With Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa announcing the phased prohibition of alcohol if she is voted back to power, the state might soon follow Bihar and curb alcohol consumption this year.
Bihar enforced total prohibition on all sale and consumption of alcohol on April 5, triggering mixed reactions from people across the country.
While most families in the state welcomed the decision, the enforcement of the ban, however, has put habitual drinkers in a spot.
On the first day of the ban, a Bihar Military Police constable, unable to stay off his favourite brand of alcohol, allegedly killed himself. Soon afterwards, media outlets reported that two men struggling with alcohol withdrawal symptoms died at the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) merely days after the ban was put into effect.
Why is kicking the habit so difficult? What does alcohol do to our brains?
A closer look at the biology behind the addiction reveals that it is not merely about the happy buzz that a drink or two might bring. Alcohol consumption, especially in heavy drinkers, ‘rewires’ their brains, affecting how neurotransmitters – chemicals that transmit signals between nerves – function. Adjusting to an alcohol-free life, thus, can be an agonising and long-drawn process that might require medical intervention.
In Bihar, the ban has forced at least 1,100 people to seek medical help, according to the state’s excise department. In addition, hospitals in all districts have geared up to deal with the influx of patients. Most cases of alcohol withdrawal are treated with medication to ease symptoms of discomfort, and providing vitamins and intravenous fluids to treat dehydration.
In extreme cases, however, doctors use a class of psychoactive drugs called “benzodiazepines” to alleviate symptoms. These drugs enhance the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA (which are suppressed during heavy alcohol consumption) and function as a sedative, hypnotic, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant, providing some degree of comfort to the patient.
The duration of withdrawal too differs among individuals; while some might suffer for as little as a few hours, for others, the ordeal can be stretched across months. This difference, say doctors, may depend on how badly the individual was addicted and how long the addiction had lasted, among other factors.
But while the road to kicking the habit may seem like hell, with adequate medical attention, even in the worst of cases, the brain adapts to the absence of drink and learns to go on without it.