The Unpredictability of Alcohol Consumption


When we think of addiction, our thoughts often go to illegal drugs, and narcotics that are bought and sold on the streets and back alleys of inner cities and bad neighborhoods. We think of heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, and illicitly obtained pharmaceuticals. However, one of the most addictive drugs in the world is entirely legal, very easy to get, and almost universally accepted. We are speaking, of course, of alcohol.

One of the reasons why alcohol is so dangerous is because its effects are unpredictable. At some levels, alcohol is a stimulant. At others, it is a depressant. Different people react differently to alcohol consumption. A person will even respond differently to varying types of alcohol.

On top of that, alcohol has a threat of death quite unlike any other drug. In sheer numbers of fatalities, no addictive substance other than tobacco kills as many people as alcohol does. Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

What Is Alcohol, Really?

Alcohol appears in many forms. It is an substance found in beer, wine, liquor, and other beverages. It is the active ingredient in these liquids that causes drunkenness. Alcohol is formed when yeast ferments the sugars in certain foods. Wine comes from the fermentation of grapes. Beer comes from the fermentation of barley grains. Cider comes from apples, vodka from potatoes, etc.

Alcohol might sound harmless in its purely natural, chemical form. The problem is, when these types of substances are put into the body in significant doses, they harm the person both physically and mentally.

Alcohol Is an Upper and a Downer

At low doses, alcohol has the effect of stimulating the central nervous system. This phenomenon brings with it feelings of euphoria, talkativeness, increased energy and glee, reduced inhibitions, etc. However, there is a point (and that point differs for different people) at which ongoing alcohol consumption during any given incident of drinking switches the effects of alcohol from a stimulant to a depressant.

This is part of the reason why the effects of excessive drinking are quite unpredictable. At some point, the impact of alcohol shifts. At that point drowsiness sets in, respiratory depression begins and, if one drank far too much, a coma or even death could occur. This phenomenon is most commonly known as alcohol poisoning.

Another factor of alcohol misuse is that this habit does not just have harmful effects on the body as a whole. Alcohol also harms each organ in the body. The liver and kidneys take the brunt of these effects, but other areas of the body are damaged by excessive alcohol consumption, too.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics in the United States

A cursory glance at the information offered by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism gives us a clear indication of just how harmful alcohol can be.

  • In 2015, about 27 percent of people of the age of 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking (heavy alcohol consumption) at least once in the past month.
  • In 2015, about 15 million adults aged 18 and older admitted to having a severe alcohol consumption problem. In 2015, only about six percent of them received any treatment for their habit. That is indicative of our country’s stark gap between those who need treatment and those who get it.
Young adult sitting drunk after party.
  • Alcohol abuse is a problem for young people, too. In 2015, over half a million young people from the ages of 12 to 17 struggled with alcohol addiction. Only about five percent of them got treatment for their habits. That means that of 623,000 youth addicts, barely over 30,000 of them received treatment that year.
  • Alcohol is not only physically debilitating, but this substance (totally legal, encouraged in society) delivers a massive blow to the nation as a whole, and it does so with consistency every year. The NIAAA estimates that the economic burden of alcohol misuse in the U.S. to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars—about $250 billion every year.
  • From a family perspective, alcohol misuse is contributing to the decline of the American family system. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, “Alcoholism and other drug addiction have genetic and environmental causes. Both have serious consequences for children who live in homes where parents are involved. More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics; nearly 11 million are under the age of 18. This figure is magnified by the countless number of others who are affected by parents who are impaired by other psychoactive drugs.”

We’ve only touched on the harmful effects of alcohol misuse. A wealth of information on this subject is contained in the documents of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

Alcohol Addiction—a Fatal Habit

Whether alcohol use manifests on a person as an upper or a downer, a stimulant or a sedative, whether a person gets angry when they drink or makes poor judgment calls, the number one concern we have regarding alcohol misuse is the threat of death that it carries with it.

The stark reality is, no matter how alcohol influences a person, the more someone drinks, the more likely they are to suffer a fatal accident or lethal alcohol poisoning. Let’s again look to the NIAAA and their research for insight as to the deadly effects of alcohol abuse:

About 88,000 people die in the United States every year from alcohol-related causes. Roughly 9,000 of these come from alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. The rest come from other accidents, alcohol poisoning, or some alcohol-related health condition that turns fatal, like cirrhosis of the liver or heart problems brought on by heavy drinking.

Alcohol misuse is a global problem. According to the data, alcohol consumption is responsible for about five percent of all deaths, globally, every year. That’s about 3 million people who are dying every year because they drank too much, or because they got in an accident where alcohol inebriation was involved.

Helping a Family Member or Loved One with Alcohol Addiction

Husband helping alcoholic wife.

Alcohol addiction is a tough habit to beat for a lot of reasons. The substance is entirely legal and very easy to get. Society does not put the same stigma on alcohol consumption that it does on drug use, so there is not as strong of a cultural incentive to get better. And when someone does become a belligerent drunk, society immediately switches to shunning him or her instead of offering help.

That is why the responsibility for addressing alcohol addiction falls, by and large, on the shoulders of the American people. That’s us. The federal government won’t fix the problem for us; neither will the “system.” If you know someone who struggles with an alcohol habit, the best thing to do is to get that person into a residential treatment center.

It is next to impossible to kick an alcohol habit on one’s own. It is severely dangerous to attempt this, as trying to come down off of alcohol without professional help can result in death. Alcohol treatment, however, at a residential treatment center affords the individual with a clear and safe path out of alcohol addiction and into sobriety.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCSm LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.