Since alcohol-dependent persons have an increased
tolerance for alcohol, they react differently than
moderate or heavy drinkers to the effects of alcohol.
They can drink large quantities of alcohol without losing
control of their actions, while the moderate or heavy
drinker cannot. Instead of becoming more pleasant and
relaxed as do the moderate or heavy drinkers, alcoholics
may become progressively more tense and anxious
while drinking. They may accurately perform complex
tasks at blood-alcohol levels several times as great as
those that would incapacitate moderate to heavy
drinkers. At one stage of their alcoholism, they may
drink a fifth of whiskey a day without showing signs of
drunkenness. Later, in the chronic stage, their tolerance
decreases to the point that they may become drunk on
relatively small amounts of alcohol.
Alcoholics also differ from moderate to heavy
drinkers in their reactions to the abrupt removal of
alcohol. The normal drinker may only experience the
prosing misery of the hangover. Alcoholics may suffer
severe mental and bodily distress, such as severe
trembling, hallucinations, confusion, convulsions,
delirium (the alcohol withdrawal syndrome), and
delirium tremens. Both the alcohol withdrawal
syndrome and delirium tremens involve shaking,
sweating, nausea, and anxiety. However, delirium
tremens can cause death. The average person would
have difficulty distinguishing between the alcohol
withdrawal syndrome and the delirium tremens. Both
require immediate medical attention.
At present, no one knows the reason for the
increased tolerance of the alcohol-dependent person to
alcohol. At one time tolerance levels were thought to
depend on differences in peoples rates of alcohol
metabolism. However, overall rates of alcohol
metabolism were later found not to differ much in
normal drinkers and alcoholics. That fact indicated
changes in tolerance levels must occur in the brain rather
than in the liver.
DRUG INTERACTIONS WITH ALCOHOL.
Alcohol works on the same brain areas as some other
drugs. Drinking alcohol within a short time before or
after t aking those drugs can multipl y the normal effects
of either the drug or the alcohol taken alone. For
example, alcohol and barbiturates taken in combination
increase the effects of each other on the central nervous
system, which can be particularly dangerous. Alcohol
taken in combination with any drug that has a depressant
effect on the central nervous system is likewise
dangerous. These dangerous reactions are the result of
metabolismthe way our bodies chemically process
what we consume.
If drugs were not metabolized within the body, their
effect would continue for the remainder of a persons
life. In the metabolic process, our bodies transform
drugs into other substances and eventually eliminate
them through normal bodily functions. The more rapid
the rate of metabolism, the lower the impact of the drug.
When drugs are forced to compete with alcohol for
processing by the body, alcohol is metabolized first; the
other drug then remains active in the blood for an
extended time. As a result, the effect of the drug on the
body is exaggerated since its metabolism is slowed
down by the bodys tendency to take care of the alcohol
first. When added to the normal depressant consequence
of alcohol, further depression of the nervous system,
which regulates vital body functions, occurs. That
serious condition can result in death.
Although anyones body metabolizes drugs more
slowly when the blood contains alcohol, the alcoholics
[or heavy drinkers] body metabolizes drugs more
rapidly during sober periods. Therefore, heavy drinkers
commonly take even larger doses of drugs. The usual
quantities taken by nondrinkers or moderate drinkers
would have little effect on the heavy drinker. The results
of taking large doses of drugs and then drinking can
place these persons in even greater jeopardy; the results
can be fatal.
LONG-TERM EFFECTS. Drinking alcohol in
moderation apparently does the body little permanent
harm. But when taken in large doses over long periods,
alcohol can prove disastrous; it can reduce both the
quality and length of life. Damage to the heart, brain,
liver, and other major organs may result.
Prolonged heavy drinking has long been known to
be connected with various types of muscle diseases and
tremors. One essential muscle affected by alcohol is the
heart. Some recent research suggests that alcohol may
be toxic to the heart and to the lungs as well. Liver
damage especially may result from heavy drinking.
Cirrhosis of the liver occurs about eight times more
often among alcoholics as among nonalcoholics.
Heavy drinkers have long been known to have
lowered resistance to pneumonia and other infectious
diseases, usually because of malnutrition. However,
recent research showing well-nourished heavy drinkers
may also have lowered resistance indicates that alcohol
directly interferes with the immunity system. People
with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 to 0.25 percent have a