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Signs you may have alcohol-related health problems

We’ve all developed coping mechanisms to help us deal with stress and other negative emotions. Some of them are healthy, and some are not. In a society where alcohol use and overuse are not only common but socially acceptable, it’s easy to dismiss the idea that drinking may cause us physical harm beyond a hangover. However, there are physical and mental signs of alcohol-related health problems that may indicate that your health is being negatively affected.

Signs you may be drinking too much 

Do you notice that you need to drink more than before to get a pleasant buzz? That your “usual” doesn’t have much of an effect on you anymore? This means your tolerance has gone up, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As your brain adapts to alcohol over time and becomes less sensitive to its effects, and you drink more, that booze has more of an impact on the rest of your body.

“There are serious physical consequences to regular alcohol use that can include gastritis, hepatitis, cirrhosis and even dementia,” says Tia Neely, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician.

Do you find yourself craving alcohol? You often hear people saying, “I need a drink” or “I deserve a drink” in moments of stress.

“If you find yourself self-medicating with alcohol to relieve anxiety, stress, or insomnia on a regular basis, that can be a dangerous trend toward dependence,” says Dr. Neely. And if there are times when you want a drink so badly, you can't think about anything else until you get one, that’s a danger sign.

Another danger sign is experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. While headaches, nausea and dry mouth from a hangover are common, consistent heavy drinking can add shakiness, sweating, irritability and restlessness to the mix.

You may also experience trouble sleeping, anxiety and depression. Because alcohol changes your brain chemistry, your brain has to adapt when you drink heavily over a long period of time. And then if you abruptly stop drinking, your brain has to adjust again, causing withdrawal.

How alcohol affects your mental health

One behavior change that may have sneaked up on you: do you often drink more than you planned? Maybe more than once you’ve told yourself that you’d limit your consumption to two glasses, or that you’d only stay out with friends for a few hours, only to end up drinking more or longer than you planned to. It’s likely not a big deal if it only happens only once in a while, but if it keeps happening, it’s a sign that you may have trouble controlling yourself while drinking. And it's an early warning sign.

Other signs that your drinking may be affecting you mentally and emotionally include spending time thinking about drinking, drinking alone, getting into arguments with friends and loved ones when you drink, and missing work because of drinking.

If you see some or most of these signs in yourself, talk to your primary care physician.

“Alcohol-related health problems are often underdiagnosed because it either isn’t brought up during the visit, or unfortunately people will often downplay or not be forthcoming to their physicians about how much they are truly drinking,” says Steven Hanrahan, D.O., a Piedmont family medicine physician.

Just remember that a doctor’s job is not to judge, but to help you achieve a healthier lifestyle.

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