Alcoholosm Within the context of our society, drinking of alcohol is a perfectly normal activity. For most people drinking a moderate amount of alcohol can be beneficial, indeed studies suggest that moderate drinking may protect against coronary heart disease by improving insulin resistance (Gold, 1991). However, for a minority of people drinking alcohol is an activity that is fraught with danger and, for a very few, is akin to taking a poison that will almost inevitably ruin their lives. Henceforth, it is important for research purposes to define who an alcoholic is and what the effects of alcohol on that person are. An alcoholic is a person who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol habitually and whose pattern of drinking is uncontrollable and usually impulsive.

Alcoholism is a chronic and usually progressive illness involving the excessive ingestion of ethyl alcohol, whether in the form of familiar alcoholic beverages or as a constituent of other substances. Furthermore, alcohol often effects the nervous, peripheral and gastric systems and is characterized by mental disturbances and muscular uncoordination, and may eventually leads to disorders such as cirrhosis of the liver (Goodwin, 1988). Alcoholism is thought to arise from a combination of a wide range of physiological, psychological, social, and genetic influences. It is characterized by an emotional and often physical dependence on alcohol and may often lead to brain damage or early death (Drews, 1992). In the past, researchers from various different disciplines sought to pin down a single cause for alcoholism.

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There was the concept of addictive personality whereby it was suggested that anyone with a particular personality type was almost inevitably predestined to alcoholism. In a similar way, the presence of a close family member with a drinking related disorder was also considered to be a danger of almost epic proportions with various people suggesting that their lifestyles would undoubtedly ‘rub off’ on anyone unfortunate enough to live near them (Raistrick, 1985). Studies on aspects such as the individual’s environment suggest a certain type of environment may play a major contributing factor in developing alcoholism. It has been illustrated that children of alcoholics are at great risk of being exposed to an unhealthy family system. The more time a person spends in such a negative environment, the more susceptible he/she becomes to trying alcohol and in the long run of becoming alcoholics, marrying an alcoholic or doing both and so continuing the vicious cycle (Bowden, 1985).

Clearly, Alcoholism, as opposed to merely excessive or irresponsible drinking, has been variously thought of as a symptom of psychological or social stress or as a learned, maladaptive coping behaviour (Barrera et al., 1991). More recently, and probably more accurately however, it has come to be viewed that alcoholism is a complex disease entity in its own right. Alcoholism usually develops over a period of years. Early and subtle symptoms include placing excessive importance on the availability of alcohol. Ensuring this availability strongly influences the person’s choice of associates or activities. Furthermore, alcohol comes to be used more as a mood-changing drug rather than as a beverage served as part of a social custom or religious ritual. Initially, the alcoholic may demonstrate a high tolerance to alcohol, consuming more and showing less adverse effects than others. Subsequently, however, the person begins to drink against his/her own will and best interests, as alcohol comes to assume more importance than personal relationships, work, reputation, and most importantly their physical health.

The person commonly loses control over drinking and is increasingly unable to predict how much alcohol will be consumed on a give occasion or, if the person is currently obtaining, when the drinking will resume again. Physical addiction to the drug may occur, sometimes eventually leading to drinking around the clock to avoid withdrawal symptoms (Gold, 1991). The effects of alcoholism are direct and toxic as well as have sedative effects on the body. The effects on major organ systems are cumulative and include a wide range of digestive system disorders such as ulcers and inflammation of the pancreas. Furthermore, if the blood from the digestive tract, which flows through the liver before going back to the heart, contains alcohol it may kill liver cells as it passes through.

Consequently, these dead and damaged cells are replaced by fibrous tissue, which over time can accumulate and form masses of scar tissue. This is a common disorder of the digestive system known as cirrhosis of the liver. Moreover, permanent damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems can also be prominent. Serious withdrawal symptoms, such as those marked by Delirium Tremens, can prove to be fetal even despite prompt treatment. Delirium Tremens is an acute disorder occurring as a symptom following withdrawal from intoxication. The seizures generally last from three to six days and are characterized by terrifying hallucinations, usually of small creatures, and violent tremors. The patient is disoriented and usually incoherent. This is in contrast to withdrawal from narcotic drugs such as heroin, which, although distressful, rarely results in death (Gold, 1991). Recent evidence has shown that heavy and even moderate drinking during pregnancy can cause serious damage to the child.

Evidently, pregnant women can transfer alcoholism to their unborn children by means of the umbilical cord. When the mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy, both she and her child experience its effects. Researchers have proven that alcohol is extremely toxic to the fetus since it can harm fetal cells as well as affect the placenta, the organ through which the fetus absorbs oxygen and other nutrients from the mother. The extend to which a fetus is damaged by exposure to alcohol depends on which stage of pregnancy the mother consumed the alcohol in, as well as on how much she consumed (Bowden, 1985). A study conducted on pregnant animals that were fed alcohol, led researchers to conclude that major physical defects in the human embryo can be caused by exposures to alcohol in the first trimester, that is the first three months of pregnancy.

Brain damage, on the other hand, can result from exposures at any time during the pregnancy (Brown, 1992). Researchers know that the more alcohol the mother drinks and the longer the fetus is exposed to its toxic effects, the more severe the child’s birth defects will be. Moreover, binge drinking or heavy alcohol consumption at one sitting, is particularly hazardous to the fetus, because very high levels of alcohol enter the mother’s blood stream and the alcohol is passed into the blood of the fetus through the placenta (Bowden, 1985). Furthermore, a rare but severe expression of damage to the fetus by means of alcohol consumption is known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This disorder includes mild to severe mental and physical damage. FAS affects approximately 1 to 3 of every 1000 live births world wide, and is the leading known cause of mental retardation in the Western world.

French researchers at the University of Nantes in 1968 were the first to make a connection between maternal use of alcohol during pregnancy and birth defects in children. Children with FAS are small in size and weight at birth and have slow growth rates throughout their entire development. A child with FAS has characteristic facial features that may include short eyelids, a flattened midface, a smooth and elongated space between the nose and the mouth, and a narrow upper lip. Specifically, these children show evidence of damage to the central nervous system that may be in the form of mental retardation, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, seizures, or e …