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Alcohol is one of the oldest drugs still in use today. Egyptian cultures brewed beer, and there is plentiful evidence that other ancient cultures like the Romans drank wine. And alcohol use isn't limited to just humans. Other animals also like to imbibe alcohol, and some monkey populations even resemble humans in the percentage of monkeys who drink heavily and the percentage that avoid alcohol altogether. Thus, there must be something about the properties of alcohol that has caused people for millennia, and other animals as well, to enjoy drinking it.
Although it is considered a depressant, the initial effects of alcohol on the brain are to slightly increase energy. After someone has a few drinks, they generally feel happy, sometimes giddy, and talkative. They lose some of their inhibition, and feel more confident and secure.
This change in demeanor is due to the properties of alcohol and how they impact the brain. Alcohol acts to relax certain areas of the brain, hence it is called a depressant. However, initially the areas it relaxes are those that enforce strict control over other areas (such as those responsible for social inhibition). Overall this causes an increase in energy and confidence.
As one continues drinking, however, the sedation shifts to a more widespread effect. Several drinks after that initial euphoria, the brain begins to be sedated overall. This can lead to a relaxation of its ability to control things like speech, which causes slurring. It also inhibits your balance centers from being able to control how well you walk. In cases of overdose, your respiratory centers can be inhibited, leading to death.
One of the important properties of alcohol is its ability to create tolerance in the user. Someone who drinks alcohol repeatedly will need more and more alcohol to produce the effects they felt the first time they got drunk. This is due in part to your body reacting to the presence of alcohol by producing more enzymes to break it down. A greater number of enzymes causes alcohol to be broken down quickly when it enters the body, and causes you to need to drink more to get drunk.
Unfortunately, tolerance leads to higher levels of intake, which increases the risk for dependence to form. Alcohol dependence can occur after repeated administration and can manifest itself by causing withdrawal symptoms when one stops drinking. The withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable (sweating, the "shakes", nausea) to life-threatening.
One of the problems with alcohol today is that, unlike some other drugs, it is widely available. Even those who are under the legal drinking age often don't find obtaining alcohol to be that difficult of a task. Because alcohol is so available, there are large numbers of people who are exposed to the drug each year. The properties of alcohol are such that a significant percentage of them will enjoy the experience of drinking, and want to do it again. A portion of them will eventually have problems quitting sometime in the future.
Why some people become addicted to alcohol and some do not is a question that has yet to be answered. There is certainly a genetic component to alcohol addiction, as the malady does run in families. However, this doesn't explain the whole story, as a person needs some level of exposure to alcohol in order for their genes to be able to play a role.
Some believe that the predisposition to alcoholism has something to do with a risk-seeking personality. This has been supported by some research, and may indicate why adolescents are more inclined toward addiction than adults.
The properties of alcohol are such that drinking it tends to be a pleasurable experience for people the first time they do so. However, for some people, that first drink is the beginning of a road to addiction. Unfortunately, we can never know who is inclined to be an alcoholic before they take their first drink. Therefore, one must pay close attention to the warning signs of addiction when they begin using a drug like alcohol. If behavior begins to change and tolerance starts to develop, it may be better to get treatment before the problem evolves.
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