Alcohol can be consumed safely and responsibly in moderation, but when alcohol is misused, there is a wide range of associated health risks.
As the most regularly used potentially addictive substance in America, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that alcohol is often part of daily life.
When you drink, alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing everything down and impairing cognitive functions. Alcohol can cause you to act in ways that are out of character, as it lowers your inhibitions and increases sociability.
Alcohol also impacts many of your internal organs and bodily systems. Alcohol abuse can have long-term and even potentially irreversible or fatal consequences.
Excessive and chronic alcohol use can lead to addiction as well as a host of mental and medical issues.
Amount of Alcohol & Health Risks
The impact of alcohol on your body depends on how much and how often you drink. Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as no more than two drinks per day for a man or one drink per day for a woman. The more you drink, the higher you raise your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) and the more impaired you will become.
Alcohol is broken down by the liver. In general, the liver can metabolize about one serving of alcohol every hour.
Alcohol metabolism is impacted by things like sex, race, weight, food intake, and biological and genetic indicators. A single serving of alcohol is usually:
- One beer (at 12 ounces at 5 percent alcohol).
- One shot of liquor (1.5 ounces at 40 percent alcohol).
- One glass of wine (5 ounces at 12 percent alcohol).
- One malt liquor beverage (8 ounces at 7 percent alcohol).
If you go over what your liver can break down, your BAC will go up and so will the impact on your brain and body. Low to moderate levels of alcohol use can make you feel relaxed, impair motor coordination and reflexes, and cause blurred vision, slurred speech, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, nausea, memory loss, and drowsiness.
Negative effects of moderate drinking could include for example, taking bigger risks than usual that come with undesirable consequences, physical, financial, legal, or such.
Patterns of excessive drinking can be especially harmful to your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that binge drinking is the most common.
Binge drinking is when you raise your BAC up to or over the legal limit of 0.08 g/dL. This usually happens after five drinks for a man or four drinks for a women in one sitting, usually in about two hours.
Heavy alcohol use is when you engage in binge drinking at least five times in a month, the CDC further explains.
Binge drinking amplifies the impact of moderate doses of alcohol. It can lead to even more physical and mental impairment, causing motor skills to be impacted, and balance and coordination to be even more off. Your reaction time is delayed, and it is not safe to drive at this point.
The more you drink, the more impaired you will get. You can become confused and vomit. You may have less of a response to pain, limited muscle control, and difficulties seeing, thinking, and hearing well.
You may suffer from alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal, Mayo Clinic warns. The following are signs of alcohol poisoning:
- Mental confusion
- Irregular or slow breathing
- Bluish color to the skin, nails, or lips
- Low body temperature
- Loss of consciousness
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How Alcohol Affects the Body
Alcohol Use Disorder
When you drink excessively and regularly, your brain starts to develop a tolerance. This can mean that you will have to consume more to feel a buzz from drinking.
As you increase your alcohol intake and chronic drinking patterns, you can become dependent on alcohol and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can actually be life-threatening, leading to what is called delirium tremens (DTs) 3 to 5 percent of the time. This can be fatal at least a third of the time.
DTs happens when alcohol abuse is excessive, chronic, and prolonged, the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports. It is usually a side effect of stopping drinking suddenly when alcoholism is involved.
DTs can show up a few days after alcohol clears the body. It can cause extreme mental confusion, hallucinations, delirium, agitation, fever, and seizures that can be fatal.
Most people who drink alcohol have experienced a hangover the next day. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, dehydration, lethargy, sleep problems, irritability, sweating, loss of appetite, mood swings, fatigue, depression, anxiety, tremors, and rapid heart rate.
Long-term and repeated alcohol use can really take a toll on your brain and body. Many of your internal organs and systems will suffer. The liver, brain, pancreas, and heart can all be damaged as result of alcoholism.
Excessive and repeated patterns of alcohol use can increase your risk for many forms of cancer, including cancer of the bowel, mouth and neck, liver, and breast. It can also lead to liver and heart disease, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, stroke, depression, dementia, and sexual dysfunction and infertility issues, the National Health Service (NHS) warns.
Alcohol’s Impact on the Body
Alcohol can influence many of the body’s systems and organs.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the functions of your central nervous system. The more you drink, the greater the impact.
The central nervous system is involved in many life-sustaining functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. When you drink, all of these functions are slowed. When alcohol wears off, they can then be heightened. The consistent push-and-pull impact of regular alcohol abuse can lead to irregularities in heart rate and blood pressure that can raise the risk for stroke and cardiovascular issues.
The journal Current Neurovascular Research publishes that alcohol suppresses the activity in the excitatory nerve pathways, interacts with receptors, and disrupts communication between nerve cells in the brain. This can cause neuronal injury, neurodegeneration, and neurocognitive defects.Brain damage can occur with excessive and chronic alcohol use, as it can cause a deficiency of thiamine, or B1. This can lead to the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Korsakoff psychosis is a form of permanent brain damage, NLM explains. It can impact memory formation, cause hallucinations, and interfere with your ability to function and live on your own.
Alcohol use, and alcohol use disorder especially, can negatively impact your lungs and respiratory system. Over time, drinking regularly interferes with your body’s immune system, which can make it harder to fight off certain illnesses and diseases.
The journal Alcohol Research Current Reviews publishes that alcohol abuse and alcoholism can make you more likely to suffer from the following pulmonary conditions:
- RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)
- TB (tuberculosis)
- ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome)
Your circulatory system involves your blood vessels, veins, capillaries, blood, arteries, and heart. Drinking too much too often can have a negative impact on your circulatory and cardiovascular system.
Alcohol can slow down your bodily functions, how fast your heart pumps, and therefore how blood is moved throughout the body.
The journal Alcohol Research and Current Reviews publishes that while low to moderate alcohol consumption may have certain protective effects on your cardiovascular health, long-term and excessive drinking can increase your risk for the following complications:
- Coronary heart disease
- Peripheral artery disease
Alcohol can have numerous effects on the digestive system, including an impact on appetite.
Drinking can cause you to make poor food choices that can lead to issues with weight and overall health. Conversely, alcohol withdrawal can cause stomach discomfort and vomiting, leading to a lack of appetite and potential malnutrition.
When you drink, alcohol is absorbed into the digestive tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, mouth, and throat. All of these can be damaged by excessive alcohol use.
Alcohol has no nutritional value and can be toxic to the digestive system. Alcohol use can increase the risk for mouth, throat, bowel, and liver cancers. It can cause acid buildup and acid reflux.
Alcohol can have significant impact on the liver. As the American Liver Foundation (ALF) publishes, regular and chronic alcohol consumption can cause alcohol-related liver disease. The liver is the organ in your body designated for helping you metabolize things and process out toxins.
Liver disease from alcohol use progresses in three stages, starting out with fatty liver disease, or steatosis. This happens as the liver metabolizes alcohol, and fat begins to build up. It can progress to alcoholic hepatitis, which can have life-threatening complications. Both of these forms of alcohol-related liver disease can be overturned if you stop drinking and get medical attention.
The third progression of the disease, alcohol-related cirrhosis, involves irreversible scar tissue formation. This can be serious and fatal.
Alcohol impacts nearly every system in the body, including your bone health. Chronic and excessive alcohol use can be a factor in decreased bone density, which can raise your risk for osteoporosis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) publishes. Osteoporosis elevates the odds for bone fractures.
Alcohol impacts bone health in the following ways:
- Interferes with balance of calcium and production of vitamin D
- Causes hormone deficiencies, like decreased testosterone in men and lowered estrogen in women
- Triggers higher levels of cortisol
- Associated with an increased rate of bone injury due to balance and coordination issues
Your endocrine system helps to regulate your internal systems, allowing your organs to communicate with each other to make sure everything is working as it should. Your pituitary gland and hypothalamus act as a kind of “control center” for both your endocrine and nervous system. Alcohol can be detrimental to both of these parts of your brain.
Overall, alcohol can interfere with proper functions of your endocrine system. The journal Alcohol Research and Current Reviews publishes that this can cause the following:
- Reproductive dysfunction
- Thyroid issues
- Difficulties tolerating stress
- Behavioral and psychological disorders
- Immune system issues
Renal & Urinary System
Your urinary, or renal, system involves your kidneys, bladder, sphincter, ureters, and urethra. It works to remove waste from your body.
Drinking alcohol can irritate the urinary system and make you feel like you need to urinate more often than normal. Alcohol can also lead to dehydration. Since your kidneys work to filter your blood, this kind of “drying out” can impact the ability of your kidneys to keep the necessary amount of water in your body.
Alcohol abuse can lead to a worsening of kidney disease and problems with your liver, which impact the kidneys. When the liver can’t work the way it needs to, your kidneys take on the extra work. The National Kidney Foundation publishes that the majority of Americans struggling with both kidney dysfunction and liver disease battle alcohol dependence as well.
Alcohol can impact both female and male reproductive systems, affecting production of the sex hormones testosterone in men and estrogen in women. Alcohol use can disrupt a women’s menstrual cycle, which then can interfere with estrogen production, ovulation and therefore fertility and reproduction.
Alcohol use can also lead to sexual dysfunction and a decreased ability to perform for men as well as a lowered sex drive.
The lymphatic system is part of your immune system. Alcohol can inflame lymph nodes and decrease the ability of your immune system to function as well as it is intended to.
When you drink, your blood vessels dilate, and lymph fluid is increased throughout the body. Your kidneys also excrete more fluid as alcohol is a diuretic. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause swelling in your lymph nodes, which can be painful.
Alcohol use and excessive lymph node function can particularly be an issue if you suffer from lymphedema or lymphoma already.
Exocrine & Integumentary System
Your integumentary system involves your sweat or exocrine glands, nails, hair, and skin. Like virtually all other parts of your body, alcohol can impact it too.
Alcohol abuse, especially in excess over time, can cause a wide range of skin issues, per the journal Clinics in Dermatology. These include:
- Jaundice, which is a yellow tinge to the skin.
- Pruritis, which is itchy skin.
- Hyperpigmentation, which is when skin becomes darker in patches.
- Urticaria, which is hives.
- Psoriasis, which involves flaky, inflamed red or white patches of skin.
- Porphyria cutanea tarda, which involves blistering legions that are sensitive to the sun.
When Treatment Intervention Is Necessary
Alcohol is a socially acceptable, mind-altering substance that can be consumed safely and responsibly. It is also highly addictive and can have a lot of negative consequences when used to excess on a regular basis.
If you struggle with health issues related to alcohol abuse, it is likely time for a medical and mental health intervention in the form of a treatment program. Alcoholism can be managed through pharmacological, supportive, and therapeutic methods in a complete treatment program that addresses both the physical and mental side effects of alcohol use and addiction.
If you have been drinking a lot of alcohol for a long time, your body is probably heavily dependent on it. A medical detox program is the optimal first stage of a treatment program.
Withdrawal symptoms can be medically managed. In a medical detox program, trained professionals can keep you safe by monitoring your vital signs and using medications and interventions as needed.
Medications, behavioral therapies, group and individual counseling, relapse prevention, nutritional planning, and support groups are all important components of an alcohol abuse and addiction treatment program. The key is comprehensive treatment to give you the best foundation in recovery.