Many people enjoy a drink without any problems, and drinking alcohol in moderation has been proven by scientists to have many health benefits. But, binge drinking or drinking heavily over longer periods of time can have very serious consequences. Alcohol misuse not only harms the drinker, but damages interpersonal relationships. Further, drinking problems are problems of society in general, in terms of violence and crime, accidents and drink driving.
But how does alcohol affect the body? What happens after you stop drinking? Heavy drinking, binge drinking or long-term drinking can take a serious toll on the physical and mental health of individuals. Here, we explore in detail how alcohol affects a drinker’s health. Then, we invite your questions about effects of alcohol at the end.
Alcohol effects on the brain
How does alcohol affect the brain? Alcohol exacerbates the problems that often lead to strokes, including hypertension, arrhythmias, and cardiomyopathy. Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to changes in the way the brain looks and works. These changes can result in alterations of mood, behavior, coordination and the ability to learn. Further, binge drinking can cause blackouts, memory loss and anxiety. Both binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can lead to strokes, even in people without coronary heart disease.
Alcohol effects on the heart
Alcohol leads to hypertension, or high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and/or stroke. It also weakens the myocard (heart muscle), which can lead to heart failure and affect the other vital organs in the body.
Alcohol effects on the immune system
Excessive alcohol consumption may lead to immune deficiency, causing increased susceptibility to certain diseases. Physicians have observed that excessive alcohol consumption can lead not only to liver damage, but also to increased illness and death from infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, septicemia, etc. Life-threatening complications of alcoholism such as liver disease and liver failure may have a component of autoimmunity.
Alcohol effects on the liver
The initial effect that alcohol has on the liver is the development of fat deposits in the liver (steatosis). Continued excessive drinking can permanently scar and damage the liver, cause inflamation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis), liver cirrhosis, liver failure, and increase the risk of liver cancer.
Alcohol effects on the pancreas
Heavy or prolonged use of alcohol can cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas. Pancreatitis can be a very painful condition, causing vomiting, fever and weight loss, and can be fatal.
Alcohol effects on the lungs
Scientists have found that people who drink a lot experience more lung infections, are more likely to suffer collapsed lungs, and/or pneumonia. However, side effects of alcohol are not limited to long term use; there is the risk of choking on one’s own vomit during acute intoxication if it gets sucked into the lungs.
Alcohol effects on personality and behavior
Alcohol can influence personality and behavior. Even at doses as small as a drink or two, alcohol creates a sense of happiness and closeness to people. But, for some individuals it has the opposite effect.
There are people who drink a lot and become irrational, angry and aggressive. For some it creates depressive feelings and they wind up crying into their drinks. A great number of drinkers are looking to satisfy feelings of love or lust, and later, alcohol is used as an excuse for behaviors.
Alcohol effects on blood pressure
Alcohol abuse is a frequent contributor to elevated blood pressure and may be the most common cause of secondary hypertension. The mechanism of this association is still unknown to scientists. In most cases, the blood pressure elevations are reversible and return to normal upon discontinuation of alcohol use.
Alcohol effects on heart rate
The heart rate is affected by both binge drinking and long-term drinking. Alcohol causes arrythmia, which means that alcohol makes the heart to beat irregularly or too rapidly. There are two types of arrhythmias induced by alcohol: atrial fibrillation and venticular tachycardia.
Alcohol effects on skin
Drinking alcohol dehydrates the whole body and this includes the skin, which is the body’s largest organ. It’s also thought to deprive the skin from vital vitamins and nutrients. A skin condition called “rosacea” is linked to alcohol; it starts with blushing and flushing easily and can eventually lead to disfigurement of the face.
Alcohol effects on sexuality and ability
In men, alcohol can trigger impotence, lowered libido and, infertility. In women, long-term use of alcohol can be one potential cause of infertility.
Alcohol effects on pregnancy
Government guidelines suggest that pregnant women should completely avoid drinking alcohol. Studies have shown that alcohol can reduce the chances of becoming pregnant. Alcohol effects on the menstrual cycle and birth control-heavy drinking and long-term drinking can result in irregular periods or stop them altogether. In women who drink heavily before and/or during pregnancy, increased risk of early miscarriage can manifest.
Alcohol effects on a fetus
Drinking while pregnant can seriously influence and damage the development of the unborn child. Excessive drinking during pregnancy can lead to “fetal alcohol syndrome”. This is the leading known cause of mental retardation and birth defects. Drinking during pregnancy can further influence the baby’s susceptibility to illness in infancy, childhood, adolescence and adult life. Drinking during pregnancy can also affect the child’s ability to learn.
Alcohol effects on breast milk
Less than 2% of the alcohol consumed by a lactating woman is transferred to her milk and consumed by the infant. Regardless, lactating women should not nurse for several hours after drinking, until alcohol levels in their blood have declined again. Additionally, studies demonstrate that maternal alcohol consumption may slightly reduce milk production.
Alcohol effects on dopamine
Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. By increasing dopamine levels in the brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making your feel good or if drinking to get over something emotionally difficult, it makes you feel better.
Researchers suggest that alcohol’s ability to influence dopamine levels affects men more than women. This may explain why the average number of men who drink alcohol is higher than the average rates of woman drinkers.
Alcohol effects on the mind (mental health)
One of the biggest delusions alcoholics have is thinking alcohol helps them cope with tough situations in life and emotions, and that it reduces stress and anxiety. On the contrary, alcohol consumption is associated with a range of mental health problems, including:
- insomnia and sleeping problems
- personality disorders
- risk-taking behaviors
- suicidal thoughts and actions
Alcohol effects on the nervous system
Alcohol is a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant. It slows down the activity of the CNS, but the degree to which brain activity slows down depends on how much, and how fast a person drinks. The results of acute alcohol intoxication are slurred speech, slowed reaction time, impaired vision and hearing, weakened muscles, impaired thinking, memory and recollection difficulties. Two results of long term alcohol use include becoming dependent on alcohol or tolerant to alcohol.
Alcohol effects on eyes and pupils
Drinking heavily or often, puts individuals at a much higher risk for short term changes in vision as well as permanent damage. By damaging the brain, alcohol also has negative effects on eyesight. It can alter the peripheral vision and cause tunnel vision. The pupils will also react more slowly, so they will not be able to constrict or open up as well. This can make driving very difficult, since you can’t react well to headlights.
Alcohol effects on blood sugar
Alcohol affects blood sugar levels because it prevents the liver from producing glucose. One consequence of this is that hypoglycemia can occur after a night of drinking. That’s why people with diabetes are advised to eat something and compensate for the expected drop in blood sugar levels when drinking.
Reference Sources: NIH: Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
NIH: Fetal Alcohol Exposure
NIH: Alcohol Alert
NIH: Alcohol’s Effect on Lactation
NIH: Alcohol and the Immune System
Photo credit: Patrick J. Lynch