Alcohol-Related Health Conditions: How Drinking Affects the Body
Last Updated: November 1, 2023
Chronic heavy drinking can lead to serious health complications that can be reduced by cutting back on your drinking or stopping altogether.
Alcohol, when consumed in moderation, can be a way to unwind or celebrate. Using alcohol excessively or for a prolonged period, however, can lead to a myriad of potentially dangerous health conditions. It is important for anyone who drinks to understand the different health conditions associated with alcohol consumption, the risk factors connected with alcohol use, and how one can prevent and treat these conditions.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down your central nervous system. When you drink alcohol, it quickly enters the bloodstream and affects every part of the body, from the brain to the liver.
Initially, you may experience feelings of relaxation and euphoria after drinking. However, as your consumption increases, so do the negative effects, including impaired judgment, coordination issues and blurred vision. In high amounts, alcohol use can slow your body so much that it affects your ability to breathe and keep your heart beating. Over time, chronic heavy drinking can also lead to severe health complications, impacting vital organs and even leading to death.
Common Alcohol-Related Health Conditions
While there are a wide variety of health conditions that heavy, prolonged alcohol use can cause, some conditions are more common and more likely to develop than others. These conditions are commonly encountered by those who use alcohol in excess.
The liver is responsible for breaking down and removing harmful substances from the body, including alcohol. Chronic drinking can strain the liver, leading to liver disease. Liver disease caused by alcohol use typically progresses through three stages:
- Fatty liver disease: Fat deposits build up in your liver in fatty liver disease. Those with this condition often only experience fatigue and other vague symptoms.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: As fat deposits build up, they eventually cause inflammation in the liver, referred to as hepatitis. This causes more serious liver symptoms but can be reversed if you stop drinking.
- Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis, scarring of the liver, is caused by inflammation that occurs with alcoholic hepatitis. Cirrhosis is often permanent and life-threatening, only treatable by obtaining a liver transplant.
There is a common misconception that moderate drinking might have some heart benefits; however, research shows that this is not likely to be the case. Excessive alcohol use can, however, cause heart disease by leading to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, cardiomyopathy and even heart attacks. Over time, heavy alcohol use can result in significant damage to the heart that may or may not be treatable, depending on the type and extent of damage.
Alcohol irritates surfaces of your body that it comes in contact with, including the lining of your digestive tract. Over time, alcohol can significantly interfere with the digestive system, leading to problems like gastritis, ulcers and acid reflux. Ulcers especially can increase the risk of internal bleeding and infection. Chronic drinking can also increase the risk of developing mouth, throat, esophagus and colon cancers.
Alcohol can affect the brain in many different ways. Over time, it can damage nerve cells, leading to issues like numbness, tingling in the hands and feet and even shrinking of the brain.
Chronic drinking can also increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury and other memory problems. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is one neurological problem unique to alcohol use and causes a deficiency in vitamin B1, or thiamine. This leads to inflammation in the brain that progresses into a permanent form of dementia if untreated.
Mental Health Conditions
Alcohol use and mental health problems often go hand-in-hand. Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. Additionally, heavy drinking can lead to alcohol-induced anxiety and depression, creating a vicious cycle of drinking to self-medicate symptoms.
While alcohol can exacerbate mental health problems, mental health problems can also increase the risk of alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction combined with a mental health disorder is called dual diagnosis and can be particularly difficult to treat, requiring specialized addiction recovery treatment.
Risk Factors for Alcohol-Related Health Conditions
Several factors can increase your risk of developing health issues from alcohol, including your genetics, age, history of mental trauma and other underlying health conditions. Additionally, binge drinking, starting at a young age, and combining alcohol with other substances can significantly elevate the risk of alcohol-related health conditions.
Ultimately, heavy alcohol use or frequent alcohol use are the biggest risk factors for developing an alcohol-related health condition. Cutting back on your alcohol use or stopping alcohol altogether is the only sure way to reduce your chances of developing a health problem related to alcohol use.
How To Prevent and Treat Health Problems From Heavy Alcohol Use
When it comes to alcohol-related diseases, prevention is always better than cure. Limiting alcohol intake, drinking in moderation and avoiding binge drinking are crucial steps. If you struggle to control your alcohol use, stopping alcohol altogether may be necessary.
Regular medical checkups can help detect early signs of alcohol-related health issues. For those already facing health complications, treatments may include medications, lifestyle changes and, in severe cases, more advanced treatments. If you have a health problem caused by alcohol, it is very important to seek medical care and follow any advice and treatments your doctor recommends.
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Campellone, Joseph V. “Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.” MedlinePlus. January 23, 2022. Accessed August 23, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” 2023. Accessed August 23, 2023.