Alcohol is our favourite social drug. Many people use alcohol in moderation, without causing any physical or psychological harm, but for some people, heavier drinking can be a serious condition, leading to a range of illnesses.
This article in alcohol dependence is written by Ian Drever, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Hospital Woking, Surrey.
It is estimated that about one in thirteen people in the UK are dependent on alcohol, with several million more drinking above recommended limits, putting themselves at risk of numerous medical conditions.
A variety of treatment options for alcohol misuse are available, ranging from self-help groups to individual therapy, medication, residential detox and rehabilitation.
In order to reduce the risks of drinking, Department of Health guidelines recommend that men should drink no more than 3-4 units of alcohol per day, with women drinking no more than 2-3 units per day. One unit is defined as 7.9 grams of pure alcohol, which is roughly equivalent to half a pint of beer, a 25ml (pub) measure of spirits, a 50ml (pub) measure of fortified wine such as sherry, or a small 125ml glass of 8% wine.
Drinking beyond these levels for any sustained period can lead to a range of serious medical conditions. These include:
cirrhosis of the liver
heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy)
blood and nutritional deficiencies
high blood pressure and stroke
Drinking can also cause a range of psychiatric and social disorders, such as:
For someone with alcohol dependency, having a drink can take precedence over all other activities. Typically, many of the following features will be present:
a strong desire to drink alcohol
difficulty controlling the use of alcohol
persistent alcohol use, despite being aware of the harmful effects
increasing tolerance to the effects of alcohol
withdrawal features when going without alcohol
Alcohol dependence may remain undetected for many years, sometimes only generating illness features once significant health damage has been done.
An effective way of checking whether there may be features of alcohol dependence or misuse is to take the CAGE questionnaire:
1. Have you ever thought that you should Cut down your drinking?
2. Have you felt Annoyed by others commenting on your drinking?
3. Do you ever feel Guilty about your drinking?
4. Do you ever have a drink in the morning as an Eye-opener?
If you can answer 'yes' to two or more of these questions, then it is likely that you may be drinking at harmful levels, and you may wish to consider consulting your GP, or seeking specialist treatment.