The Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Alcohol impacts everyone. The extent of its effects on the body are related to how much a person drinks, how often they drink, and personal health, biological, and additional factors.
Excessive alcohol use, which can include binge drinking (drinking more than four drinks in a sitting for a woman or five in a sitting for a man) and heavy drinking (binge drinking five or more times in a month) can have serious health consequences.
Prevalence of Drinking
Alcohol is one of the most commonly used mind-altering and addictive substances. More than 85 percent of people report drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime.
Harmful use of alcohol can contribute to more than 200 disease and injury conditions. Alcohol can have many short- and long-term side effects, impacting almost every system in the body.
In 2020, there were nearly 140 million current users of alcohol in the United States with close to half engaging in past-month binge drinking, and almost a third of binge drinkers were also past-month heavy drinkers. Alcohol can damage organs and have lasting harmful effects.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol can affect everyone a little differently in varying amounts, depending on factors such as these:
- Weight and body muscle mass
- Tolerance to alcohol
- Physical and mental health
- Use with medications or other drugs
- Food consumption
As you drink alcohol, it will travel around your body and into your brain, slowing down your central nervous system (things like heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature) and impairing your brain and the way you think and act. The more alcohol is consumed, the greater the effects.
Alcohol in the body is measured in BAC (blood alcohol concentration). A typical standard drink can raise the BAC 0.02 g/dL, and it takes the body about an hour to break down. Drinking more than one drink per hour raises your BAC faster. Even after you stop drinking, your BAC can go up as the alcohol passes into your blood through the walls of your stomach.
In general, drinking alcohol can have the following short-term effects based on the BAC level:
- BAC up to 0.05:
- Feelings of relaxation and pleasure
- Higher confidence
- More talkative
- BAC of 0.05 to 0.08:
- Lowered inhibitions
- Impaired judgment
- Compromised movement abilities
- BAC of 0.08 to 0.15:
- Slowed reflexes
- Impaired balance, coordination, and vision
- Slurred speech
- Difficulties regulating emotions
- Nausea and vomiting
- BAC of 0.15 to 0.30:
- Trouble breathing
- Possible loss of consciousness
- Memory loss
- Compromised bladder control
- Inability to walk unassisted
- BAC above 0.30:
Alcohol poisoning can occur when there is too much alcohol in the system for the body to process properly. Life-sustaining functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature control systems, can stop working. An alcohol overdose can be fatal.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Drinking harmful amounts of alcohol regularly over a long period of time, such as years, can have a variety of negative effects on the body. Alcohol damages many of the body’s organs with repeated exposure, which can increase the risk for disease and organ failure.
These are some of the dangerous long-term effects of alcohol:
- Elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which can cause an increased risk for heart attack, heart damage, and stroke
- Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and an increased risk for suicide
- Weight gain and a heightened risk for diabetes
- Cirrhosis of the liver, liver disease, and liver failure
- Increased risk for cancers, including stomach cancer, mouth and throat cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, and liver cancer
- Brain damage and a higher risk for dementia in the form of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
- Fertility issues, including lower testosterone and a reduced sperm count in men
- Sexual performance issues, including impotence or premature ejaculation
- Harmful effects on a fetus for pregnant women, including a higher rate of miscarriage, still birth, or babies born with birth defects, such as fetal alcohol syndrome
- Weakened immune system
- Decreased bone density, weakened bones, and a risk for developing osteoporosis
- Social issues
- Learning and memory problems
- Risky sexual behaviors leading to potential contraction of an infectious disease, such as HIV or a sexually transmitted disease
- Alcohol dependence, difficult withdrawal symptoms that can be potentially life-threatening, and addiction
Physical Effects on the Body
Between 2015 and 2019, excessive alcohol consumption was responsible for 3.6 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) and 140,000 deaths each year. Alcohol abuse shortened the lives of the people who died by an average of 26 years.
Alcohol can impact nearly every system and organ in your body.
Alcohol works by changing the chemical makeup of the brain and interfering with its communication pathways. This impacts regions of the brain involved in mood regulation, memory, balance, speech, impulse control, and decision-making processes.
Drinking too much can impair judgment, which can then lead to risky behaviors and an increased rate of accidents, injuries, and violence. Too much alcohol at a time can cause blackouts, or gaps in memory.
Heavy drinking over time reduces the size of the neurons in your brain. Early use of alcohol (drinking before the brain is fully developed) can alter the brain’s structure and function.
Regular drinking for a long period of time can cause your brain to become significantly deficient in thiamine (vitamin B1), which can lead to the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a degenerative brain disorder.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the acute form of the syndrome that can be reversed with immediate intervention. Korsakoff syndrome is a permanent form of brain damage with symptoms similar to dementia. WKS has a high mortality rate and can require specialized care.
In the short term, alcohol raises your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Alcohol can cause an irregular heart rate. In time, this can lead to cardiac complications, such as an increased risk for heart disease and heart attack.
Prolonged alcohol abuse can also cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which weakens your heart muscle.
While there has been some research indicating that moderate consumption of alcohol can have protective effects on the heart and cardiovascular system, drinking too much can have far more negative consequences on the heart than any possible benefits.
The liver is the organ that works to break down alcohol. It can become overwhelmed when too much alcohol is present that it cannot successfully process.
Liver disease is progressive, and the more alcohol is consumed over time, the worse it gets. The second stage is called alcoholic hepatitis, which is acute inflammation of the liver. Liver cells die, and there can be permanent scarring.
When normal liver tissue is destroyed and replaced by scar tissue, this is the third stage of liver disease called alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic liver disease increases the risk for developing liver cancer and kidney problems, gallstones, intestinal bleeding, and serious infections.
Alcohol, even in more moderate amounts, has a direct impact on the body’s immune response, weakening it and increasing one’s overall vulnerability to infections caused by viruses or bacteria. The weakened immune response caused by alcohol consumption can increase the rate of cancer development and progression.
Alcohol can disrupt the healing process and make it harder to recover from medical procedures or accidents. Alcohol can also impair the body’s ability to protect and repair itself from injury, infection, or disease.
Heavy drinkers of alcohol are more prone to contracting diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. The body will have an impaired ability to ward off infections up to 24 hours after being intoxicated.
Alcohol is essentially a toxin that can trigger an inflammatory response. Typically, inflammation is a trigger from your immune system to help fight off a harmful outsider, but when alcohol is present consistently, the response becomes chronic and starts to damage healthy cells and tissues.
Alcohol triggers both acute inflammation, which is the immediate inflammatory response when alcohol enters the system, as well as chronic inflammation.
Inflammation related to alcohol can impact the brain, face, gut, liver, and joints. This can cause brain damage, an increased risk for infections, joint and muscle conditions, a higher rate of heart and liver disease, and a great deal of discomfort.
The first introduction of alcohol into the body is through the gastrointestinal system. Alcohol can change the integrity and structure of the GI tract, which can cause leakage of microbes and bacterial products.
Alcohol may also cause your stomach to produce more acid than normal. This can lead to heartburn and acid reflux as well as cause gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), which can also lead to the development of stomach ulcers.
In the short term, alcohol can cause stomach upset, leading to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Long-term effects on the gastrointestinal system can include difficulties absorbing essential nutrients, which can cause the body to become deficient in these nutrients.
The empty calories provided by alcohol can lead to significant weight gain. Excessive and long-term alcohol consumption also increases the risk for developing mouth, pharyngeal, esophageal, stomach, and bowel cancers.
Alcohol can greatly impact mental health. Since alcohol interferes with the brain’s natural reward processing center and chemical makeup, it can become difficult to regulate moods without alcohol.
Chronic alcohol abuse can raise the risk for struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. People who regularly drink alcohol often also battle mental health issues, and alcohol and mental health problems are often complexly intertwined.
For example, alcohol is commonly used as a coping mechanism, as it can provide a temporary escape from reality and help to impact moods. Alcohol is a depressant substance, however, and when it wears off, anxiety and depression are common.
Dependence on & Addiction to Alcohol
Regular use of alcohol leads to both physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Drinking alcohol changes the chemical makeup of the brain, altering the levels of neurotransmitters that help to regulate moods.
Drinking alcohol can have a positive impact on mood, but when it wears off, the resulting “low” can cause a person to want to drink more. It can also become difficult to feel pleasure without alcohol once dependence has formed.
Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol processes out of the body can be difficult both emotionally and physically. A significant dependence on alcohol can even lead to potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, known as delirium tremens. Symptoms include confusion, delirium, high fever, and seizures.
Alcohol is an addictive substance. In 2020, almost 30 million people in the United States had an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Risk Factors for Alcohol Issues
The negative side effects of alcohol can range in severity from person to person, often related to specific factors. For example, people with underlying health or mental health conditions are more likely to be harmed by even lower levels of alcohol consumption. The same is true for those who have slower metabolisms. Differences are often related to age, sex, or ethnicity.
Generally speaking, the more alcohol that is consumed at a time, the more often it is consumed, and the longer a person has been drinking, the more harmful the side effects of alcohol are going to be.
Taking other drugs or medications with alcohol increases all of the potential side effects and complications that can arise.
Alcohol can cause a host of social problems too, ranging from troubles at work or school and difficulties in relationships to financial issues and legal troubles. These types of issues can contribute to negative patterns of alcohol abuse.
How to Tell if You Need to Stop Drinking
If alcohol is affecting your daily life in any way, it is time to stop drinking. It may be interfering with your job, family, or health.
These are some signs that can indicate problem drinking:
- An inability to stop drinking even with repeated attempts
- Developing a tolerance and needing to drink more alcohol to feel the same effects
- Cravings for alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol wears off
- Spending a lot of time thinking about alcohol or drinking or recovering from drinking
- Avoiding situations where alcohol is not present and loss of interest in activities that were previously important
- Decline in job or school performance
- Engaging in risky behaviors while drinking
- Physical and or mental health issues related to drinking
Basically, if you are experiencing negative consequences related to drinking alcohol, it may be time to stop drinking.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
There are various options when it comes to treatment for alcohol use disorder. Alcohol makes changes to the brain and body, so it can be helpful to choose a specialized alcohol treatment program to safely detox and learn healthy coping strategies and mechanisms for recovery.
Alcohol abuse and addiction can be treated through a variety of methods, including medications, therapies, education, and support groups. Getting help to stop drinking can improve your quality of life and the lives of those around you. A professional treatment program can offer a wide range of positive resources, helping you to embrace a happier life and a better future.
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