Alcohol’s Effects on the Body & Its Dangers
Last Updated: November 1, 2023
Using alcohol heavily over time can have adverse effects on the body that may be difficult to reverse, even if you stop drinking.
Most people drink alcohol, which affects how we socialize and unwind. Alcohol can, however, have many negative effects on the body that have the potential to be hazardous. When used heavily, alcohol can lead to many dangerous conditions and long-term health consequences. It is important to be aware of the risks alcohol can cause when you use it.
What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?
When you drink, alcohol is absorbed by your intestines into your bloodstream. It passes through your liver and begins circulating in your blood. Alcohol primarily affects the brain by activating GABA receptors. These receptors suppress neurological signals. Alcohol’s effect on GABA receptors causes the brain to slow down, causing many of the symptoms that occur when you drink alcohol.
While alcohol is best known for its effects on the brain, it can also impact many other body parts. Alcohol alters hormone levels that control organs like the kidneys, affects organs indirectly through its effect on the brain and affects different parts of the body directly.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Alcohol can have long and short-term effects on the body. Short-term effects are generally only present when drinking and immediately afterward. The more you drink, the more likely short-term effects become. Short-term effects can develop into long-term effects if they cause permanent damage.
Cognitive and Psychological Effects
Even a small amount of alcohol can impair judgment, reduce coordination and slow reflexes. It can also affect mood, leading to feelings of euphoria, sadness, depression or aggression. Drinking too much can result in alcohol blackouts, where the individual cannot remember events that occurred while intoxicated. Alcohol consumption can also interfere with sleep cycles.
Alcohol can cause temporary increases in heart rate and lead to fluctuations in blood pressure. The effects that alcohol has on the heart are not typically likely to be dangerous unless large amounts of alcohol are used or there is an underlying condition already affecting the heart. Severe overuse of alcohol that causes alcohol poisoning can cause your heart to stop and is fatal if not treated promptly.
Alcohol is irritating when it touches your skin or other body parts. It can also irritate the digestive system, leading to nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It also increases acid production in the stomach, which can result in heartburn in the short term, and eventually ulcers.
Alcohol acts as a diuretic, increasing urine production and the risk of dehydration. It also releases hormones that signal the kidneys to make less urine. This results in conflicting signals to the kidneys, leading to increased strain on the kidneys. The effects of alcohol on the kidneys can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances if not managed properly.
In the short term, alcohol can slow liver function. Alcohol is primarily processed in the liver and diverts the liver from taking care of processing other substances. This can create a situation where the liver does not process something like medication as quickly as it typically should and lead to higher levels of that medication than normal.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
The short-term effects of alcohol can be harmful; however, some of the greatest risks it can cause occur with long-term use. These effects gradually compound over time and can be difficult to reverse, even when you stop using alcohol.
While short-term alcohol use leads to temporary blood pressure elevations, long-term use can lead to lasting increases in blood pressure. This increases stress on your blood vessels and the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Long-term alcohol use can also weaken the heart muscle, a condition known as cardiomyopathy. The effects of chronic alcohol use on the heart are often permanent.
Brain Health Risks
Alcohol can have several long-term effects on the brain. Chronic alcohol use can lead to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This condition is caused because alcohol affects the absorption of vitamin B1 (thiamine), a vital nutrient for brain health. While treatable in the early stage, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is very dangerous and can lead to permanent brain damage.
Alcohol damages brain cells and causes your brain to shrink when used long-term. Alcohol also increases your risk of dementia, stroke and brain damage, leading to several potential brain health risks.
Alcohol can have devastating effects on your liver, causing three stages of damage:
- Fatty liver disease: This stage often doesn’t result in serious symptoms and causes fat to build up around your liver.
- Hepatitis: The fat building up around the liver begins to cause inflammation, significantly affecting how your liver functions.
- Cirrhosis: Inflammation of the liver leads to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. This results in permanent liver damage.
While fatty liver disease and hepatitis are serious, they can be reversed by stopping alcohol use. Cirrhosis, on the other hand, is permanent once it occurs. The only way to treat cirrhosis is by getting a liver transplant.
Alcoholic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, a painful and potentially deadly condition. While pancreatitis can occur with a single episode of heavy drinking, it typically results from prolonged, long-term alcohol use. Alcohol-related pancreatitis can be an episodic issue or a chronic health problem. Either way, it is dangerous and very uncomfortable to go through.
Immune Health Risks
Alcohol suppresses your immune system. When you drink over a prolonged period, the risk of getting sick during that time frame from infection increases significantly. A suppressed immune system also decreases your body’s ability to respond to many of the problems that it encounters.
Increased Risk of Cancer
Alcohol increases the risk of many types of cancers. The longer you use alcohol, the greater your risk of developing cancer. Some of the cancers that become more likely with long-term alcohol use include:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Liver cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Throat cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
Drinking During Pregnancy
Drinking during pregnancy should always be avoided. Even a single drink while pregnant can lead to a condition called fetal alcohol syndrome that causes your growing baby to develop facial deformities and mental deficits. This condition typically requires lifelong care, even as an adult, and significantly shortens your child’s lifespan.
Get Help Quitting Drinking at The Recovery Village Atlanta
If you drink heavily or find it difficult to control your drinking, it is important that you get help controlling your alcohol use. Long-term problems are inevitable if you continue drinking heavily.
At The Recovery Village Atlanta, we understand what you or your loved one are going through. Our compassionate staff are experts at helping people like you stop using alcohol and regain control of their lives. Contact us today to learn how to gain lasting freedom from alcohol use.
FAQs on Alcohol Health Risks
Does alcohol cause inflammation?
Alcohol causes inflammation. Whether it is your skin, digestive tract, liver or any other part of your body, alcohol has an inflammatory effect. The inflammation that alcohol causes is one of the reasons that it can be so damaging to your body.
Does alcohol weaken the immune system?
Alcohol has been shown to suppress the immune system. A single episode of drinking can impact your immune system for 24 hours, increasing the risk of infection if exposed to a contagion. When you drink chronically, it becomes even more difficult for your body to respond to infection.
What are the risks involved with teen alcohol use?
Drinking alcohol has risks at any age; however, there are additional risks when teens use alcohol. Teenagers have brains that are still developing and are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. They also have a decreased ability to make good judgments and exercise self-control, increasing the risk of misusing alcohol. Ultimately, teens who misuse alcohol are significantly more likely to develop addiction later in life.
Does alcohol have any positive health effects?
Alcohol is not recommended to improve your health, even in small quantities. While some studies have reported that using red wine daily has health benefits, other studies have demonstrated that the alcohol in wine was not responsible for any potential positive effects. Doctors do not recommend drinking alcohol to improve your health in any circumstance.
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