When you have an addiction, the long-term consequences of substance abuse aren’t typically top of mind. Addiction hijacks your brain and changes how your reward center works. It starts sending messages that alcohol and drugs are critical to your survival — similar to food, water, and sex. When your brain and body consider alcohol its priority, the physical, psychological, relational, and financial repercussions of substance abuse fall by the wayside. That’s why people act uncharacteristically when they have a substance use disorder.
Even though the future may seem like the least of your concerns when you’re struggling just to get through each day, the fact is, the long-term effects of alcohol consumption can be dangerous and even deadly. You also don’t need to be what you may think of as the “classic alcoholic” to suffer the consequences of heavy drinking
Some of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:
- Changes to the brain that affect focus, mood, behavior, and coordination.
- Heart problems like stroke, irregular heartbeat, and stretching of the heart muscle.
- Liver issues like hepatitis, fatty liver, and cirrhosis.
- Inflammation and swelling in the pancreas.
- A higher risk for cancers like head and neck cancer, throat cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colon cancer.
- A weakened immune system.
Learn more about these long-term health effects, and how to get help for substance abuse.
Alcohol abuse changes the brain and impacts central nervous system functioning. Specifically, alcohol affects these pathways:
- γ-amino butyric acid (GABA)
Alcohol’s effects on these pathways are what give you that “drunk” feeling. These same pathways and brain chemicals are also involved in hangovers, alcohol withdrawal, and mental health symptoms from alcohol abuse.
Long-term alcohol effects on the brain that are tied directly to alcohol or indirectly through poor health from drinking include:
- Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome – A condition that may include confusion, poor coordination, vision problems, tremors, and coma.
- Memory loss
- Learning problems
- Mental health disorders
- Spatial recognition issues
Your central nervous system is thrown off balance with ongoing alcohol abuse. Because it’s become dependent on alcohol to function, when you don’t drink, your systems can go into high alert. The body starts making more of certain brain chemicals to return to the levels they’re at when you’re drinking alcohol. This is what causes withdrawal symptoms in alcohol’s absence.
Heavy drinking may increase fat levels in your blood. The fats can build up in your artery walls and cause higher levels of cholesterol, which puts you at risk for:
- Cardiomyopathy (the heart has a harder time delivering blood to your body)
- High blood pressure
- Heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
Excessive drinking also disrupts food digestion, causing your circulatory system to become less effective in transporting nutrients throughout your body. Additionally, drinking alcohol regularly may cause weight gain, which puts pressure on your heart and can lead to a number of cardiovascular conditions.
Because the liver breaks down toxins in your blood, alcohol can have a significant impact on liver functioning. The liver is the main site for alcohol metabolism. It breaks down alcohol so it can be excreted from the body. The primary enzymes involved in this process are:
- Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) – This enzyme metabolizes alcohol to acetaldehyde, a highly toxic substance and carcinogen.
- Aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) – The ALDH enzyme breaks acetaldehyde down into a less toxic substance, acetate, which is further metabolized by other enzymes into water and carbon dioxide so the body can eliminate it.
When you drink to excess, your liver has a difficult time keeping up with your alcohol intake. This leads to toxins in the blood. A liver that is continuously exposed to high amounts of alcohol can develop a number of issues, such as:
- Fatty liver – The first stage of alcoholic liver disease, which can bring about mild discomfort in your stomach, or no symptoms.
- Alcoholic hepatitis– A condition where your liver is inflamed and you may experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and jaundice.
- Cirrhosis – This occurs when a good portion of your liver cells have been replaced with scar tissue. Cirrhosis increases your risk of developing liver cancer and liver failure. People with severe cirrhosis usually need a liver transplant.
Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to pancreatitis. Pancreas cells metabolize alcohol into toxic byproducts. These substances may inflame, damage, and eat away parts of the pancreas. The first phase of pancreatitis is acute pancreatitis. It can be painful, causing stomach and back pain, fever, vomiting, and nausea. The second phase of pancreatitis is chronic pancreatitis, which is when you have a severely damaged liver. It occurs after continuous episodes of acute pancreatitis.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism warns that just one night of drinking heavily can lower your body’s ability to fight off illness for a short period of time. Large amounts of alcohol suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses like pneumonia, colds, flu, and tuberculosis. A recent study also found that people with alcohol use disorders are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and are more likely to experience hospitalization and death from the virus.
Regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol can lead to excessive amounts of toxic byproducts when alcohol is metabolized. This puts you at increased risk for cancers like:
- Liver cancer
- Upper respiratory tract cancers
- Colon and rectum cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Breast cancer
Research shows that some people are less affected by carcinogens that come from alcohol metabolism than others. Scientists theorize this risk is tied to the lack or presence of certain genes that offer a “protective factor.” Some heavy drinkers never develop alcohol-related cancers while some moderate drinkers do. Another reminder that you don’t need to be what you may think of as a typical alcoholic to suffer the long-term effects of alcohol abuse.
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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol’s effect on the body is also apparent when you go without it. Alcohol withdrawal can be painful and dangerous without medical help. About half of people with alcohol use disorders experience withdrawal when they stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the extent of your alcohol abuse and physical health.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Seizures/delirium tremens
- High body temperature
- High heart rate and blood pressure
- Problems sleeping
You should never attempt to detox from alcohol on your own. It can be dangerous and deadly. Medical detox is needed so you’re monitored around the clock by specialists who can intervene if there is a medical emergency. Medical detox may also include prescription medications that ease withdrawal symptoms. This can lessen the urge to self-medicate discomfort with alcohol.
Ready to Get Help?
Entering treatment for substance abuse is never an easy decision, but when you’re continuing to drink despite the negative effects on your health, relationships, and other areas of your life, it’s the right decision. At Footprints to Recovery, we help you begin repairing the physical, emotional, and mental wounds of addiction. You’ll learn that a healthy, purposeful life in recovery can be fun and rewarding and that you are stronger than you know. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation.