don’t understand just how dangerous it can be. Simply put, alcohol dependence can kill. Treatment programs such as the Scripps McDonald Center are the best way to break through the minimization and denial and start getting on the road to a healthy, successful recovery.