A beer in the evenings after work, maybe some wine to accompany your dinner, or some mixers on holiday – alcohol can creep into our lives so easily and feature in many parts of our lives, that we can forget that alcohol is addictive like many drugs are. Binge drinking can be the result.
It’s addictive both physically and psychologically.
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Regular drinking causes your body to build up a tolerance to alcohol. Tolerance is a physiological response people have to any drug – the more of the drug/alcohol you consume, the more your body craves to experience the same effect. Certain enzymes in the liver metabolise (break-up) alcohol, which regular drinking induces even more. So the levels of these enzymes rise if you drink heavily over many weeks or months, which causes your tolerance to build – making you need more alcohol to receive the same effects.
Tolerance is not only associated with the liver – the brain gets tolerant to alcohol as well. If you can walk a straight line after a binge drinking session, it means (unfortunately) that your brain has adapted so that the brain cells expect alcohol the next day. Symptoms such as anxiety and nervousness occur with withdrawal, and many people turn to drinking again just to relieve those symptoms. If you’re drinking most days of the week, you can become psychologically dependant on alcohol as well. To test for this (and to handle tolerance), break your drinking cycle – try taking some days off from drinking to prevent your organs from being used to alcohol, which should help reset/lower your tolerance.
Alcohol dependence and binge drinking can lead to a whole range of serious health problems
The risk of the following disorders is increased with alcohol dependency:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
Your liver is damaged by prolonged binge drinking. It is estimated that around 7 out of 10 people with liver damage (alcoholic liver disease caused by binge drinking) have an alcohol dependency problem. Cirrhosis, the most serious form of alcoholic liver disease, is caused by scarring from continuous and long-term damage. The healthy tissue in the liver is replaced by scar tissue, which prevents the liver functioning properly. If a person develops cirrhosis, they HAVE to cut out alcohol completely. This is essential to prevent them from dying from liver failure. People with the most serious cases of cirrhosis who require a liver transplant, will only be considered for the operation if they abstain from drinking for at least 3 months. Binge drinking can also cause anemia (abnormally low red blood cell count) which can trigger so many symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and light-headiness.
Jurgen Rehm, PhD, chairman of the University of Toronto’s department of addiction policy and a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, also in Toronto, says “Habitual drinking increases the risk of cancer”. This increased risk, say scientists, comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde (which is a potent carcinogen). Alcohol-induced cancer can affect:
- Throat (pharynx)
- Voice box (larynx)
- Colorectal region
If you are a smoker as well as a binge drinker, your cancer risk rises even higher. Read more about alcohol and cancer here.
Epilepsy can even be caused by binge drinking, and seizures can even be triggered in people who don’t have epilepsy. If you are taking medication to treat convulsions, drinking can also interfere with these.
Platelets are more likely to clump together into blood clots in heavy drinkers (and especially binge drinkers). These blood clots can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. Harvard researchers found that binge drinking actually doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack (in a study published in 2005).
Cardiomyopathy (a potentially deadly condition in which the heart muscle weakens and finally fails, as well as heart rhythm abnormalities such as atrial and ventricular fibrillation) can also be caused by binge drinking.
Stroke-triggering blood clots can be caused by Atrial fibrillation (the heart’s upper chambers (atria) twitch wildly rather than constrict rhythmically).
Ventricular fibrillation causes wild twitching in the heart’s main pumping chambers (ventricles). Rapid loss of consciousness, and without immediate treatment sudden death, can follow.
Mental health and psychological problems through binge drinking and dependency on alcohol
Being alcohol dependant can cause you to have anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings. This is due to the neurotransmitters in our brains (needed for good mental health) being interfered with by constant heavy alcohol abuse. Your relationships with partners, family, and friends are often adversely affected by alcohol dependency. You probably won’t be performing very well at work which can lead to you being sacked, which would mean financial problems being added to your list as well – causing more depression and anxiety. Vicious cycles can develop when you use alcohol to try and improve your mood, which you need to be aware of.
If you believe that your physical or mental health is suffering due to alcohol abuse, but you don’t think you are able to stop by yourself, ask for professional help. You can begin turning things around by simply visiting your GP.