South Africans are reputed to be amongst the heaviest drinkers in the world. According to data from the World Health Organisation, the majority of South African alcohol consumers are classified as binge drinkers. Many people don’t understand the serious health implications of alcohol abuse, which is the reason health insurance broker, Bloom has outlined what you need to know about consuming alcohol and the effects it has on your body.
What is alcohol abuse?
Alcohol abuse should not be confused with responsible alcohol consumption. Moderate alcohol use is considered safe but alcohol abuse refers to the unhealthy consumption and relationship one develops with alcohol over time that ranges from binge drinking to complete dependency. Alcohol abuse is very closely associated with having an unsafe and unhealthy lifestyle. Health insurance providers, like Bloom, together with medical partner Momentum Health4Me strongly advise following the country’s recommended drinking guidelines which, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of South Africa is no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
What effect does long-term alcohol abuse have on the body?
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the body are quite severe, including the development of many life-threatening conditions and diseases, not to mention addiction disorders and even mental health problems. Some of the long-term alcohol consumption health risks to watch out for include:
- Compromised immune system. This means that heavy drinkers are more at risk for contracting viruses or being unable to fight off certain diseases, like TB or pneumonia.
- Bone and muscle problems. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause your muscles to atrophy, which will lead to severe cramping, while your bones could become weak and brittle, making you more susceptible to breaks and fractures.
- Digestive disorders, like pancreatitis, is a common disease caused by alcoholism. The pancreas becomes heavily inflamed, which results in chronic abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
- Liver disease, like cirrhosis, is another common condition caused by long-term alcohol abuse. The liver is the organ that removes harmful substances from the body. However, over time, alcohol can interfere with this process, which can in turn damage the liver by causing severe inflammation and scar tissue.
- Brain damage. Over time, long-term drinking will have a negative effect on your central nervous system. This could lead to poor cognitive skills, like memory loss, lack of coordination or poor emotional control.
- Addiction. In extreme cases, a person could develop a physical dependency on alcohol which will not only affect them physically but would cause social, professional and even legal problems in their life. They may need to seek professional help at a detoxification clinic.
- Sexual and reproductive disorders. Research has shown that men who abuse alcohol are more likely to suffer from sexual disorders, like erectile dysfunction, low libido or poor sex hormone production. Women, in turn, could suffer from infertility problems or put their unborn child at risk for developing foetal alcohol syndrome.
- Circulatory problems. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause irreparable damage to one’s heart and lungs. This puts you at risk for developing problems related to your circulatory system, like high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.
How does alcohol consumption during pregnancy affect your child?
Women who drink during their pregnancy could have a baby with foetal alcohol syndrome disorder. This is due to the fact that a mother-to-be transfers what she consumes to her foetus through the placenta. Drinking alcohol during the first trimester (or the first three months of your pregnancy) is a particularly dangerous period, although drinking any alcohol while pregnant is discouraged by health care professionals.
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a congenital condition caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Unfortunately, South Africa has one of the highest rates of FAS in the world. Foetal alcohol syndrome is a lifelong condition, which first presents in infants but spans throughout a person’s life. It’s characterised by mental, physical and health defects, which include some of the following:
- Intellectual disability
- Delayed mental or physical development
- Difficulties with speech development
- Poor social skills
- Facial abnormalities, like a cleft palate or small head
- Impaired vision or hearing
- Poor movement or coordination
- Heart or kidney conditions
- Deformed limbs
- Low birth weight
- Behavioural problems, like ADHD or ADD
Impact of alcohol abuse on your mental health
People often drink alcohol because they’re feeling depressed or anxious. The irony is that alcohol can actually make these symptoms worse over time. You should avoid alcohol consumption altogether if you suffer from mental health conditions or disorders.
How to recognise the symptoms of alcohol dependency
Recognising the symptoms of an alcohol dependency or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the first step towards getting a diagnosis and embarking on a treatment journey. Some of the symptoms associated with AUD include:
- Having an increased tolerance for alcohol
- Being unable to control, decrease or resist alcohol consumption
- Being unable to control how much you drink
- Being unable to control when you drink
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Continuing to drink despite its harmful effects
- Experiencing physical or mental withdrawal symptoms, like shaking or anxiety
- Experiencing cravings to drink alcohol
- Choosing to drink alcohol instead of spending time with friends or family
- Experiencing blackout or memory loss
- Suffering from extreme physical ailments, like nausea, vomiting, sweating, hallucinations or shaking
- Be selective about who you inform. Only tell those people whom you trust, like a close friend or an HR professional
- Remain calm and enter the conversation with a positive attitude
- Know the facts about HIV/AIDS so you can educate the person about the condition
- Pick the right moment. Make sure you will not be disturbed and that you have the person’s full attention
Where to get help for alcohol abuse or dependency in South Africa?
There are a number of free resources available for those who are looking for support. Some of the best sources include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous. This is an association with about 4,500 members. Members are recovering alcoholics and addicts who offer support services. Meetings take place on a daily basis in venues throughout the country.
- Call the AA Helpline 0861 435 7221 for a schedule of their meetings.
- AL-ANON GSO South Africa. This is an association offering support to those families affected by alcoholism. Call AL-Anon Helpline – 0861 252 666
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is South Africa’s largest mental health support network and includes a team of professionals, like counsellors and GPs who can offer advice about alcohol abuse. Call their Substance Abuse Hotline on 0800 12 13 14
Get health insurance options for a smart and safe lifestyle
Bloom encourages a healthy lifestyle. While moderate alcohol consumption is considered safe, alcohol abuse is discouraged because of the health risks. Prevent the life-threatening conditions caused by this disorder by drinking within the recommended guidelines.
If you or a loved one needs help with alcohol dependency, then get help from one of the recommended helplines.
Medical Content Disclaimer
You understand and acknowledge that all users of the Bloom website are responsible for their own medical care, treatment, and oversight. All content provided on the website, is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Neither is it intended to be a substitute for an independent professional medical opinion, judgement, diagnosis or treatment.