Health experts talk alcohol, addiction during holiday season

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Eggnog might be harder to find this year as a supply chain issue impacts at least one producer. (Getty Images)

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) presented statements from associated experts, and related facts, to help raise awareness about the struggles community members with addictions may face during the holiday season.

While the holidays are commonly a time for get-togethers with friends and loved ones, TTUHSC noted that someone with an addiction such as alcohol use disorder (AUD) may face heightened temptation and opportunity.

TTUHSC said that nearly 21 million Americans admit to at least one addiction, and a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed 14.5 million people over 12 years of age continue to battle with AUD. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimated that alcohol-related issues create more costs per capita than all other drugs combined, with an economic impact of AUD to be around $250 billion.

TTUHSC Cell Biology and Biochemistry Professor Susan Bergeson, Ph.D., said that while the addiction spotlight has turned toward the opioid epidemic, which has shown a five-fold increase in in recent years, more people continue to die annually from alcohol use disorder.

“Addiction has many forms; it could be sex addiction, eating disorders or substance use disorders, which
includes everything from tobacco to opioids,” Bergeson said. “Smoking kills about 8 million people a year,
mostly due to cancer and other respiratory issues. Many people think, ‘Well, alcohol is legal; it can’t hurt
anybody.’ It actually has higher morbidity and mortality than all drugs combined, except for smoking.”

TTUHSC said that Bergeson has studied AUD for nearly 40 years, and recently discovered a major pathway to that disorder through neuroinflammation. She and TTUHSC colleague Ted Reid, Ph.D., designed a new medication based on their findings that is currently on the path to be approved by the FDA.

Because alcohol use disorder is a brain syndrome, Bergeson said a person’s experience with alcohol or other
drugs typically begins with a willingness to try it and continues with risky use and develops brain changes
until they reach a point where they need it. On an individual level, that need can be very disruptive, affecting
their relationships with family and friends, reducing their social interactions and often ruining their ability to
successfully hold their job. In the case of drinking, Bergeson said the individual might literally need alcohol
to stay alive, as alcohol withdrawal can be a medical emergency

“Alcohol withdrawal is worse than withdrawal from other drugs,” Bergeson stressed. “Opioids are terrible to
withdraw from but they generally don’t kill you. People die from alcohol withdrawal, while overdose is a
more common cause of death with opioid use disorder.”

The alcohol we drink is ethanol, and though it can be consumed and enjoyed responsibly, it is still a poison
like some other alcohols (e.g., methanol, ethylene glycol and isopropanolyl). In high doses, ethanol is a
depressant and a person can die from an acute overdose. Bergeson said this happens more commonly in
college where kids who may be on their own for the first time try to keep up with peers who are more
experienced drinkers.

“Acute alcohol poisoning causes respiratory depression and some individuals may actually aspirate vomit
and die by asphyxiation, which is more common in college students,” Bergeson said. “If somebody is passed
out [from drinking], it’s really a sign they may need to be assessed for AUD.”

TTUHSC said that one of the common misconceptions people have about alcohol use disorder is that a person can quit drinking “cold turkey” or through sheer will power. However, AUD is a lifelong disorder for which many struggle, even when they are intentional about staying sober. So while that may be possible with some other drugs or addictions, most find it much more difficult to walk away from alcohol.

“You will see individuals that have been drinking — maybe risky drinking — all of their life, and they just
quit; it’s not a problem for them,” Bergeson said. “But I think that’s what makes it difficult for those who
haven’t had that really hard time quitting something; it’s hard to empathize with somebody who continues to drink when it is to the point of being obviously harmful.”

Bergeson said people who have remained sober for many years still must deal with certain triggers set up by
the chemistry networks in their brain that can cause them to relapse. For some, attending holiday events with alcohol present, being around the people with whom they used to drink or the smell of their favorite drink can be hard to resist.

“They might even see their drug of choice on television and it triggers their cravings,” Bergeson continued.
“That can be really hard for alcohol use disorder. It is an illness, it is a brain disorder and it is categorized
that way in the medical field. Remembering this during the holidays, and being supportive of those at risk is
particularly kind.”

In telling this information and speaking with Bergeson, health experts with TTUHSC have aimed to encourage the community to be conscious of the possible triggers and struggles of loved ones who deal with addiction during the holidays.

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