Life is a blend of magic and mystery. Every day, we maneuver obligations and opportunities, chalking up several wins along the way. But there are inevitably obstacles that stand between you and your goals. Perhaps you don’t have enough time in the day to complete your tasks, or the hard work you do doesn’t pay as much as you wish it did.

But the ultimate roadblock is a debilitating condition that prevents you from living your best life. Alcoholism is one such affliction. To overcome it, we must first identify it and discuss some of the more invasive yet subtle symptoms associated with alcohol abuse.

What Is Alcoholism?

The word alcoholism is used quite freely, but do people really understand the ramifications of it? If someone overindulges one night, does that make them an alcoholic? And can you truly understand what is happening in someone else’s life as a casual observer?

To answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the technical definition of alcoholism.

An alternate term for the condition is alcohol use disorder (AUD). Though this phrase is only three words in length, it speaks volumes. The “use” of alcoholic beverages is, in fact, the issue at hand. Rather than labeling someone an alcoholic, we should reframe the conversation, focusing instead on the substance triggers’ patterns of behavior.

AUD is characterized by actions that are inordinately affected by one’s craving for alcohol. For example, one night of binge drinking may not make a person an alcoholic, but several in a row is cause for concern.  

But AUD goes beyond the short term. If you find yourself planning your life around events or gatherings where you will be able to imbibe liquor, then it may be a sign of alcoholism. On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you systematically withdraw from more “sober” engagements for fear of being judged or nervous. 

When your schedule revolves around the substance of your choice rather than more productive, life-affirming activities, it is an indication that you may need help.

Alcohol Abuse: By the Numbers

Please do not be overly critical of yourself if you suspect that you fall under the description of AUD. Truth be told, you are not alone.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, between 14.5 million and 15 million people in the United States may be struggling with alcoholism. The statistics break down along gender lines in the following manner: 5.5 million American females suffer from AUD while 9 million men in this country do as well. That translates to a staggering 6.8% of the male population over the age of 12 who present symptoms of alcoholism.

But how noticeable are these symptoms? And is “passing” as sober a blessing or a curse in disguise?

Missing the Signals

Let’s dispel the myth of the functioning alcoholic. Just because a person gets through his or her day without major incidents, it doesn’t mean that alcohol abuse isn’t weighing them down or holding them back. In fact, the more an individual is able to hide their symptoms, the longer it may take to get the care they so desperately need.

For example, many of the worst effects of excessive drinking are hidden from plain view. Alcoholism may exacerbate diabetes, heart problems, and liver disease, just to name a few. Prolonged substance abuse can leach bones of the strength and stability they require to prevent bruising and damage.

There is also compelling data that illustrates the link between alcoholism and cancer. Approximately 6% of cancer diagnoses in the United States and 4% of the deaths can be linked to excessive drinking.

While these long-term effects of alcoholism are tragic and terrifying, many subtle symptoms manifest between the early stages of AUD and its most extreme ramifications.

Lesser-Known Signs of Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse affects the body and mind in numerous ways. The telltale signs of AUD may be hard to detect, but you can notice them in a loved one if you look for specific symptoms.

  • Digestive Issues – Alcohol is an irritant. It can prompt inflammation along the digestive tract and stomach. Advanced substance abuse can lead to complications such as gastritis, which manifests itself in patients in the form of indigestion, discomfort, black stools, and the loss of appetite.
  • Frequent Illness – AUD impairs many of the body’s natural functions, including how it processes nutrients. Excessive drinking can damage a person’s immune system, leaving them vulnerable to disease and common illnesses. 
  • Twitching Eyes – When alcoholism rages unabated, it can deprive your reserves of thiamin (vitamin B-1). This can lead to a condition called acquired nystagmus. Patients who struggle with nystagmus move their eyes involuntarily and rapidly. Onlookers may notice a signature “twitching” in individuals caught in the grip of AUD.
  • Menstrual Cycle Disruptions – Women who engage in alcohol abuse may notice that their hormone levels become affected. Evidence suggests that AUD may have a profound impact on the menstrual cycle, which in turn negatively alters a woman’s reproductive system in general.
  • Erectile Dysfunction – In a study of 100 men who admitted to relying heavily on alcoholic beverages regularly, 72 reported struggling with one or more sexual dysfunctions. The most common issues were erectile problems, premature ejaculation, and loss of libido (sexual desire).

Heed the Warnings

If you or a loved one is presenting symptoms of AUD, no matter how subtle or manageable they may be, please do not hesitate to seek help. It is not “brave” or “independent” to suffer in silence; it just delays the inevitable relief that you can enjoy by confronting your issues head-on.

Contact an expert at Ethos and tell us how alcoholism factors into your everyday routine. We can turn the page and help you write a new chapter in your life story.