Today, there are so many choices of alcoholic beverages. From red wine and hard seltzers to craft beers and flavored liquors, there is a type of alcoholic drink to please everyone’s palettes. And what may seem to be an innocuous drink, dressed up in an appealing container with accompanying images of good times with friends or loved ones, can actually be dangerous to your health.
Our society and culture tend to romanticize alcohol and all that comes with it. We are bombarded with advertisements on television, online, and everywhere you look with images of happy, beautiful, carefree people drinking alcoholic beverages. However, for many who have developed a dependence on alcohol, this picture is far from what the reality of consuming alcohol is.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in 2017 more than 86% of adults in the United States reported consuming alcohol in their lifetime. What’s more, almost 55% of these respondents reported drinking alcohol in the last month. But how many of these millions of Americans are simply having fun and how many have crossed the line into problem drinking?
The NIAAA reports that in 2019, there were nearly 15 million people over the age of 12 in the U.S who had an alcohol use disorder or AUD. Of that number, about 9 million were male and about 5.5 million female. That’s a lot of people suffering from addiction to alcohol. Some of these individuals may be ‘down and out’, some may be struggling to get through day to day and keep their drinking ‘under control’, and still for others, they may be functioning at very high levels hiding their alcohol issues from loved ones.
But no matter where you (or a loved one) are when it comes to living with an AUD, there is help and hope. The first step is to admit and realize you may have an issue, then seek help. And while the reasons to stop drinking alcohol when it becomes a dependency are many, most people don’t seek help until there are serious issues occurring from drinking alcohol.
However, many people don’t realize the serious issues going on in the body. For many who have an AUD, the body continues to work well for many years. For others, the body begins to show signs of distress earlier on. Either way, it’s vital to understand how alcohol and health are connected.
Let’s take a look at some startling facts when it comes to alcohol use disorder and health consequences. The NIAAA reports the following:
- Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S with 95,000 alcohol-related fatalities occurring annually.
- Alcohol-related Emergency Room visits average about 210,000 annually
- Alcohol-attributable death leading causes between 2011 and 2015 due to chronic conditions were the following
- Liver disease
- Heart disease and stroke
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Upper digestive tract cancers
- Liver cancer
- Cardiac dysrhythmias
- Breast cancer
- Alcohol plays a role in 18.5% of all ER visits
- Alcohol contributes to 22.1% of all opioid-related deaths
- Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for more than 10,000 deaths per year
These statistics are staggering. For many who have an AUD, denial runs high. When faced with such statistics, thinking ‘that won’t happen to me’ or ‘I’m not that bad’ or similar rationalizations are often the first thought. However, it’s important to realize that many of these individuals who ended up with these diseases or issues from alcohol never thought they too would experience them.
And while these statistics certainly speak to the extreme impacts of alcohol and health, there are more issues that occur in the body before one realizes it. It’s important to understand what these are too. Many people also don’t realize that alcohol affects people’s bodies in different ways. In addition, there are certain groups, such as women, who are more susceptible to the negative impacts of alcohol on health than others.
Alcohol and The Body
The way alcohol impacts everyone’s body is different based on certain facts. Some of these are:
- How much alcohol is consumed
- How often alcohol is consumed
- Age alcohol was first consumed
- Age of individual
- Health status of individual
- Family history of alcohol abuse issues
Some of the immediate issues with alcohol and health are:
- Memory loss or blackouts
- Slurred speech
- Motor and mobility issues
- Compromised inhibitions
- Slowed breathing
Then there’s the ‘hangover’ and associated physical symptoms. Some of these most commonly are:
- Muscle aches
- Excessive thirst
- Nausea and stomach pain
- Increased blood pressure
- Sensitivity to lights and sounds
- Excessive sweating
- Anxiety and irritability
As you can see some of these are quite serious, while others are often considered to be simply a part of drinking. However, many of these are signs of a more serious issue with alcohol consumption.
Let’s look a bit closer at alcohol and health. The consumption of alcohol is particularly impactful on certain parts of the body. These are the brain, vital organs, and immune system. In addition, alcoholic drinking has been shown through numerous studies to be associated with several types of cancers.
While the immediate effects of alcohol on the brain have been discussed above, it’s important to take a look at the long-term impact. Alcohol immediately impacts the brain when consumed. Not only does it increase the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) it also suppresses the activity of certain neurons. When heavy drinking continues for a period of time there are certain changes in the brain, some of which may be irreversible and lead to lifetime disabilities.
From long-term memory loss to what was once referred to as having a ‘wet brain’ alcohol and health of the brain—both long and short-term are important to understand. Long-term and/or heavy drinking can result in permanent changes in the brain.
Here are some of them:
- Development of learning issues
- Onset of ongoing memory issues
- Shrinkage of the brain (indicating brain damage)
- Development of alcohol-related dementia
- Increase in mental health issues
- Decrease in circulation to the brain
According to research, about 80% of those who have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) also have a deficiency in thiamine. For some, this will lead to a serious brain condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome which was formerly referred to as having a ‘wet brain’. In this syndrome, there are two parts; encephalopathy and psychosis—both serious and often irreversible.
Many people are aware of the issues that heavy alcohol consumption causes to the liver. However, alcohol consumption in heavy amounts over long periods of time can have detrimental impacts on other organs of the body.
One of these organs is the heart. Both long-term drinking and drinking large quantities of alcohol on one occasion can cause serious problems with the heart. The most common issues with alcohol and the health of the brain are:
- Stretched and droopy heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias)
- High blood pressure
In addition to the heart, the pancreas is often negatively impacted by alcohol resulting in pancreatitis. With this condition, alcohol makes the pancreas produce toxic substances causing swelling and inflammation in the blood vessels in the pancreas impacting digestion and more.
As mentioned, the liver is commonly associated with issues as a result of heavy drinking. And while cirrhosis is the most commonly known, the following are also serious issues:
- Fatty liver or steatosis
Each of these impacts the ability of the liver to perform its vital job of regulating chemicals in the blood and ridding the body of wastes.
Not only does drinking alcohol have a negative effect on the immune system over time, drinking large quantities of alcohol on even one occasion can compromise the immune system for up to 24 hours later.
Long-term drinking weakens the immune system and leaves individuals more susceptible to contracting various diseases. From the common cold and flu to more serious conditions like pneumonia and tuberculosis (TB), alcohol makes it hard for the body to protect itself against these illnesses.
This is one reason why some treatment centers offer nutritional counseling, exercise, and put a focus on establishing healthy habits to help the body repair and protect itself.
As mentioned, alcohol has been shown to be associated with certain cancers. Some of these were discussed above, however, in addition to liver and breast cancer they also include:
- Head and neck cancers
- Esophageal cancer
- Colorectal cancer
It’s important to note that recent research has shown that women are more susceptible to many of these conditions than their male counterparts. In fact, even when taking into consideration the same amount, types, and frequency of alcohol consumed, when it comes to alcohol and health women seem to suffer more.
According to the NIAAA, women with fewer years of heavy drinking than men have higher rates of:
- Heart muscle damage
- Nerve damage to the heart
Overall, many of the negative consequences of alcohol on health are seen sooner in women than their male counterparts.
Additionally, it’s crucial to understand that for youth and young adults whose brains and bodies aren’t fully developed, the impact of alcohol and health can be more severe too and result in long-term issues.
The Body Repairs, Health is Restored
While it’s vitally important to know how alcohol and health are related, it’s equally important to understand that for most individuals when drinking alcohol stops, the body begins to repair and heal. This is dependent on various factors, but for most, it does happen with time.
Many who have come into treatment for alcohol issues are battered, beaten, tired, and sickly. For many, after just 30, 60, or 90 days of not drinking and focusing on developing healthy nutritional habits and coping skills, their health begins to improve.
If you or a loved one are concerned about a problem with drinking alcohol Futures can help. Many on our team are in recovery themselves and know first-hand how hard it can be to stop drinking. Our highly-dedicated and extensively trained staff go above and beyond to help each person who walks through our doors get the tools needed to begin the road of recovery.
One of the things that make Futures unique and sought-after is our extensive alumni program. Once you complete clinical treatment at Futures you are welcomed into our vibrant and active alumni family.
When it comes to recovery from alcohol or another substance, you don’t have to go it alone. Futures is here for you—not only to get you started but years to come. We look forward to helping you or a loved one get started. Call us at 866-804-2098