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Alcohol and the Body: A Guide to Effects & Safety

There is a large volume of literature that has documented the effects of light, moderate, and heavy alcohol use on the body. 

While light alcohol use may bring certain health benefits, moderate and heavy alcohol use and abuse lead to significant health problems in both the short and long term.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

There are many different factors that influence how alcohol use and abuse affect the body.

These include:

  • How much alcohol you drink
  • How often you drink alcohol
  • The age at which you first began drinking alcohol or how long you have been using alcohol
  • Whether or not you were at risk for prenatal alcohol exposure
  • Your age, education, gender, and genetic background (family history)
  • Other substances you also use, such as tobacco or illicit drugs
  • Your overall general health

For instance, if you started drinking alcohol at an early age and drink often and in large amounts, the effects of alcohol in your body will be more profound than if you began drinking in your late 30s and only drink one or two drinks on weekends.

Using other types of substances like tobacco products in conjunction with alcohol can exacerbate the effects of alcohol use.

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How Much Is Too Much?

If you drink alcohol, you should only drink in moderation.

This means that you should limit yourself to one to two drinks per day if you are a man and one drink per day if you are a woman.

Drinking any more than this can lead to serious ramifications over the long term.

In this context, an alcoholic drink is defined as:

  • One 4-ounce glass of wine
  • One 12-ounce beer
  • A drink containing 1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100 proof spirits

You should not save up all your drinks until the weekend and then drink seven to 14 drinks on Saturday night. This constitutes binge drinking, and it is dangerous.

Short-Term Effects on the Brain 

When you drink alcohol, it affects the transmission of gamma-aminobutyric acid, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This leads to slurred speech, slow reaction times, and sluggish movements.

Alcohol also affects other neurotransmitters like glutamate and dopamine, which results in the reinforcing effects of drinking. These initial effects influence judgment, making people more susceptible to engaging in risky behaviors that can have serious health consequences or getting in accidents.

Other areas of the brain like the cerebellum (which helps to regulate your balance) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for the ability to learn and remember new information) can be affected. You may experience issues with blackouts and/or balance issues.

Long-Term Effects on the Brain

Continuing to drink alcohol in large amounts or for prolonged periods of time affects numerous brain structures.

  • A decrease in brain volume has been observed in chronic heavy drinkers (more than 14 drinks a week over 20 years). This shrinkage is due to a loss of neurons and the destruction of brain tissue
  • Memory issues can be the effect of long-term alcohol use. This can even occur with moderate alcohol use such as 2.5 drinks per day over lengthy periods. This may reflect damage to numerous areas of the brain, including the hippocampus and the frontal areas.
  • Issues with abstract thinking, reasoning, and judgment are noted in individuals who chronically abuse alcohol, likely reflecting damage to the frontal portions of the brain
  • Problems with moving through space or visualizing objects in space are related to areas of the brain in the right hemisphere. These areas appear to be susceptible to damage due to long-term alcohol use
  • Wernicke’s Korsakoff’s syndrome, a disorder that occurs in chronic drinkers who neglect their diet (leading to a thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency) may occur. Alcohol hinders the absorption of many vitamins, including thiamine. If you chronically abuse alcohol and do not pay attention to your diet, you may experience numerous issues
  • Increased risk for brain cancer, stroke, brain infections, and head injury are also the result of chronic alcohol use.

Of course, brain damage and deterioration associated with chronic alcohol abuse can lead to various cognitive and emotional problems.

Alcohol Abuse and the Cardiovascular System

Drinking too much alcohol can raise the level of triglycerides in your blood, which can lead to later issues with clogged arteries. Chronic and heavy use of alcohol can result in high blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for heart attack and stroke.

Alcohol also contains empty calories, and heavy alcohol use can lead to obesity. This can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. When you combine alcohol with other drugs, the risk is elevated.

Red Wine

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports research regarding red wine and increased cardiovascular benefits may reflect the influence of other factors. For instance, drinking red grape juice may also have cardiovascular benefits.

Many of the research studies find that certain genetic and lifestyle factors may provide a better explanation for certain populations that drink red wine and have fewer instances of cardiovascular disease.

AHA does not recommend that people start drinking red wine as a protective factor against heart disease.

Chronic Alcohol Abuse and the Liver

Chronic abuse of alcohol places a heavy burden on the liver. The liver filters out harmful substances from the blood, and it produces bile and other enzymes that are used by the body to ward off infections and to digest food.

When you drink alcohol, the liver prioritizes metabolizing alcohol over every other substance you ingest. Chronic or heavy consumption of alcohol can place a severe burden on the liver.

There are three major types of liver disorders that are related to alcohol abuse.

  • A fatty liver or steatosis is an early stage of an alcohol-related liver disorder characterized by the accumulation of fat inside the cells of the liver. This results in the liver having difficulty performing its functions
  • After steatosis, inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis), may occur. In this stage of liver disease, there is significant cell death in the liver. Symptoms can be variable, including pain, fever, nausea and vomiting, and jaundice
  • The end-stage of alcohol-related liver disorders is alcoholic cirrhosis. This occurs when the cells of the liver have died in significant numbers and are replaced by scar tissue.

Although the noted progression occurs according to the stages above, if you have certain genetic factors, you may not go through the stages as listed; you may skip one of them. People with cirrhosis have a debilitating condition that is often fatal or requires a liver transplant.

In addition, chronic alcohol use can raise the risk for one to develop liver cancer.

The Immune System

The immune system is a very extensive network of structures that protect the body from dangerous organisms and helps in repairing tissue damage associated with infection.

Chronic and heavy alcohol consumption alters the functioning of these cells and structures, and it may even kill existing cells. Chronic alcohol abuse weakens your immune system over the long term. It increases the risk of contracting infections, and it can lead to inflammation in numerous organ systems, which can also increase the risk that you will contract viral or bacterial infections.

Liver damage associated with chronic alcohol abuse can also increase the chances that you will contract many different types of infectious diseases.

The Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system (stomach and intestines) is one of the first systems in the body that is exposed to alcohol when you drink. Chronic abusers of alcohol will often have significant damage to their gastrointestinal system.

Issues that can occur as a result of heavy alcohol abuse include a reduction in the number of beneficial bacteria within the system and an increase in the number of potentially harmful bacteria in the system, lesions in the stomach or intestines, and the development of ulcers.

The Respiratory System

Chronic use of alcohol can damage the lining in the lungs that traps infectious particles before they reach the lungs. This can lead to many respiratory issues, including tuberculosis and other infections.

Other Problems

The effect of alcohol use and abuse on the body may not be a direct result of alcohol interacting with tissues. For instance, chronic abusers of alcohol are far more likely to be divorced, involved in accidents, experience head injuries, and be victims of a crime. These situations can lead to significant distress that can further result in physical issues, such as a weakened immune system and other potential system damage. 

Chronic use of alcohol can also interfere with your desire or ability to maintain personal hygiene or engage in self-care, which can lead to a variety of serious physical issues.

Those who abuse alcohol on a long-term basis are far more likely to have some other co-occurring diagnosable psychiatric issue, which increases the risk for ill health and early mortality.

If you abuse alcohol, seek help. The effects on the body can be widespread and severe.

Sources

(January 2018) Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

(April 2018) How Acute and Chronic Alcohol Consumption Modulate Multiple Neurotransmitter Systems: A Review of Clinical PET Neuroimaging. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Dependence. from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0ab5/8ada0a4743de79bc888e0b2213bf926c8ada.pdf

(April 2018) Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. The Lancet. from https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2818%2930134-X

(April 2019) Alcohol and Heart Health. American Heart Association. from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/alcohol-and-heart-health

(2015) The Immune system. Garland Science. from https://books.google.com/books?id=j0M9uQEACAAJ&dq=The+Immune+system.+Garland+Science&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjz_d3p1IziAhXw01kKHdaVBw4Q6AEILjAB

(February 2015) The gastrointestinal microbiome: Alcohol effects on the composition of intestinal microbiota. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?cmd=search&term=26695747

(2015) Alcohol use as a risk factor in infections and healing: a clinician’s perspective. Alcohol research: Current Reviews. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590615/pdf/arcr-37-2-177.pdf

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