An excerpt from 7 Weeks to Sobriety, by Joan Mathews Larson
Your body holds the key to understanding the effect alcohol has on you. If you have the ability to drink large amounts of alcohol, you have good reason to suspect that you might be predisposed to alcoholism. But capacity is only part of the story. Alcohol affects brain and body processes in different ways in different people.
The following case histories drawn from the files or the Health Recovery Center illustrate three different body chemistries that underlie vulnerability to alcoholism (and one type that may lead to a mistaken diagnosis of alcoholism).
Case study 1
Alan was a party animal in high school and college. Even then he had the capacity to drink heavily without noticeable consequences. In fact, alcohol seemed to stimulate and energize him. Later, in the business world, a few drinks at lunch and dinner served to fuel his professional performance.
Alan was the kind of hard driving, compulsive person psychologists describe as a Type A personality: he was ambitious, needed little sleep, and had a strong sex drive. He was proud of his ability to handle alcohol.
For years he wasn't bothered by hangovers and never suspected his supernormal response to alcohol was a red flag signaling trouble down the road. But slowly his body became dependent on alcohol for peak performance. Without it, every cell seemed to feel the let-down. His performance suffered, and he began to crave alcohol.
By the time he was forty-five, he was much less able to withstand the effects of his heavy drinking. He began to experience withdrawal symptoms. Drinking no longer made him feel euphoric or energetic. It simply made him feel normal.
His withdrawal symptoms worsened. He was hyperactive, shaky. His moods and emotions swung wildly from one extreme to another. He blamed his problems on the stress of his job, the inability of his family to understand his needs, and almost every other negative external event he could seize on. His family and colleagues correctly attributed Alan's irritability, mood swings, and the difficulty he had concentrating to his drinking, but they-and he-thought he could and should control it. He began to have blackouts and terrible hangovers, but it was not until he was arrested four times for driving while intoxicated that he admitted that alcohol was destroying him.
Alan's huge capacity for alcohol and the fact that for years it energized him and caused no hangovers indicates that he was born with an alcohol dehydrogenase liver enzyme (II ADH) that enabled his body to metabolize large amounts of alcohol without negative effects. His brain made endorphin-like tetrahydroisoquinolines (THIQs) from alcohol; the THIQs were responsible for both the euphoria he loved and his eventual addiction.
Alan is a II ADH/THIQ alcoholic.
Case study 2
Leonard first drank in high school and remembers how sick alcohol made him until he learned" to handle it. Unfortunately, that ability was unpredictable. While still in his teens, he totaled the family car and began accumulating arrests for driving while intoxicated. He could never predict whether or not a night out would end in another wild driving spree. The only thing he could be sure of was that when he drank heavily, he paid for it the next day with a terrible hangover. Leonard's father and brothers were affected by alcohol in the same way, so it didn't occur to him that his drinking pattern was unusual.
When I met Leonard, he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for several years and had completed two alcoholic treatment programs. He had been arrested six times for driving while intoxicated. He was not yet thirty years old.
Leonard's mother had died a short time earlier. Her death triggered yet another binge that ended in a bar fight and Leonard's latest arrest for driving while intoxicated. Leonard sincerely wanted to quit drinking. After his release from jail, he went to his mother's grave and wept, promising to stay sober, but days later he was drunk again. Now he was severely depressed, convinced he was a hopeless failure who would never stay away from alcohol.
His story illustrates the pattern of alcohol allergy/addiction. It takes about four days for the body to completely rid itself of alcohol. During this period, withdrawal symptoms in the form of alcohol cravings and hyper-emotional feelings begin to build. Eventually, the victim drinks to satisfy the craving and calm his mood. All of these symptoms cease as soon as he or she reintroduces the addictive substance. When this type of alcoholic tries to stop drinking, his or her body will seem to scream for alcohol to banish the withdrawal symptoms. No amount of counseling, no effort of will can effectively counter the physical and emotional effects that beset alcoholics like Leonard.
Alcohol-allergic drinkers often become socially disruptive, engaging in fights and arguments, or become a threat to themselves and others with dangerous driving, decision-making errors, and even criminal acts. Alcohol disrupts their normal brain chemistry, causing erratic, even bizarre behavior. In Leonard's case, this alteration in brain chemistry led to his bar fights and drunk-driving arrests.
The fact that his first drinking experience made him sick was a clear message that his body couldn't tolerate alcohol. His continued drinking forged a pattern of allergy/addiction: at first, alcohol made him high as his body reacted to it by producing its own addictive endorphins; later, as the alcohol began to leave his system, his body began to crave more to stave off withdrawal symptoms. Both the craving and his emotionality (weeping at his mother's grave, his depression) stemmed from the effect of alcohol withdrawal on his brain.
Leonard is a classic allergic/addicted alcoholic.
Case study 3
Stanley's mother was an alcoholic who also suffered from depression. He was an anxious and depressed child. Stanley began to drink in his late teens. His first drink was a revelation. For the first time in his life he felt normal and happy. However, his depression returned with more intensity after each drinking episode. He began to drink continually to banish his depression. Finally, he admitted to himself that his drinking was out of control and was ruining his future. His wife finally convinced him to join Alcoholics Anonymous.
With sobriety, depression returned. Eventually, Stanley decided that he had a choice between suicide and the bottle. He chose alcohol. Again, his depression miraculously lifted, but soon he found that he had to drink every morning to push depression away. Once again, he became too ill to function. His career and marriage were floundering when his wife and family arranged for him to be hospitalized for treatment.
I met him after he completed a series of four inpatient treatment programs. Each time he was released, he immediately began drinking again. He had lost hope of finding effective help. He had spent $50,000 for treatment. His therapists had unearthed an incestuous relationship he had as a teenager to which they attributed both his depression and his drinking. Now Stanley had this painful memory to add to his guilt and shame.
At this time, he was almost fifty years old. His story suggested to me that he was an omega-6 essential fatty acid (EFA) deficient alcoholic. I was right. Within three weeks he was free of depression for the first time without alcohol. He was ecstatic, although he secretly believed it would all collapse shortly. It hasn't.
Case study 4
Sometimes even two or three glasses of wine made Maryanne sick. She became light-headed and uncoordinated and, occasionally she vomited. Yet her anticipation of that first drink could be overpowering. Her desire for and reaction to alcohol was worse before her menstrual period, a time when she also craved chocolate.
When I met Maryanne, she was afraid she was becoming an alcoholic like her father, a longtime AA member who occasionally falls off the wagon. I didn't think so, Maryanne had a relatively low tolerance for alcohol, a pretty good indication the problem lays elsewhere.
Maryanne had an inherited predisposition to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). As a result, her brain does not get a steady supply of its only fuel, glucose (blood sugar) Hypoglycemia is common among alcoholics and can be passed on to their nonalcoholic children (it also occurs in families with no history of alcoholism). Maryanne's craving for chocolates and alcohol was caused by low glucose levels in her brain. Her cravings often occurred when she was premenstrual because hormonal shifts at that time of the month lower blood-sugar levels. Indeed, premenstrual syndrome can stem from an acute hypoglycemic state that develops just before menstruation.
Soon after Maryanne drank the alcohol she craved, she felt a lift, but it didn't last long. Because alcohol is a potent sugar that enters the bloodstream through the stomach wall (it doesn't have to be digested like a candy bar), hypoglycemics feel a fast emotional lift as much-needed glucose surges to their brains.To maintain this up feeling, hypoglycemics must keep drinking. Otherwise, the insulin produced in response to the glucose infusion will push down blood-sugar levels, resulting in mild insulin shock. In Maryanne's case, the combined impact of alcohol's toxic effect on her glucose metabolism and sensitive body chemistry can and does make her ill. If this is your problem, you may seem drunk after only one or two drinks.
A glucose tolerance test confirmed what I suspected about Maryanne. She was not alcoholic, but she was severely hypoglycemic. Luckily, this type of alcohol problem is not true alcoholism and lends itself very successfully to treatment.
These case histories describe the four most common categories of drinkers who have sought help at the Health Recovery Center during the past ten years. A new biotype might be identified in the future, but, in all likelihood, if you have a problem with alcohol, you fall into one of the four groups. If there are alcoholics on both sides of your family, you may find that you fit into two categories. If so, the one that predominates, even slightly, is the one to work with as you embark on the program Health recovery Center has developed.
Once you have determined the alcoholic category that matches your chemistry, you have the opportunity to rewrite your future. You may decide to keep drinking even though your alcohol biotype indicates that you are headed for disaster. I hope not. You are vulnerable to alcohol and will become addicted in the future if you aren't already. The physical addiction cannot be managed as social drinking.
Since alcoholism is progressive, your drinking habits won't improve; they won't even stay the same. They will get worse. Your physical need for alcohol will gradually speak so loud that no act of will can overcome it. Life will become an unending quest for the normalizing lift alcohol provides, even though it will be destroying your health and sanity. Please remember that most alcoholics today do not recover. They die prematurely from alcohol-induced diseases.
In Seven Weeks to Sobriety teaches how to break this addiction and end your cravings once and for all. You will learn how to repair the harm alcohol has done to your brain and body. Without repair the damage will continue for months and even years after you stop drinking. All too often, this emotional and physical misery leads alcoholics back to the bottle in the quest for relief. The tools to help you repair this damage are here. These techniques have been used successfully at Health Recovery Center for the past 40 years. They have helped many others. They may save your life.