Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed substances in the world, with millions of people drinking it on a daily basis all across the globe. The consumption of alcohol can have a wide-ranging effect on one’s health and well-being, even when consumed in moderation. Social acceptance and legality have perpetuated an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in our society for many years. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 85.6 percent of people aged 18 and above have consumed alcoholic beverages at some point during their lives.
The effects of alcohol on the body start the moment you have your first sip. Although a glass of wine at dinner isn’t a cause for concern, the harmful effects of drinking over a prolonged period can adversely affect an individual’s overall physical and psychological health. The effects of alcohol can vary from one person to another, depending on several factors. However, the long-term risks remain the same.
Even though most people are aware of the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, not everyone is aware of how to differentiate between moderate drinking and heavy drinking.
Defining Drinking Habits
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), One “standard” drink in the United States contains approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol. Other alcoholic beverages include:
- 12 ounces of standard beer contains an alcohol content of five percent.
- Five ounces of wine contains an alcohol content of 12 percent.
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits contains approximately 40 percent of alcohol.
To limit the risks of drinking, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less a day for men and one drink or less a day for women.
Excessive drinking habits such as binge drinking or heavy drinking increase the risk of adverse effects. Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly form of excessive drinking in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is defined as consuming:
- Four or more drinks within two hours for women.
- Five or more drinks within two hours for men.
Heavy drinking is defined as consuming:
- Eight or more drinks per week for women.
- 15 or more drinks per week for men.
While not all heavy drinkers suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD), it significantly increases their risk factor over time. Excessive drinking cost the United States $249 billion in 2010. These costs resulted from loss of productivity, health care expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses.
Blood Alcohol Content and Effects
Although there is no widely accepted definition for what constitutes “safe” drinking, the metric used to measure alcohol in the body helps determine moderate drinking habits from excessive drinking habits based on the wide range of symptoms experienced.
Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) refers to blood alcohol concentration in an individual’s body. A person’s BAC level is not only affected by how much they drink but also by other factors such as:
- Body Weight
- Mixers used in the drink
- Amount of time in which drinks are consumed
- Water composition
- Enzyme production and levels
- Medications consumed before or during the time of drinking
- Food in the stomach
The intensity and severity of side effects depend on a person’s BAC level. Lower BAC is associated with temporary effects that subside after a few hours. And higher BAC levels can cause severe and, in some instances, fatal conditions.
Here’s a breakdown of various BAC levels and their associated effects:
BAC of 0.033 to 0.12 percent:
- Decreased anxiety
- Flushing of the face
- Improvement in mood
- Higher self-confidence
- Impairment of judgment
- Shorter attention span
- Lack of fine motor coordination
BAC of 0.09 to 0.25 percent:
- Delayed reaction times
- Difficulty balancing and ataxia
- Loss of memory and lack of comprehension
- Blurred vision and sensation impairment
BAC of 0.25 to 0.40 percent:
- Staggering gait
- In and out of consciousness or complete unconsciousness
- Incontinence of urination
- Slowed heart rate
- Aspirating vomit
- Respiratory depression
BAC of 0.35 to 0.80 percent:
- Life-threatening respiratory depression
- Severe decrease in heart rate
- Lack of pupillary response to light
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Even if an individual does not regularly drink, they can still experience its short-term effects on the body and mind. The liver metabolizes one standard drink an hour. And drinking more will typically result in intoxication.
The short-term effects of drinking can range from mild symptoms like skin flushing to severe symptoms such as blackouts or vomiting. Other short-term effects include:
- Dulled perception
- Mood swings
- Reduced core body temperature
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of critical judgment
- Raised blood pressure
- Lowered inhibitions
- Trouble concentrating
- Irregular heartbeat
Other Risks of Excessive Drinking
Excessive alcohol consumption has immediate consequences that raise the risk of a variety of complications. The following are some of the most common risks of excessive drinking:
- Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
- Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex, unintended pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases.
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol syndrome.
Long-Term Physical Health Effects of Alcohol
Long-term consumption of alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and around 88,000 deaths in the U.S each year. Heavy drinking over a prolonged period can lead to alcohol dependence, tolerance, and AUD. It can also cause a wide range of physical and psychological health complications that can sometimes be irreversible. The long term effects of chronic alcohol consumption include:
- Alcoholic liver disease (alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, or liver damage)
- Cardiomyopathy or damage to the heart muscle
- Heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Stomach ulcers
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Cancer (throat, breast, mouth, larynx, liver, colorectal, or esophageal cancer)
- Immune system dysfunction
- Brain and nerve damage
- Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome
Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain
If difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed response times, and impaired memory is anything to go by, drinking clearly affects the brain. Any of these impairments can be detected after one or two drinks and gradually disappear once drinking stops. An individual who drinks excessively over a long period of time, on the other hand, can develop brain deficits that last long after achieving sobriety. The exact effects of alcohol on the brain and the possibility of reversing the effects of heavy drinking on the brain are still key issues of alcohol studies today.
What is clear is that heavy drinking can have a wide range of effects on the brain, ranging from minor memory lapses to chronic and debilitating disorders requiring lifelong treatment. And, as comprehensive studies on drinking and driving have shown, even mild drinking causes short-term impairment.
The manner and degree to which drinking affects the brain are influenced by a variety of factors, including:
- How much and how often a person drinks.
- The age at which they first began drinking and how long they have been drinking.
- The person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of AUD.
- Prenatal exposure.
- General health status.
Long-Term Psychological Effects of Alcohol
The brain depends on a delicate chemical equilibrium to perform its functions. Alcohol is a CNS depressant, which disrupts this balance and affects our behaviors, emotions, feelings, and long-term mental well-being. Prolonged drinking can hinder the natural production of chemicals in the brain and cause it to depend on the effects of alcohol instead.
Studies indicate a close association between mental health disorders and AUD. Individuals with mental health disorders are known to self-medicate through drinking, and those with AUD are known to experience mental health disorders over time. This vicious cycle exasperates the situation and causes further harm to a person’s psychological health. The psychiatric disorders which are associated with chronic alcohol abuse include:
- Major depression
- Certain anxiety disorders
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Personality disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and ideation
- Neurologic deficits (impairments of working memory, emotions, executive functions, and visuospatial abilities)
- Brain damage
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning, also known as alcohol overdose, is a serious condition caused by excessive drinking over a short period of time. The toxic level of alcohol in the bloodstream affects and shuts down regions of the brain that regulate essential life-support processes, such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. Some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Cyanosis or blue-tinted skin
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pale skin
- Low body temperature or hypothermia
Alcohol poisoning can result in a coma, brain injury, and death in most serious cases. If you suspect someone with this condition, dial 911 immediately. Individuals experiencing this condition must never be left unattended till help arrives.
What Is a Hangover?
A hangover is a set of uncomfortable signs and symptoms generally experiences after a night of heavy drinking. While most symptoms dissipate within a few hours, some can last for up to 24 hours. Hangovers usually appear when BAC drops to zero or close to zero. This causes dehydration and blood vessels in the body and brain to expand. Some of the symptoms of a hangover include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Excessive thirst and dry mouth
- Headaches and muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
- Poor or decreased sleep
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Mood disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Rapid heartbeat
Doctors recommend not drinking again within 48 hours of heavy drinking to allow the body to recover. Since some of the symptoms of a hangover closely resemble withdrawal symptoms, it’s vital to monitor your condition. If the symptoms persist longer, seek assistance and guidance from a health care provider or addiction specialist.
What Is Alcohol Intolerance?
Alcohol intolerance occurs when your body lacks the enzymes necessary to metabolize the toxins found in the alcoholic beverage, and causing you to feel ill shortly after drinking. An allergic reaction to a grain such as corn, wheat, rye, or another ingredient in the alcoholic drink can also cause such reactions. Symptoms of alcohol intolerance can include:
- Facial flushing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Worsening of asthma
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Migraines, fatigue, and other hangover-like symptoms
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms. While there is no cure for this condition, avoiding alcoholic beverages can help you stay symptom-free.
Alcohol is a powerful chemical that can have a wide range of adverse effects on almost every part of your body. While moderate drinking can cause short-term effects on the brain and body, the long-term effects of chronic drinking can increase the risk of liver diseases, the risk of heart diseases, the risk of cancers, and mental health disorders. While some of these damages can be reversed through abstinence, others are life-long conditions that can drastically shorten your life span and quality of life.
If you or someone you love requires help with AUD, substance dependence, and mental health conditions, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here for you. We provide the highest level of care through highly qualified addiction specialists and counselors to help you on your journey to recovery.