Alcoholism and alcohol-related problems are increasing rapidly among women and man. It is interesting to note that the group most affected are those under 30. As women are shown to be in their highest earning phase between 25 and 30, and the advertiser’s message is often pitched at this age group, it is not surprising that this should be a high-risk group. With emancipation from traditional roles of a home-centered life, many more women now find themselves in stressful positions of responsibility in their work and high-risk professions, such as journalism. Where a woman is also a single parent and the sole breadwinner, she can also expect more stress.

The stresses for many women are therefore greater than ever before and many more seek relief in alcohol. Even those who have maintained a relatively home-centered life are at risk. Women sometimes turn to alcohol when their children leave home, and they come to believe that their lives are empty and lonely.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is an abnormal dependence on alcohol and varies from a mild degree such as social drinking whenever possible, to a very advanced state where alcohol is necessary to start the day. Drinking is a pleasurable and acceptable custom, but such social drinking may lead to dependence, though this can take from 10 to 15 years to occur.

Treatment for alcoholism is often complicated by the double standards that exist in society. While social drinking is acceptable, heavy drinking, especially when it affects work, is not, and this encourages people to become secret, furtive drinkers. Many alcoholics, therefore, tend to drink alone frequently during the day, but nearly always deny doing so, making detection and treatment difficult to start up. Eventually, the social drinker who is at risk comes to rely on alcohol to allay tension and to feel good.

Symptoms of alcoholism

Heavy drinking, either constantly at all times of the day or in two or three-day binges

  • Blackouts or loss of memory while drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Needing a drink to face the slightest stress
  • Irritability
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Secretiveness about drinking
  • Flushed, blotchy face
  • The veins in the nose are purple and pronounced
  • Trembling
  • Slurred speech

Alcohol taken regularly or in large quantities has terrible effects on the body – it damages the liver irreparably, causing cirrhosis, and it affects the nervous system.

Why are women at risk?

Physically women are less tolerant of alcohol than men. Women’s bodies contain less water so that our blood absorbs the same amount of alcohol much more quickly. At certain times of the month, some women respond differently to alcohol; for example, premenstrually, women complain of reduced tolerance to alcohol.

Alcohol in pregnancy

Drinking alcohol in pregnancy can harm your growing baby and leave it with physical and mental defects for life, such as cleft palate, hare lip, abnormal limb development, and heart defects as well as lower than average intelligence. This condition is called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and is characterized by distinguishing features in the newborn baby. The eyes have a fold at the top giving the baby a mongoloid appearance, the chin recedes and the bridge of the nose is flat and low. This syndrome results from excessive drinking whether in binges or constantly throughout pregnancy, although like all toxins the major effect is probably felt in the first eight weeks when the fetus is developing and is most at risk. Some part of every drink reaches the baby through the mother’s bloodstream, so beware alcohol during pregnancy and if you must drink, limit yourself to two glasses of wine or one pint of beer in one day.

Alcohol is much easier to come by now too. Supermarket shelves groan with wine and spirits, and social pressures have been removed. Once women were discouraged from drinking in public, now we drink openly in bars.

Could I be an alcoholic?

If you answer yes to one of these questions, alcohol is affecting your life in a major way, and you should seek help.

  1. When faced with a problem, do you turn to alcohol for relief?
  2. Are you sometimes unable to meet home or work responsibilities because of your drinking?
  3. Has someone close to you expressed concern about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever needed medical attention as a result of drinking?
  5. Have you ever experienced distressing physical or psychological reactions when you stopped drinking?
  6. Have you ever had a blackout or total loss of memory while awake when drinking?
  7. Have you ever failed to keep promises to yourself about controlling or stopping drinking?

Should I see the doctor?

Despite the dereliction of the body that results from heavy drinking, there is no one who can make you give up alcohol other than yourself, but all alcoholics need help to do it.

If you answer yes to one of the questions above, see your doctor as soon as possible. It is usually difficult for alcoholics to admit their problem, but admission is the first major step. If you are seriously dependent, the problems are increased when you have to abstain from alcohol; for example, withdrawal often leads to intense anxiety.

What will the doctor do?

Depending on the severity of your problem and of your symptoms, your doctor will advise on the best course.

Voluntary organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous exist to help all people who want to give up drinking. All members have been alcoholics, and they share their experiences to help others with a drinking problem stay sober and rebuild their lives.

For alcoholics with a serious problem, hospitalization and drying out is the first step. Detoxification is for the most seriously affected alcoholics who need to recover from the acute effects of drinking. They need to dry out before any withdrawal is possible. Sedatives and other drugs help to overcome the cravings and hallucinations that patients suffer while the body is being detoxified of alcohol. After this initial drying out, the next step is counseling. Therapy helps drinkers to answer the important question as to why they were drinking. The final step is to try to avoid the stresses that caused the problem in the first place.

What can I do?

You have real difficulties if you develop an increased tolerance for alcohol – when you need more and more to achieve the desired effect. Surreptitious drinking means that dependence has developed to an unacceptable degree and marks the beginning of a critical phase when it becomes increasingly more difficult to stop drinking. One result of this is neglect of your social responsibilities and your diet.

If you want to give up alcohol, you can do it with the help of doctors, counselors and ex-alcoholics, but you have to want really. The stresses or difficult situations that caused you to find solace in alcohol will need to be faced or avoided. Perhaps changing your job or reorganizing your life will be the only way.

Effects of long-term alcoholism

The head

Headache caused by the dilation of the blood vessels in the brain may be immediate after effect, but this usually goes after a good sleep. There is an increased risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus; if you smoke as well, this greatly increases the risk. You may develop ulcers in your digestive system.

The brain

In large quantities the brain is affected, causing impairment of judgment, blurred vision and speech and reduced reactions.

This makes alcohol very dangerous when you drive. Damage to the nervous system can lead to peripheral neuropathy where you have lapses of memory and blackouts. One disorder, Korsakoff’s psychosis, means you can never learn anything new.

The liver

Cirrhosis of the liver results from long-term, heavy alcohol intake. This impairs the liver functions which process the nutrients from your food intake. Hepatitis, fatty liver, and cancer of the liver are other possible disorders. Pain and tenderness in your liver lead to loss of appetite.

The skin

The skin becomes warm and sweaty. The veins in your face and nose are blotchy and purple. In later stages of liver failure, the palms of your hands are permanently red.

The heart

A heavy drinker tends not to eat a balanced diet, and as alcohol contains only calories, you will eventually become vitamin deficient, particularly in thiamine (Vitamin B1). This will affect the heart’s muscular tissue which will be damaged as a result of this lack of essential nutrients.

The stomach

A lot of alcohol in one bout can make you vomit or feel nauseous with gastritis when the mucous membrane that lines the stomach becomes inflamed. This can become a chronic condition with a constant high intake of alcohol.

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