Excessive alcohol consumption can cause a range of negative long-term and short-term effects. Short-term effects include temporary symptoms, while long-term effects include hypertension, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive issues, certain types of cancer, and various mental health disorders.
The brain is the first organ that alcohol damages, followed by the kidneys, lungs, and liver. How much damage alcohol does to your body depends on how much you drink, your drinking habits, and the length of abuse. In addition to these factors, your body type, weight, age, genetics, nutritional state, metabolism, and social factors also play a role in how alcohol affects your body.
Alcohol Effects on the Brain
The frontal lobes, cerebellum, and medulla oblongata are regions of the brain most impacted by alcohol. While the frontal lobes control judgment, emotion, and behavior, the cerebellum and medulla control movement and coordination. These regions of the brain may be harmed by excessive alcohol consumption, leading to a variety of impairments.
Short-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Difficulty walking
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Slowed reaction time
- Impaired memory
Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Memory loss
- Problems with learning
- Severely hindered mental functioning
- Brain shrinkage
- Loss of grey matter
- Loss of white matter
Adolescent brains are more susceptible to alcohol’s detrimental effects than adult brains. Abuse of alcohol during adolescence can alter brain development, resulting in abnormal brain function and structure. Cognitive deficits progress over time without appropriate treatment and may eventually lead to long-term disorders such as alcohol-related dementia.
Alcohol Effects on the Heart
Chronic alcohol consumption has complex effects on cardiovascular health. It can weaken your heart and narrow your arteries, making it more difficult for blood to be pumped and flow. The same pressure can induce blood clots, resulting in strokes and brain damage.
Short-term effects of alcohol on the heart include:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Drop in body temperature
- Flushing of the skin (due to blood vessels beneath the skin dilating)
Long-term effects of alcohol on the heart include:
- High blood pressure
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Heart failure
- Increased risk of peripheral arterial disease
Binge drinking can increase triglyceride (a type of fat found in your blood). High levels of triglycerides can lead to long-term effects such as coronary heart disease.
All levels of alcohol consumption increase the risk of stroke and are responsible for both acute and chronic cardiovascular symptoms.
Alcohol Effects on the Kidney
Long-term alcohol use can negatively affect kidney function. Alcohol can affect the hormonal processes that regulate kidney function, increasing the risk of developing liver disease. This increases the strain on the kidneys and can eventually cause liver and kidney damage. Long-term alcohol use can also impair the kidney’s ability to filter blood and regulate fluid and electrolytes. Additionally, alcohol dehydrates the body, disrupting the normal function of cells and organs, including the kidneys.
Alcohol Effects on the Liver
Heavy drinkers face a higher risk of developing life-threatening liver disease. The liver breaks down most of the alcohol so it can be eliminated from the body. This process creates chemicals that are more toxic than alcohol and can cause damage to liver cells and inflammatory changes in the liver.
Liver diseases associated with alcohol abuse include:
- Steatosis (fatty liver)
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver cancer
Although the liver can regenerate and develop new cells, heavy alcohol consumption for a long period of time can reduce this ability, resulting in impaired liver function and liver failure.
Alcohol Effects on the Lungs
Heavy drinking can negatively impact the lungs, increasing the risk of several pulmonary diseases. High levels of alcohol consumption can impair the immune system that protects the lungs and keeps them healthy, making it more difficult for the lungs to fight off infections. Chronic alcohol consumption has also been linked to a progressive loss in total lung capacity and an increase in residual volume (the air left in your lungs after exhaling).
Individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) have an increased risk of developing:
- Tuberculosis (TB)
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
Alcohol Effects on the Immune System
Binge drinking can weaken the immune system, making the body prone to disease. The immune system is an intricate network of molecules, cells, tissues, and organs responsible for defending the body against infectious agents and malignant cells. Both moderate drinking and heavy drinking can significantly impair the immune system.
Alcohol Effects on the Stomach
Alcohol can cause several stomach issues, including acid reflux, heartburn, gastritis, and an increased risk of bacterial infection. Additionally, alcohol can increase the quantity of stomach acid, leading to irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining.
The short-term effects of alcohol on the stomach include:
- Destruction of beneficial gut bacteria
- Increase in acid production
- Intestinal bleeding
The Long-term effects of alcohol on the stomach include:
- Appetite loss
- Various digestive issues
- Disruption in stomach-lining mucus (leading to inflammation)
Alcohol Effects on the Pancreas
Excessive drinking can increase the risk of pancreatitis, a potentially fatal inflammation, and scarring of the pancreas that is extremely painful. Chronic alcohol intake raises cholesteryl esters and fatty acids in the pancreas, which may result in cell digestion. Heavy drinking can trigger repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis, which, over time, can result in irreversible pancreatic damage and chronic pancreatitis.
Additionally, alcohol can enhance the pancreatic synthesis of toxic secretions, resulting in chronic inflammation. This increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer over time.
Alcohol is one of the most common, preventable causes of cancer, next to tobacco and obesity. A person’s risk of developing alcohol-related cancer increases proportionally with the amount and duration of alcohol abuse. Even those who consume no more than one drink per day (moderate drinking) and binge drinkers (consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more for males in one session) have an increased risk of developing certain cancers. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), alcohol abuse accounts for around 6% of all cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths in the United States.
The most common alcohol-related cancers include:
- Mouth cancer
- Throat cancer (pharynx)
- Voice box cancer (larynx)
- Esophageal cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Bowel cancer
According to studies released by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), alcohol intake is also connected with an increased risk of melanoma, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Alcohol increases the risk of these cancers by harming cells and reducing the body’s ability to repair DNA damage.
Alcohol and Weight Gain
Alcoholic beverages are heavy in calories, which can affect your weight. Fat, particularly in men, tends to accumulate in the abdomen, and abdominal fat is more harmful than other fats. It can crush your organs and unleash toxic compounds into your blood, resulting in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even dementia.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol addiction or dependence, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. We are specialized in medical care for adults with alcohol use disorder, substance use disorders, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Futures embraces the complexity of behavioral healthcare to empower recovery for patients and families. We offer various addiction and individualized treatment options and wellness programs, including inpatient detox, residential treatment with specialized treatment tracks, and outpatient management services.