From Chapter One of the book
How to Quit Drinking Without AA
For more about this book: click here
A Physical Addiction
Alcohol could be a free ticket through life if it weren’t for the physical addiction. The physical addiction drags you down. You begin drinking more but enjoying it less.
What happens? You go from wanting a drink to needing a drink. Deep down, alcohol becomes your medicine. It seems to cure everything. The problem is, you begin feeling healthy only when you’re drinking, and you feel sick whenever you stop.
For Gloria, quitting wasn’t easy. Every time she stayed off alcohol for more than a day, she grew nervous and upset, and she began getting angry at everyone around her. Like clockwork every time, by the end of the day, she would say, “I can’t stand it anymore! I gotta have a drink.” Her drinking no longer seemed a choice.
Gloria could go without alcohol for about a day. Others can go for three or four days or even a week, before they can’t stand it anymore and have to have a drink. Other drinkers, especially everyday drinkers, cannot go for more than a few hours. Many of them wake in the middle of the night, needing a drink just to get back to sleep.
There are two signs to the physical addiction. (1) You begin needing more and more alcohol to get the same effects. This is called increasing tolerance. (2) You begin to feel as if you can’t get along without alcohol. You feel more and more pain whenever you try to quit. This sign of addiction is called the withdrawal syndrome.
“Tolerance” describes how much alcohol your body can handle. As your body adjusts to alcohol, your tolerance increases. What two drinks did in the beginning may take five, ten, twenty, or even more drinks as tolerance increases. Your body finds its limit. Your cells adapt to the sedative effects of alcohol, harden to protect themselves from the toxic irritation, and learn to use more and more calories from alcohol as a source of food. But these three adaptations take their toll. In fact, after many years of heavy drinking, tolerance begins to reverse. Tolerance reverses when cells start breaking down and simply can’t handle as much alcohol.
The second sign of physical addiction, the “withdrawal syndrome,” appears only when you take alcohol away. Your body complains out loud, your nervous system flashes urgent signals to the mind: “Give me another drink to calm me down.”
The agitation in the cells can be so great that your whole body can go into convulsions. This is serious. About 20%-25% die during these convulsions if they don’t have medical treatment. As a rule of thumb, the longer and harder you’ve been drinking, the more problems you’ll experience during withdrawal. The shorter and less excessive your drinking career, the more likely your withdrawal syndrome will look like a hypoglycemic attack. You’ll feel fatigued, jumpy, restless, headachy, quick to anger, and depressed. Further, these symptoms will disappear temporarily, if you eat or drink something sweet, or if you drink alcohol.
Medical research shows two major causes of physical addiction. (1) Your cells adapt to alcohol; and (2) your body has a problem with alcohol metabolism.
Adaptation in the cells. To your cells, alcohol becomes a way of life. Your blood bathes every cell in alcohol on a fairly regular schedule. Your cells adjust. They grow to expect these doses on time.
Your cells learn to cope with alcohol by defending themselves against alcohol’s toxic effects. Cell walls harden to retain stability and reduce toxic damage. But as your cells get tough against alcohol, gradually more and more can be consumed. Your tolerance increases.
In the long run, however, cell walls break down. At this point, your cells lose their ability not only to keep toxins out but to retain the essential nutrients you get from food. Many of them stop functioning altogether, or start functioning abnormally. That’s when your organs (heart, brain, liver, kidneys, etc.), which are nothing more than whole systems of cells, begin to fail.
Your cells show signs of physical addiction another way. They crave alcohol as a food. Alcohol converts almost instantly to glucose in the blood. Known as blood-sugar, the body uses this as food for all the cells. When you drink alcohol, like eating a candy bar or drinking a soda, the cells get a quick burst of energy. This energy, as you may know, is measured in “calories.”
Alcoholic beverages pack a lot of calories. Five to ten drinks provide the same amount of calories as a well-balanced meal. But the meal, of course, would have provided essential vitamins, minerals, proteins (amino acids), fats, fiber, and the complex carbohydrates—all of which the body needs to stay healthy. Unfortunately, the simple carbohydrates of alcohol satisfy the hunger too well. And, when you drink a lot, you usually don’t feel like eating a meal, balanced or not.
Your cells adapt another way. They grow to crave alcohol for the sedation. Alcohol sedates all of your cells. Also, secondary compounds called isoquinolines form in the brain where they cause heroin-like sedation of the brain and nervous system. That’s why, among all the cells, nerve cells react most violently whenever alcohol is taken away. You’ll see anything from shaking hands and nervous irritability, to convulsive seizures.
Problem with alcohol metabolism. Physical addiction, the body’s normal reaction to too much alcohol too often, doesn’t affect everyone the same way. A select group of people who have a problem metabolizing alcohol are especially susceptible.
Alcohol metabolism is normally a simple chemical process. Basically the liver attempts to detoxify the body of alcohol by breaking toxic alcohol into acetaldehyde (another toxic chemical), and then reducing acetaldehyde to acetate or acetic acid which quickly convert to glucose in the blood. In “alcoholic” drinkers the liver functions poorly during this second step. It converts acetaldehyde to acetate at about half the speed of a “normal” drinker’s liver.
This malfunction causes two main problems. First of all, acetaldehyde builds in the blood. As a powerful toxin, acetaldehyde adds to the toxic damage alcohol causes the cells, which start to fight as much to protect themselves from acetaldehyde as from alcohol.
Secondly, acetaldehyde interacts with brain enzymes, creating isoquinolines, those opiate-like chemicals that tranquilize the brain and nervous system. This chemical byproduct doubles or even triples the sedative effect of the alcohol. What’s more, this added sedative in the brain dramatically increases the addictive power of alcohol. Because of it, withdrawal becomes more extreme. You go all the way from euphoric sedation while drinking, to a high-pitched buzzing anxiety when you withdraw. How do you get rid of the anxiety? Alcohol. Or other sedative drugs.
So the metabolic problem causes greater agitation in your cells, as they’re forced to fight another toxin. But it causes greater sedation as well. That’s why, when you get the alcohol “really working,” you’re raring to go yet calm and cool. How can you beat this high?
And all this because of a glitch in metabolism. Clearly this glitch is the main reason for your physical addiction. About 10% of all drinkers have this problem. They are the ones who become “alcoholic.”
So why do some livers develop this metabolic problem, while others do not? Why do some livers set the stage for alcoholism by processing alcohol at a slower rate? There are at least five ways the metabolic problem can begin:
- Genetic inheritance.
- Fetal alcohol addiction.
- Sugar addiction.
- Prolonged excessive drinking.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Genetic inheritance. The “alcoholic metabolism” can be inherited. If your mother or father or any of your four grandparents had a problem with alcohol, you stand a better than average chance of having a problem with it.
What’s the average chance? In America, about 10% of all drinkers become alcoholic drinkers. If you have a history of alcoholism in your family, and if you become a drinker, your chances of becoming an alcoholic drinker are anywhere from 2 to 5 times greater than average. Instead of a 10% chance, you have a 20%-50% chance of becoming an alcoholic.
The chance increases because you inherit certain elements of your biochemistry through your genes. Your ability to metabolize alcohol is more likely to be weak, if it was weak in one or more of your parents or grandparents. One other point: You may also inherit a weak sugar metabolism, and this can lead to a problem with alcohol metabolism once you start drinking.
So your genetic history plays an important role in the development of alcoholism. If alcoholism runs in your family and if you start drinking, there is a greater than average risk that you will become an alcoholic.
However, you can’t say whether you will be alcoholic for sure, based on genetic factors. Even with a strong genetic history of alcoholism, you still have a 50%-80% chance of not being affected. Obviously, other factors are involved.
Fetal alcohol addiction. A baby can be born with a full-blown alcohol addiction. At birth, the child’s liver can have a problem with alcohol metabolism, and he or she can have built up a tolerance to alcohol, exhibit a withdrawal syndrome, and show all the physiological traits that accompany alcoholism.
This can happen to any baby whose mother drank heavily during pregnancy. Why? Because alcohol goes from the mother’s blood directly into the fetus: It crosses the placenta. What’s worse, if the mother has the “alcoholic metabolism,” toxic acetaldehyde that builds in her blood also crosses the placenta.
In fact, if the mother drinks too heavily during pregnancy, the baby can suffer fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Symptoms include unusual deformities in skull and facial features, mental retardation, severe problems with digestion and metabolism, nervous disorders, malnutrition and many other extremely serious disorders.
But if you were born with even a mild addiction to alcohol and begin drinking later in life, alcohol is much more likely to cause you problems. Why? You can reactivate the alcoholic metabolism that developed when you were in the womb.
Advice to pregnant mothers? Don’t drink. Current medical advice says don’t drink at all during pregnancy. Some studies show that even small amounts of alcohol may compromise fetal health. Also if you are breast feeding, don’t drink, because alcohol passes directly into mother’s breast milk.
Sugar addiction. The body metabolizes alcohol and sugar in nearly the same manner. That’s why a serious sugar addiction early in life can become the perfect set-up for an alcohol addiction later on.
Over-consumption of sweets and other foods high in sugar often leads to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Like alcoholism, hypoglycemia is a metabolic problem. And, like alcoholism, it cause a vicious cycle of addiction.
What’s the relationship between hypoglycemia and alcoholism? Studies show 95%-100% of all alcoholic drinkers suffer from hypoglycemia.
Here’s what happens: When we ingest sugary foods or alcohol, our blood-sugar (glucose) shoots up like a rocket. Blood-sugar, you may remember, is a form of food for the cells. It’s how the cells get energy. In a strong and healthy body, this energy remains fairly constant. Our cells burn blood-sugar at a fairly even rate, keeping our energy level stable.
We even have built-in controls to ensure this. For instance, when blood sugar rises too quickly, the body undergoes a stress reaction. This immediately signals the pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone which reduces blood-sugar. Usually the body produces insulin in just the right amounts, lowering blood-sugar to normal levels without much trouble.
After years of excesses and abuse however, this sugar control system starts to break down. Then, the pancreas begins to make mistakes. It begins overreacting. Whenever sugar or alcohol is ingested, it produces too much insulin.
Too much insulin sends the blood-sugar level crashing below normal. This abrupt decline results in the body suddenly feels drained, fatigued, depressed after the initial high. Your energy level goes way down. You may have a headache, feel tense and anxious, or experience fuzzy thinking. These are withdrawal symptoms; they appear anywhere from one to four hours after the initial high. How do you get rid of the symptoms in a hurry? More sweets…or alcohol…or both.
A hypoglycemic metabolism drives both the sugar and the alcohol addictions. Alcohol relieves you of hypoglycemic symptoms more effectively than sugar. But, as you’d expect, it causes these symptoms to grow more and more severe with each withdrawal.
In fact, alcohol does everything on a slightly grander scale than sugar. It calms you more than sugar because it has a more powerful sedative effect. Yet alcohol also has more toxic side effects than sugar, so the long-range damage to your cells is greater.
Many teenagers trade their sugar addiction for a more mature addiction: alcohol. The trade-up often happens in adults as well. It’s an easy change because the alcohol addiction fits so neatly into the same biochemical routine as the sugar addiction.
Of course not all sugar addicts become alcoholic drinkers. But alcohol works wonders for some of them. They instantly prefer it to sweets. For them, alcohol takes the nervous edge off their lives so much more completely. But again, whenever they stop drinking for even a day or two, they keep going for something sweet—often every other hour or so.
When you quit drinking for good, your hypoglycemia can drive you crazy with cravings. Sweets and high-sugar foods will satisfy the cravings temporarily, but not with the supreme calm produced by alcohol. And if you keep eating sweets or drinking sweet drinks to satisfy the cravings, your metabolism will remain about the same. That means you’ll continue to crave alcohol to calm you down.
But if you break your sugar addiction at the same time you quit drinking, you will not crave alcohol. It’s actually easier to quit alcohol and sugar together, than it is to quit alcohol alone. You’ll learn how to do this later in this book.
Overeating. Here’s another way you can cause metabolic problems that will set the stage for alcoholism. Overeating, like overdrinking, is a problem of excessive appetite. Many alcoholic drinkers had problems with overeating when they were young, before they started to drink. For some, the habit of overeating disappears when their drinking habit begins. Others alternate habits: They overeat, then they over-drink, then they overeat, etc. Still others do both concurrently.
Interestingly enough, Overeaters Anonymous uses the same 12-step program as AA. However, not enough research has been done to clarify the relationship between these two addictions. More evidence is needed. For now, though, here’s an analysis which suggests a biochemical link.
Overeating is a problem of excess, as is alcoholism. Overeating forces the metabolism to work overtime and is especially hard on the liver. The liver has two main functions: to help gain valuable nutrients from normal digestion, and to rid the body of toxins. When you eat too much, the liver is forced to work overtime on normal digestion and, as a result, excess toxins accumulate in the blood. The same happens when the liver must process too much alcohol.
Today’s food, laced with chemical additives, causes another problem for the overeater. It increases the toxic overload on the liver and can make it even harder for liver to function properly.
In many ways alcohol brings welcome relief to overeaters. It offers instant calories without the burden of all that digestion. If you drink before you eat, it depresses the appetite and you eat less. If you eat too much and drink afterward, you speed digestion.
Overeating teaches the metabolism how to deal with excess. Overdrinking fits the same biochemical scenario, but it’s easier in a way. Why? Alcohol is light; food is heavy. To the overeater, alcohol provides relief while still satisfying the need for excess.
That’s why, when you quit drinking, you may naturally begin overeating in order to satisfy your body’s expectation for excess. So when you quit, you can do yourself a big favor by learning not to overeat. This in turn will help you to reduce your cravings for alcohol. Later in the book, you’ll learn how to stop overeating.
Prolonged excessive drinking. Here’s one other way normal alcohol metabolism can break down and the alcoholic metabolism begin.
Some habitual drinkers drink a lot without showing serious signs of addiction. But after many years of abuse the internal organs can wear out, especially the pancreas and liver. When the liver loses its ability to metabolize alcohol efficiently, tolerance can increase, and other problems of alcoholism, like excessive cellular damage and withdrawal syndrome, can appear.
This follows the same principle as adult-onset diabetes. Metabolism functions well for a very long time, only to break down after too many years of stress.
Even “social drinkers” and “borderline alcoholics” who average anywhere from two to six drinks per day. All of a sudden things change. They start drinking more and more as addiction sets in.
Prolonged drinking of any amount can trigger hypoglycemia and consequently alcoholism. First, the pancreas breaks down, starting the sugar addiction. Then the liver breaks down, starting the alcohol addiction.
As obvious as this sounds, it doesn’t happen very often—at least according to research. Most research suggests alcoholic drinkers begin their drinking careers with the metabolic problem already established. Tolerance builds from the very first. Hypoglycemic withdrawal symptoms become slowly exaggerated into more severe alcoholic withdrawal symptoms, along with a greater and greater compulsion to drink.
What Can You Do about the Physical Addiction?
Once started, the physical addiction gets worse and worse. In order to change it, you need to change your metabolism. Here’s a quick review:
The “alcoholic metabolism” drives the physical addiction. This glitch in metabolism boosts the sedative effects of alcohol to your cells. It keeps the body bristling with high doses of sugar to counteract the gloomy side of hypoglycemia. And it creates excess toxins in the body that demand a little extra effort in your own struggle for survival.
Meanwhile, your mind keeps finding all kinds of uses for alcohol. It interprets the way you feel, moment to moment, and knows exactly why you “need another drink.” But the mind can’t always be trusted. Your body can be near death with alcoholic damage and your mind can want another drink.
But you can change. When you quit drinking and change to a healthy diet, your cells begin to heal and your metabolism begins to revitalize itself. This is the key. After awhile, you begin to feel rejuvenated, strong, and healthy.