THE IMPACT OF ALCOHOL ON INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY
Opinions regarding alcohol and its effects on individuals and society vary hugely depending on whom you talk to and what personal point of view you may have.
As with every contentious subject (and alcohol and its effects are certainly one
of the most contentious) there is a veritable mountain of research that scrutinises and evaluates every pro and con regarding alcohol
from almost every angle. There is a myriad of views that both support or demonize its manufacturing, sale and consumption.
With all of this in mind this article will certainly not be an in-depth study but a general overview of the facts, usage and the impact that alcohol has on our health and general wellbeing. Hopefully this may be helpful and stimulate an interest in the subject to the point that an individual may choose to explore their own relationship (if any) with drink.
Many people believe they have a ‘sensible’ relationship with alcohol but there many others who worry about how the amount they consume and also worry about the effect this may have on their medium to long-term health.
Whether you imbibe or abstain, the reality is that alcohol, and its consumption, affects everyone in one way or another.
To put things into perspective, these are some statistics (courtesy of Alcohol Change UK) regarding the value the manufacture and sale of alcohol and the effects of alcohol consumption in the UK: • In 2019 the market value of the sales of alcoholic beverages sold in the UK reached around £55.92 billion pounds.
In 2018-19 Revenue collected from the manufacturer and sale of alcoholic beverages will raise an estimated £11.6 billion pounds, 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines and 27% of drinkers in Great Britain binge drink on their heaviest drinking days (over 8 units for men and over 6 units for women)
In the UK in 2017 there were 7,697 alcohol-specific deaths (around 12.2 per 100,000 people). This is the highest level since 2008, In England, there are an estimated 589,101 dependent drinkers (2016/17), of whom 81.7% are not accessing treatment.
Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49-year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages.
While the price of alcohol has increased by 31% over the last 10 years, it remains 64% more affordable than it was in 1987.
So, it is evident that even if a person does not drink, their life will be directly affected by alcohol, either benefiting by the tax revenue coming into the system, supporting the country’s coffers, or by resources suffering loss due to extra cost associated to the problems of excessive alcohol consumption.
One thing is certain, the manufacture and consumption of alcohol in the UK is here to stay.
A ‘BRIEF’ HISTORY OF ALCOHOL
Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) for thousands of years.
Fermented beverages existed in early Egyptian civilization, and there is evidence of an early alcoholic drink in China around 7000 B.C. In India, an alcoholic beverage called sura, distilled from rice, was in use between 3000 and 2000 B.C.
The Babylonians worshipped a wine goddess as early as 2700 B.C. In Greece, one of the first alcoholic beverages to gain popularity was mead, a fermented drink made from honey and water. Greek literature is full of warnings against excessive drinking.
Several Native American civilizations developed alcoholic beverages in pre-Columbian times. A variety of fermented beverages from the Andes region of South America were created from corn, grapes or apples, called ‘chicha.’
In the sixteenth century, alcohol (called ‘spirits’) was used largely for medicinal purposes. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the British parliament passed a law encouraging the use of grain for distilling spirits. Cheap spirits flooded the market and reached a peak in the mid-eighteenth century. In Britain, gin consumption reached 18 million gallons and alcoholism became widespread.
The mortality rate from gin was thought to be so high that it actually stabilised London’s rapidly growing population. Concern over the effects of gin on British society led to the Gin Acts, of 1736 and 1751 respectively, which taxed and regulated the production and sale of gin. In Britain, the late 20th century and early 21st have seen widespread increases in public drunkenness.
At present the UK ranks 25th in the world for its overall consumption of alcohol
THE EFFECTS OF DRINKING ALCOHOL
After a ‘drink’, people may become more sociable, less stressed, and happier, and will probably reach for another drink before too long. For all this to occur, the alcohol in the drink has to do a multitude of things.
For example, when you sip a gin and tonic, the ethanol goes to your stomach and small intestine, where it is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream. Some of the ethanol gets broken down in the liver to give you energy (about 7 kcal per gram), and some of it gets to the brain.
Once in the brain, it starts interfering with various kinds of neurotransmitters—the messenger molecules that tell different parts of the brain to start or stop various activities. Though we don’t know what exactly happens, we have some clues.
Alcohol is thought to affect two of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters: glutamate, which stimulates brain electrical activity, and GABA (gamma- aminobutyric acid) which inhibits it. Alcohol blocks the effects of glutamate and enhances the effects of GABA, so the overall result is that alcohol acts as a depressant, making you more sociable and relaxed.
Because of its sedative effects, alcohol makes falling asleep easier. However, it reduces the quality of sleep because it decreases the amounts of two of the three phases of sleep—the slow-wave and rapid-eye-movement (REM) phases. REM sleep is also to critical to memory formation, and it is one reason why drinking too much is associated with blackouts.
Drinking can also numb pain—not just emotional distress, but actual physical pain. This it achieves by dampening down the pain signals that sensory neurons send to the brain. But this effect is highly variable and doesn’t happen in everyone.
The alcoholic ‘high’
Alcohol isn’t just a depressant. It also stimulates the production of dopamine, the chemical associated with many pleasurable activities such as sex, good food, and playing video games. Dopamine is a key part of the reward-motivation system in the brain. The more dopamine an activity releases, the more likely you are to engage in that activity for another shot of dopamine release.
The warm glow
Beyond the mind, alcohol has other physical effects. Though you feel a certain amount of warmth after a drink— sometimes called a ‘beer jacket’—you in fact get colder faster. This is because alcohol messes with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that, among other things, regulates body temperature. Normally, when you feel cold, your body reduces blood flow to your skin and directs it to the organs, to preserve your core temperature. Alcohol reverses that reflex, sending blood to the skin, which makes you feel warm. But it also means more heat is leaking from your warm blood to the outside world, so if you’re not dressed warmly enough you can be at risk of hypothermia.
When it comes to sex, men and women respond differently to alcohol. For men, in general, alcohol reduces both arousal and pleasure. For women, sexual arousal goes up, but pleasure goes down.
All these effects vary from person to person based on factors such as genetics, body size, and mealtimes. But when you have too much to drink, all the effects become severe. In extreme conditions, lower glutamate and higher GABA
levels are what cause slurred speech, uncoordinated movement, and difficulty putting thoughts together. Consistently drinking too much damages development of the brain, harms the heart, and increases the risk of cancer. More than one in 20 deaths in the world every year are caused because of alcohol consumption.
WHAT ARE ‘SAFE LIMITS’?
People often wonder just what a safe limit of alcohol consumption is. It is a confusing picture as so much advice is available, and not all of it consistent, however, the current guidelines advise limiting alcohol intake to 14 units a week for women and men. This is equivalent to drinking no more than 6 pints of average-strength beer (4% ABV) or 7 medium-sized glasses of wine (175ml, 12% ABV) a week. These limits are lower than the levels for many other countries, but latest studies suggest that they are about right.
A recent BBC report stated that ‘just one alcoholic drink a day could shorten your life,’ this was after a study was conducted of almost 600,000 drinkers and showed that people who drank more than 12.5 units (100g) of alcohol a week were likely to die sooner than those who drank no more than this amount. The results applied equally to women and men.
So, how much do you drink? If your personal consumption is within this so-say ‘safe’ limit then surely all is well; or is it? It is very apparent that alcohol has different effects on different people. Some people feel the effects of alcohol after just one drink, however there are some that have a far higher tolerance to alcohol and can literally ‘drink people under the table’.
Does anyone really appreciate the effect of taking a drink has on their physical and mental wellbeing and also what the medium to long term impact can be due to the frequent consumption of alcohol?
WHAT IS THE LINE BETWEEN SOCIAL DRINKING AND A DEPENDENCY ON ALCOHOL?
Sarah A. Benton MS, LMHC, LPC, AADC article for Psychology Today, explores the difference (and links) between social drinkers, problem drinkers and alcoholics and points out the warning signs.
When the term ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ is mentioned, various types of drinkers often begin to question their own drinking and worry if they fall into this category. Part of this confusion is that many individuals are unclear about the differences between social drinkers, problem drinkers, and alcoholics. There is also a lack of awareness of what the true warning signs of alcoholism are.
Social drinkers are those individuals who drink in low-risk patterns. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), ‘low-risk’ drinking for females consists of no more than 7 drinks per week and no more than 3 drinks per sitting. For males, it consists of no more than 14 drinks per week and no more than 4 drinks per day.
Problem drinkers display clear differences between their drinking habits and those of alcoholics. In fact, according to the NIAAA, 72 percent of people have a single period of heavy drinking that lasts 3-4 years and peaks at ages 18-24 (typically occurs during the college years) that they phase out of. When problem drinkers are given sufficient reason to cut back on their drinking
(i.e. have a negative drinking consequence, debilitating hangover, become a parent), they can self-correct and return to drinking in a low-risk manner.
In contrast, alcoholics may be given countless reasons to cut back on their drinking, but they are unable to permanently cut back. Alcoholics may have occasions where they drink in a low-risk manner, but they inevitably return to their alcoholic drinking patterns.
High-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) in particular tend to minimize their drinking by falsely labelling it as a ‘problem’ or as ‘heavy’ drinking because they often do not believe that they fit the stereotype of the typical alcoholic. However, what defines an alcoholic
is a person’s relationship to alcohol and not how they appear to the outside world in terms of their personal, professional or academic life.
WARNING SIGNS OF ALCOHOLISM
Some of the following alcoholism warning signs are tailored to HFAs but are applicable to all subtypes of alcoholics. They include, but are not limited to:
Inability to control alcohol intake after starting to drink
Obsessing about alcohol (i.e., next time the person can drink, how they are going to get alcohol, who they’re going to go out drinking
Behaving in ways, while drunk, that are uncharacteristic of their sober personality
Repeating unwanted drinking patterns
Surrounding themselves socially with heavy drinkers
Getting drunk before actually arriving at parties/bars (pre-partying)
An increasing sense of denial that their heavy drinking is a problem because they can succeed professionally and personally
Setting drinking limits (i.e., only having three drinks, only drinking three days per week) and not being able to adhere to them
Driving drunk and, by sheer luck, not getting arrested or involved in an accident
Always having to finish an alcoholic beverage or even another person’s unfinished beverage
Using alcohol as a reward
Drinking dailyLiving a double life by separating drinking life from professional or home life
Binge drinking (more than five drinks in one sitting)
Having chronic blackouts (memory lapse due to excessive drinking) and not remembering what they did for a portion of their drinking episode
Feeling guilt and shame about their drunken behaviours
Taking breaks from drinking and then increasing alcohol consumption when they resume drinking after a period of time
People have expressed concern about their negative drunken behaviours
Engaging in risky sexual behaviour when intoxicated
Not being able to imagine their life without alcohol in it
If we begin to have a better understanding of alcohol and the effects that it has us personally, it is also important to look at the impact that heavy alcohol consumption has on society in general. It is an established fact that the use of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of injuries and accidents. Even a single episode of excessive drinking can lead to a negative outcome. Alcoholism and chronic use of alcohol are associated with numerous medical, psychiatric, social, and family problems. Here then are some of the ways alcohol can affect lives and the economy:
Inability to control alcohol intakeafter starting to drink
Consequences of drinking and driving can hurt your family and relationships, cost you employment opportunities, cause financial difficulties, high insurance rates and possible time in jail.
It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of all absences – up to 17 million working days – are lost each year due to alcohol. Sickness absence due to alcohol is estimated to cost the UK economy over £7.3 billion a year.
- Concerns to the community that are associated with alcohol use include noise, litter, offensive behaviour, vandalism, aggression, petty crime, assault and road safety issues. Many of these social consequences can result to violence or injury to others. Overall, treating alcohol-related conditions costs the NHS about 3.6% of its annual budget. According to UK drink driving statistics, hundreds are killed, and thousands injured (and affected) by accidents involving drinking and driving. Nearly one in six of all deaths on the road involve drivers who are over the legal alcohol limit.
- All of the information that has been gathered for this article should serve one purpose only and that is to help you explore your own personal relationship with alcohol and determine whether you are within the ‘safe’ limits or are one of the growing number of people who are genuinely concerned about just how much they consume.
- Just to repeat, there is no doubting that alcohol in UK society is an issue and has an impact on us all, however, there are millions of people that have a sensible and balanced relationship with alcohol, but we also know that from the statistical information that is freely available, the negative impact that alcohol abuse has on individuals, families and society in general.
- If you are one of the numbers that are genuinely worried about personal consumption, do not despair, help is available, but by the same token don’t ignore your concerns.
- There are many professional organisations that are extremely experienced in giving information and providing non-judgemental advice to anyone who contacts them. All enquiries will be treated in the strictest of confidence, and with some organisations they may not require any personal details.
- Here are some links to the many organisations that exist in specialising and providing help and advice on all alcohol related concerns.
www.drinkaware.co.uk www.alcoholchange.org.uk www.sfad.org.uk www.communityalcoholpartnerships.co.uk www.addaction.co.uk
Stay healthy, happy and safe.