Science Finds Frightening New Reasons to Seek Early Treatment for Alcoholism

Science Finds Frightening New Reasons to Seek Early Treatment for Alcoholism

Several recent studies offer compelling new reasons to seek treatment sooner rather than later for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Until now, efforts to dissuade people from excessive alcohol use usually stress the negative impact on career and family, and often include warnings that, over time, it heightens risks to one's health.

These recent studies go several frightening steps farther, revealing previously unknown and irreversible risks to health, even in the early stages of AUD. Any idea that adverse health effects are way off in some nebulous future are no longer valid.

Scientific findings now reveal that:

  • Alcohol use in almost any amount causes measurable brain damage
  • Alcohol use is a major risk factor for all types of dementia
  • The harmful effects of alcohol on the brain continue after alcohol use is ended
  • And finally, alcohol promotes disease by stunting essential probiotic oral bacteria while promoting harmful bacteria.

These findings could be added to discussions with anyone suffering from AUD, hopefully to help motivate them to enter treatment. These newly discovered detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on the brain and body should probably be part of preventive messages too, especially those aimed at young people.

Alcohol, brain damage and dementia

Many years ago, studies concluded that "light-to-moderate drinking" had a "protective effect" against coronary disease and stroke. From this, researchers hypothesized that it also provided protection from cognitive impairment and dementia.

Recent research in the UK and in France clearly shows that such a hypothesis is incorrect. In fact, even moderate alcohol use has observable adverse effects on brain structure, suggesting increased risks of dementia.

An important UK study, recently published in the British Medical Journal, followed over 500 men and women for 30 years. Moderate alcohol consumption was associated with "adverse brain outcomes including hippocampal atrophy," which is a key feature of Alzheimer's disease.

In France, a study published in The Lancet Public Health followed a million people with AUD and found nearly 40 percent of them - 400,000 people - were suffering from early-onset dementia "caused by alcohol-related brain damage."

Harmful effects continue

Some people have had the idea that all one has to do to avoid the ill effects of alcohol is to stop drinking. New research from a team of researchers from Alicante, Spain, and Mannheim, Germany, debunks that accepted wisdom.

In fact, the study found that the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain do not stop when someone stops drinking. Examinations of structural brain changes in people with AUD discovered that damage to the brain's white matter continued for several weeks even after sobriety had begun.

The researchers used neuro-imaging to examine the brains of 90 patients hospitalized with alcohol use disorder. The patients were protected from drinking because they were in the hospital for several weeks. And the researchers compared their findings with a control group of similarly aged non-drinkers.

There were no changes in the brains of the control group. But results in the AUD group clearly revealed damage to the white matter in the right hemisphere and frontal regions of the brain. Most significant, the damage to the brain's white matter continued for 6 weeks after the patients had stopped drinking.

The white matter is where information is processed and transferred throughout the brain. When damaged, these processes are interrupted, which is a hallmark of dementia.

Damages probiotic bacteria

Another new study looked at general disease conditions related to alcohol, and found negative effects of alcohol that begin, of all places, in the mouths of drinkers.

Researchers in New York discovered that alcoholic drinks - even a single "nightcap" - can lead to the suppression of "good bacteria" in the mouth, followed by the growth of several species of "bad bacteria" which are known to precipitate disease conditions elsewhere in the body.

The New York team found that alcoholic drinks increased disease-causing bacteria of the species bacteroidales, actinomyces and neisseria, and suppressed healthy bacteria such lactobacillales that help prevent some diseases. These harmful bacteria can lead to heart disease, cancers of the head and neck and gastrointestinal cancer, the study warned.

More technically, alcohol alters the "oral microbiome," also called the "oral microflora" or the "oral microbiota," the community of micro-organisms that live in the oral cavity and that help determine health or illness not just in the mouth, but all over the body.

By way of explanation, recent research has shown that the oral microbiome might play as vital a role in our overall health as the much-touted digestive system microbiome, which has transformed cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir, fermented vegetable products like sauerkraut and tempeh, and probiotic supplements (and even "prebiotic" supplements - the fibers that probiotics feed on) into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Is there an up-side for alcohol?

Studies like these show the detrimental effects of alcohol. Even the once-a-week or so "binge" drinking has been shown to carry most if not all the same risks as daily drinking, including cirrhosis, heart disease, diabetes and all the rest - and now, dementia and countless other conditions. Clearly, there appears to be no up-side in view for alcohol.

Meanwhile, here at Novus, we continue helping our patients recover substance-free lives through our proprietary, safe and comfortable medical withdrawal management programs.

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