You only need one statistic to be convinced of the damage alcohol wreaks on society. Every single day, an estimated 29 people die in the United States due to car accidents involving alcohol. Drunk driving kills one person roughly every 50 minutes, and over a million Americans were arrested in 2016 for driving under the influence. Fortunately, drunk driving fatalities have decreased by over 50% since 1982, indicating a downward trend despite the high death toll.
Aside from car accident-related deaths, it’s also important to note that one in six US adults consumes excessive alcohol about once a week, with a total of roughly 7 drinks per session. This is classified as binge drinking, and massively increases a person’s risk of injury, death, and disease.
Outside of these dangers, there is also a percentage of the population that succumbs to alcohol dependency, or alcoholism. This affects about 16 million Americans.
While the opioid crisis continues to rage on and overdose deaths caused by both prescription pills and illegal heroin call for a closer look, there are plenty of other drugs causing chaos in the US. Marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine are just a few illegal drugs claiming lives, usually through accidents or overdoses – yet when counting fatalities caused by intoxication, alcohol still sits at the top of the list.
Many factors make alcohol one of the more dangerous substances in America, yet to understand why it is something to be worried about, it is important to know what alcohol does to the mind and body.
Alcohol is a Poison
There were studies not too long ago linking certain types of alcohol to longevity and good health, although these could not conclusively make the link between alcohol and a longer lifespan, instead leading news outlets to promote the news based solely off correlation.
Since then, extensive research has been done to study the effects of alcohol on human bodies even in moderation, and the consensus seems to be simple: any alcohol at all will shave time off your life expectancy and will generally negatively impact your health. There are very minor exceptions to this – for example, while moderate or small alcohol consumption still increases the likelihood of heart failure, it is statistically protective against heart attacks. Something also has to be said for the fact that alcohol is a depressant – this means it helps people relax and unwind, releasing physical and mental tension that, if left unchecked, may lead to something ugly down the line.
Other benefits, previously attributed to red wine, may in fact simply be attributed to the red pigment in grapes and grape juice, rather than the wine.
If looked at objectively, alcohol – more specifically ethanol, also known as grain alcohol – is not something we are meant to ingest. And yet we do, and we often ingest too much of it against our better judgment.
The first clue on why alcohol is dangerous lies in how it affects the human mind – while alcohol is a depressant, it also suppresses several functions in the brain, inducing slurred speech, lack of balance, slower reaction times and greatly decreased cognitive ability. Alcohol lowers inhibition and cuts into a person’s ability to make calculated decisions. With enough alcohol, the mind loses parts of its memory, leading to mental black outs where entire hours are missing due to heavy drinking.
How Alcoholism Deteriorates Thinking
The exact effects of alcohol on the brain depend on a person’s age, sex, size (and bodyfat), genetic background and general alcohol tolerance, which is built up by drinking regularly. Everyone has a different threshold, however at some point we all reach a “tipsy” stage and a “drunk” stage. Everything past the drunk stage can be dangerous, leading up to alcohol poisoning.
Signs of excessive drinking include memory lapse and blackouts, but alcohol damages more than just the part of the brain responsible for remembering things. Aside from memory, alcohol consumption affects critical thinking, problem solving, risk aversion, behavioral inhibition, and more. Over the course of a few drinks, your cognitive abilities decline, and your physical abilities diminish as well.
Sex drive and libido generally go up, while sexual performance drastically drops. Swaying is normal as well, as people generally struggle to stand upright after heavy drinking. Some brain damage from alcohol consumption comes not only from the alcohol itself, but from malnutrition and poor sleep – both of which are often attributed or connected to alcoholism, or drug use in general.
Recovery is a Physical and Mental Journey
Coming off an alcohol addiction can be more dangerous than coming off almost any other drug. Alongside tranquilizers, sedatives and depressants like benzodiazepine, the withdrawal symptoms for alcohol are severe and potentially fatal. It is critical to approach a medical professional if you are going to go sober, so your withdrawal can be overseen by a staff in a clinic to ensure that you live through the first night.
Past that, it takes up to slightly over a year for much of the brain damage caused by alcoholism to fade away. Damage done to the body can never be completely reversed, but it is possible to regain most of your mental faculties bar any significant trauma or damage caused by accidents related to the drinking.
Aside from the brain, alcohol also attacks the liver and heart – with diligent abstinence from drugs and a very healthy, balanced diet, it is possible to give the liver the break it needs to regenerate and make up for the heart damage enough to live to a ripe old age before the ticker gives out.
Not drinking alcohol is a task that takes a lifetime. Sobriety must be maintained every day – but while the first few months can seem grueling and at times impossible, especially with new stressors and unfamiliar territory, it does get much easier with time. Instead of counting the days until that happens, try to focus on something else. Find a new hobby. Work on making some new friends. Explore town and try things out that you never had the chance to try.
If you’re having fun, time goes by much faster.