Overcoming Alcohol Addiction
"Over half the United States’ population consumes alcohol, and approximately 15 million Americans have an addiction to alcohol."
In today’s show, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD is continuing with her addiction series. This time we’re looking at alcohol addiction, a big issue in the U.S., where less than 8% of people who are addicted receive treatment, and more than 65 million people have reported binge drinking just last month. Dr. Nancy explores both the well-known and lesser discussed dangers of alcohol consumption, the benefits of quitting, and effective methods to help people quit — including 5 natural recommendations to explore.
- 05:08: What is Addiction?
07:01: How to Know if You’re Addicted
- 12:24: Alcohol Use Trivia
- 16:20: Alcohol is Everywhere
- 18:16: The Dangers of Overindulgence in Alcohol
- 21:18: Alcohol Withdrawal
- 23:44: The Benefits of Giving up Alcohol
- 25:14: Alcohol and Your Liver
- 27:28: Options Available for Overcoming Alcohol Addiction
- 32:50: Understanding Relapse
- 37:14: Top 5 Holistic Options
- 47:02: Wrap-Up
What is Addiction?
Before we go any further, let’s briefly define exactly what addiction is, as we have in previous parts of this series. Addiction is a complex brain disease that causes a person to have such a compulsive and intense focus on something that it consumes their life. They feel they can’t live without that substance, be it sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, food, drugs, or even technology or gambling.
As a result of addiction, a person’s wiring in the brain changes and this can alter their thinking, behavior, and even how the body functions.
As always, we want to point out that the tips and recommendations we’re going to share over the course of this addiction series are those that Dr. Nancy has found helpful while working with her clients and consulting with experts in this field as well, so while we do want you to pay attention to them and apply them to your own life, if you do feel that you could have an addiction issue that requires the help and support of a medical professional then don’t wait! Reach out and get the help and support you need and deserve now!
How to Know if You’re Addicted
Okay, so maybe you’re not sure whether you’re addicted to alcohol – or anything else you perhaps over-indulge in or consume. Fortunately, the American Psychological Association has created a comprehensive list of questions to help you find the answer to the question, “Am I addicted?” Review this list of questions and spend some time thinking about your answers. Only you can answer these questions — no one else can do it for you.
- Have you tried quitting the substance altogether in the past without success?
- Do you find yourself craving or having a strong desire to use the substance?
- Have you consistently been unable to meet your responsibilities at work or home due to the substance use?
- Have you continued using the substance despite relationship problems that it has caused?
- Do you find yourself engaging in risky behavior as a result of your substance use?
- Have you avoided social interactions or activities that you previously enjoyed due to your substance use?
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about, obtaining or using the substance?
- Do you experience withdrawal when you don’t have the substance?
If you answered “Yes” to these questions, it might be time to seek out that love, help, and support we just talked about.
Even without that questionnaire, if you’re a woman and you’re consuming 8 or more drinks per week, or if you’re a man and you’re consuming 15 or more drinks a week, you are what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as a “heavy drinker” and it may be time to scale back or quit drinking altogether.
Alcohol Use Trivia
- In a study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.4%, of people in the United States said they consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.
- According to data published in The Lancet, considered the world’s most prestigious medical journal, 800,000 people die for alcohol-related reasons worldwide each year. Drinking alcohol contributes to nearly 3 million deaths globally and the risk for death increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed daily, according to data published in The Lancet.
- A little under 8 million underage Americans, aged 12- 20, are already drinking alcohol, and they do so for different reasons: they want to be socially accepted, they’re curious, they’re bored or want to rebel, or the do it out of peer pressure. But drinking before the age of 25, can have a really detrimental effects on young people. Twenty-five is the age when the frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control — is fully formed. Because the frontal cortex is not fully developed prior to that, underage drinking is of special concern because young people, when they drink, are more likely to engage in or become at risk of violence, sexual assault, and make poor decisions due to poor impulse control and lack of judgment.
Alcohol is Everywhere
Did you know that by age 5, a child has already formed an opinion about and attitude around alcohol? This makes sense, since alcohol is everywhere — it’s a huge part of many social interactions and home life for many people.
Alcohol addiction is a difficult addiction to deal with because alcohol is so intertwined with many people’s social lives. Alcohol is everywhere – at restaurants, bars, sporting events, in movies, and on TV. Ads for alcohol are also on TV, as well as on billboards and in magazines. Plus, many celebrities are either advertising a specific brand of alcohol or they’re making their own. This prevalence of alcohol everywhere can cause undue pressure to partake, which makes overcoming an addiction to alcohol even more challenging.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. That last little tidbit is intended to put into perspective the hardships overcoming alcohol addiction, as well as take the pressure off a little bit if you are one of those people who is struggling to stop drinking. Again, you’re not alone!
The Dangers of Overindulgence in Alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol is hard on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. It can also lead to risky and reckless behavior, which can have an impact on your loved ones and even perfect strangers if you decide to get behind the wheel after one too many drinks. Drinking too much affects the lives of everyone around.
Medically, alcohol addiction is recognized as a disease. This is because alcohol abuse — or abuse to any substance, really — causes the wiring in your brain to change. When you consume alcohol repeatedly and in excess, it changes the part of your brain involved in decision making, self-control, stress, cognition, and the ability to learn, as well as the ability to feel pleasure. You no longer feel pleasure from being around your friends and family, but only feel good when you’ve had a drink. Conversely, the circuits in the brain that drive us to avoid pain and stress at all costs can also influence our propensity to drink, especially when coupled with the release of dopamine, the hormone responsible for feeling pleasure.
When those two things work together — a need to feel pleasure and a need to avoid pain — a person is driven to act in some way, and for many people that action is to drink alcohol.
Once someone decides to stop drinking, the withdrawal that follows can be painful, and in some cases dangerous so you want to consult your doctor first. Alcohol withdrawal can be tough physically, mentally, and emotionally, and a lot of people continue drinking because they want to avoid feeling any sort of pain.
When you do decide to stop drinking, here’s what you can expect during the withdrawal process, which can begin within hours after taking your last drink and can go on for weeks. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive length of time alcohol withdrawal will take. The length of time it takes to go through withdrawal from alcohol greatly depends on how long you were a drinker and how heavily you drank.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Mood swings
- Extreme fatigue
- Rapid heart rate
More severe symptoms include seizures, hallucinations and what is known as delirium tremens, or DTs. Not everyone experiences DTs. Only about 5% of people going through withdrawal experience symptoms, which typically develop within 48 to 72 hours into withdrawal and include:
- High blood pressure
- Racing heart
- Excessive sweating
The Benefits of Giving up Alcohol
However, once the initial period of withdrawal subsides, you’ll start to see a number of incredible benefits in the days, weeks, and months to follow.
Mentally, you’ll be more focused, your memory will improve, and the ability to problem solve and think critically will also improve. Symptoms associated with depression and anxiety will be reduced and you’ll notice your mood swings will decrease as you gain more emotional stability. Additionally, you might see your blood pressure go down and you’ll reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
After only one month of cutting out alcohol, one study found that weight, cholesterol, and glucose levels all decreased. In that same study, sleep, energy levels, concentration, and performance at work all improved. That’s after just one month!
Another major benefit of cutting out alcohol from your life is that it can help lessen the risk of certain kinds of cancers, namely: breast, colon, mouth, esophagus, pharynx, and liver.
Alcohol and Your Liver
We haven’t really talked about the liver yet, but it’s fairly common knowledge that, in addition to the brain, the liver is severely affected by excessive alcohol consumption. The liver is where all the bad stuff in the blood gets filtered before being pumped back out into the body. It is also the place where proteins, enzymes, and hormones that help prevent infection are produced. Vitamins and prescription medications are converted into substances the body can use, and the liver aids in digestion by producing bile and storing glycogen for energy the body can later use.
The liver is where over 90% of the alcohol you consume is processed. It takes the body one hour to process one drink. So when you consume more alcohol than the liver can handle, the unprocessed alcohol goes into the bloodstream, which then starts to affect other organs like the heart and the brain. The alcohol circulating through your bloodstream is what produces that feeling of intoxication.
Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to more severe liver issues like:
- Pre-cancerous cells
- Fatty liver
- Liver failure
- Liver cancer
Options Available for Overcoming Alcohol Addiction
Now that you know what to expect when you decide to quit drinking and the benefits that will eventually follow, you need to decide how you’re going to quit, and there a number of options available to you.
12-step programs are perhaps the most well-known and common treatment option for alcohol addiction. These programs typically include a short inpatient stay at a rehab facility that ranges anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks and is followed by more extensive outpatient therapy, including going to a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous. 12-step programs rely heavily on peer support and your willingness to surrender to a higher power in order to overcome your addiction. By prescribing to the 12 virtues laid out in these types of program, it is believed that you will strengthen your connection to that higher power, and, as a result, be able to overcome your addiction.
12-step programs are by no means your only treatment option when it comes to dealing with alcohol addiction. If you are considering a treatment option, our first recommendation is again to first speak with your primary care physician so they will be able to determine if you do, in fact, have an issue with drinking. From there, he or she will evaluate your health and help you formulate a plan for treatment.
These programs function under the belief that there isn’t a “one size fits all” prescription for overcoming alcohol addiction, and takes a more holistic approach. You will be treated as the unique individual that you are and treated accordingly. This type of treatment looks at things like your behaviors, how the addiction presents itself physically within your body, how you view yourself both physically and mentally, and it also looks at your relationship to others. A multimodality treatment option examines your emotional state, as well as your brain chemistry and genetic make-up. From there, you will work with a team of physicians, counselors, and registered nurses to get the most comprehensive treatment possible.
Therapy-based programs are an excellent option if you know you have another condition or disorder that coincides with your alcohol addiction. These types or programs are typically completed at an inpatient rehab facility and work to treat mental illness, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, as well as treating dependency to alcohol.
Outpatient rehab programs
Maybe for you it’s just not feasible that you check yourself into an inpatient rehab facility, for financial reasons or because you have work and/or a family to care for. In that case, there are outpatient rehab programs available, as well, which include:
- Day treatment
- Intensive outpatient
- Continuing care groups
Day treatment outpatient programs are intense outpatient programs that meet every day and are heavily structured with medication detox, counseling sessions, support groups, and other types of therapies like behavioral, family, cognitive, or even art or music.
Intensive outpatient, despite the name, is less intense than day treatment programs. The meeting times are a bit more flexible, making this an ideal choice for those with scheduling conflicts. These types of programs are also a great option for those of you who already have an excellent support system in place since you don’t meet as often as you would with some of the other treatment options.
Continuing care groups are a treatment option if you’re at the tail end of your initial recovery process. You’ll meet with like-minded individuals for an hour or two once or twice a week to keep each other motivated and to discuss your struggles and achievements.
Medication is another available option and one that might be prescribed during that initial visit to your primary care physician. There are currently 3 types of medication approved in the United States that work to help people overcome alcohol addiction and to prevent a relapse.
Let’s talk a little bit about relapse. It’s important to understand that having one drink during recovery isn’t automatically considered a relapse — it’s called a slip. If that happens then get yourself to a support group meeting or talk to your therapist so you can prevent a full-blown relapse.
It is estimated that almost 40% of people with a minor drinking problem will relapse and 30% of people with a major drinking problem will relapse. Why are we telling you this? Because feelings of failure and pressure you put upon yourself due to relapsing can be detrimental to your future success in overcoming alcohol addiction. If it happens to you then understand that relapses happen. You are not alone. Recognize the warning signs, which include isolating yourself, anxiety or depression, eating unhealthily, or talking about missing alcohol. You also want to recognize potential triggers like the glass you frequently drink out of or the bar you frequent, or the people you typically drink alcohol with — and avoid them.
A few other tips include taking a sober friend to parties where there will be alcohol, or have a prepared response ready when someone offers you a drink, like “I’m driving.” You can also ask the bartender to serve you a non-alcoholic drink in a cocktail glass. Avoid social situations where you think you might feel awkward not drinking and where people might pressure you to drink. Instead, surround yourself with new, sober friends.
Top 5 Holistic Options
If traditional rehab and clinical therapy aren’t the route you want to go in order to overcome your alcohol addiction, here are 5 great holistic options to help you quit drinking that you should consider.
Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine that uses tiny needles inserted along various meridians, or pressure points, along the body. It is also believed that it can help relieve symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal and alcohol cravings, as well as depression and anxiety.
There are two main herbs believed to help with overcoming alcohol addiction: kudzu and milk thistle. Kudzu, also traditionally used in Chinese medicine, is a trailing perennial vine that’s part of the pea family. An extract from the root contains something called puerarin, which is believed to increase blood flow to the brain. In several studies, this has been linked to a feeling of satisfaction after consuming less alcohol, as well as a decrease in the urge to drink.
Milk thistle can help restore liver function. It contains the antioxidant silymarin, which protects against liver damage specifically caused by drinking alcohol. Taking milk thistle may, therefore, help assist in alleviating symptoms associated with alcohol related liver conditions. More research is being done on this all the time.
Anxiety is a major player in alcohol addiction. With that being said, it’s absolutely vital you find ways to reduce that anxiety. You either need to eliminate things that cause you stress (aside from alcohol) or you need to find healthy ways to manage your stress now that grabbing for a beer or a glass of wine is no longer an option. As soon as you do, your health and your sleep will improve, your anxiety levels will decrease, and hopefully, those alcohol cravings will decrease, too.
Ways to destress include:
- Take up yoga
- Go for a walk
- Spend time with friends and family, including your pet
- Practice deep breathing techniques
Improve your diet
We’re not proponents of dieting as a get-thin-quick remedy for being overweight and trying to get healthy. When we say diet, we mean the foods that you eat daily that will have long-lasting healthy benefits.
Many alcoholics, even overweight individuals, are malnourished in various ways because their bodies aren’t able to absorb nutrients as efficiently. Therefore, eating foods that are full of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals will not only get you back on track, health-wise, but will help you feel better, give you more energy, and improve your sleep. As a result, you’ll feel less tempted to drink.
People who abuse alcohol often have low to non-existent levels of the vitamin thiamine. Thiamine (also known as vitamin B1) is crucial in preventing heart disease and dementia. It’s also vital for the tissues of the brain, kidneys, liver, and heart to function properly and low levels contribute to high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure, as well as lead to weight gain, all of which can also increase your risk of diabetes.
Foods high in thiamine, that are also on Dr. Nancy’s anti-inflammatory diet, include: trout, lentils, eggs macadamia nuts, asparagus, salmon, black beans, sunflower seeds, and brown rice.
Bringing more of these foods into your regular diet, as well as loading up on fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and other lean proteins like chicken and turkey will not only improve your thiamine levels, but will benefit your health and your recovery success as well.
You also want to make sure you are supplementing with your daily dose of Smarter Curcumin and taking Smarter Nutrition’s Daily Multivitamin — both are essential in ensuring your body is getting the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you need to help prevent inflammation and support a healthy lifestyle.
Work it out
To help avoid relapse, it’s important to keep yourself busy and distracted when an alcohol craving hits. That could be as simple as going outside and doing some work in the garden or doing household chores inside. It can also include working out. Aerobic exercise can reduce symptoms of depression, help you cope better with stress. This can decrease your urge to drink because aerobic exercise releases dopamine, the hormone responsible for feeling pleasure.
Types of aerobic exercise include: running, power walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, kayaking or canoeing, roller skating, ice skating, boxing, and team sports.
Today, we discussed alcohol addiction, what it entails, treatment options available, and the benefits of giving up alcohol. Over half the United States’ population consumes alcohol, and approximately 15 million Americans have an addiction to alcohol, which can lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression, insomnia, heart disease, liver issues, and more. The benefits of quitting include a healthy heart, restored liver function, more restful sleep, and a stable mood.
To ensure a successful recovery, it is important to find healthy ways to cope with stress and eat a nutritious diet loaded with essential minerals and vitamins, especially thiamine. Build a good support team around you, and be kind to yourself if you slip up. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
We hope you found today’s episode helpful, whether it’s for yourself or for someone you love. Feel free to share it and stay tuned for more great information on health, addiction, nutrition, exercise, and more.