Due to its widespread use and availability, it may be easy to view alcohol as a relatively harmless substance. However, it’s now a well-known fact that heavy drinking has the potential to affect a person’s short-term and long-term health. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making it the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.
This article will help you understand the adverse effects of alcohol use so that you can make an informed decision on your alcohol consumption.
What Is Excessive Drinking?
Although drinks are served in varying quantities, in the United States, one standard drink contains around 14 grams of pure alcohol.
Consuming more than four drinks on any given day or more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than three drinks on any given day or more than seven drinks per week for women is defined as excessive drinking.
Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive drinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting for women and five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting for men.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
The short-term effects of alcohol can be experienced immediately after consuming alcohol. However, the degree to which these effects are felt can be influenced by many factors, such as your age, weight, gender, amounts of alcohol taken, purity of the alcohol consumed, and whether or not you are currently taking any medications.
The short-term effects of alcohol include:
- A feeling of relaxation
- Lowered inhibitions
- Changes in mood
- Slurred speech
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Loss of coordination
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Low body temperature
- Changes in hearing, vision, and perception
- Loss of consciousness or gaps in memory (often called a blackout)
- Alcohol poisoning (potential risk of binge drinking)
Although these acute effects of alcohol do not last long, it doesn’t make them irrelevant. Impulsiveness, loss of coordination, and mood changes can affect your judgment and behavior and lead to more far-reaching consequences, such as accidents, injuries, and risky sexual behaviors.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Excessive drinking over a prolonged period can affect many of the body’s organs and lead to various chronic diseases. Some organs damaged by long-term alcohol consumption include the heart, brain, liver, pancreas, kidney, and digestive system.
Alcohol-Related Cardiovascular Disease
Heart problems are among the many adverse effects associated with heavy drinking. Alcohol can temporarily increase heart rate and blood pressure during consumption. Prolonged exposure to alcohol can damage your heart, arteries, and other blood vessels throughout your body. As a result, increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Long-term adverse effects on the heart include:
- High blood pressure
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)
- Coronary heart disease
- Increased risk of stroke and heart attack
- Heart failure
In addition to these health risks, heavy alcohol consumption can contribute to obesity and other associated health problems.
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Chronic alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on the brain. In the short term, alcohol can impair coordination, balance, speech, and reaction time and even cause memory loss and difficulties in learning. Long-term heavy alcohol consumption can result in dementia and significantly impaired mental functioning.
Heavy alcohol consumption over a prolonged period can lead to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), almost 80% of individuals with an alcohol addiction develop thiamine deficiency. Over time, low thiamine levels can lead to a condition known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder characterized by severe mental confusion, muscular incoordination, and paralysis of the nerves that control the eye or problems with eye movement.
About 80-90% of alcohol-dependent individuals who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a severe condition characterized by persistent cognitive issues, including forgetfulness and an inability to form new memories. Alcohol-dependent individuals with Korsakoff’s psychosis may also experience muscle coordination and walking issues.
Heavy alcohol use can also alter brain chemistry, leading to a spectrum of mood disorders, including euphoria, depression, and mania. These effects are the result of alcohol interfering with the brain’s communication channels and altering the structure and function of the brain.
Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
The liver performs vital functions in the body, including facilitating the digestion of food and removal of waste from the body. It’s also responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. As such, it’s one of the organs most affected by chronic alcohol consumption. Long-term alcohol use can lead to various liver diseases.
The four main stages of alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) include:
- Fatty liver (alcoholic steatohepatitis) – is the most common form of alcohol-related liver disease, which develops as fat builds up in the liver tissue. It can occur in anyone who drinks alcohol regularly. Although alcoholic steatohepatitis is often asymptomatic, it may be accompanied by elevated liver enzymes, fatigue, and the beginning of liver enlargement.
- Alcoholic hepatitis – With continued drinking, alcoholic steatohepatitis can progress to hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that can lead to liver cell damage or death. Signs and symptoms may include pain, weakness, nausea, fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, jaundice, and abdominal distension due to fluid buildup.
- Fibrosis – Persistent inflammation, or hepatitis, sends constant signals to repair cells to continue depositing collagen. The excess collagen stiffens around the tissue, as it should in a healthy liver. However, instead of a signal being released to stop the inflammation and discard the excess collagen, the inflammation persists, and even more, collagen is deposited, resulting in further stiffening. This is the progression of fibrosis.
- Cirrhosis – is the most severe form of liver disease, marked by an abundance of scar tissue in the liver and loss of liver function. Individuals with cirrhosis may show all symptoms of hepatitis, along with a scarred, shrunken liver, enlarged spleen, intestinal bleeding, worsening jaundice, confusion, portal hypertension, and fluid retention in the abdomen. Although most damage from cirrhosis is permanent, some are reversible if the individual stops drinking completely.
Individuals with liver disease are at an increased risk of developing liver cancer. Cirrhosis patients are more likely to develop cancer, severe infections, and renal problems.
In addition to liver disease, individuals can also develop pancreatitis from excessive alcohol intake. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, characterized by nausea, vomiting, constant, severe abdominal pain, and swelling. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic, and the most severe cases of acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening.
Alcohol-Related Kidney Disease
Kidneys are designed to filter out waste and regulate the water levels in the body. Chronic alcohol consumption can damage the kidneys and reduce their efficiency. Kidney damage can also occur due to long-standing high blood pressure caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol consumption. Exceeding two drinks per day can result in elevated blood pressure.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle tissue into the bloodstream. If left untreated, the large muscle proteins that seep into the bloodstream due to rhabdomyolysis can result in kidney damage and failure. Furthermore, as liver and kidney health are interconnected, liver cirrhosis due to excessive alcohol use can also lead to kidney failure.
Alcohol-Related Digestive Disorders
Excessive alcohol intake can damage the tissues in your digestive tract and prevent your intestines from digesting food and absorbing adequate nutrients and vitamins. Over time, this can cause malnutrition. The lining of the stomach can also become inflamed due to heavy drinking, causing nausea, belching, heartburn, and bloating. When the lining of the duodenum (part of the small intestine) becomes inflamed, it can cause gas, pain, burning or cramping in the stomach, nausea, and vomiting.
Weakened Immune System
Excessive alcohol use can weaken the immune system, making the body more prone to diseases. Long-term effects of alcohol abuse can impair the body’s ability to create antibodies, which are necessary for combating infections. As a result, heavy drinkers are more likely to contract diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis than the general population. Excessive drinking on a single occasion (binge drinking) can slow down the body’s ability to ward off infections, at least for up to 24 hours after alcohol intoxication.
Increased Risk of Cancer
Long-term effects of alcohol can increase your risk of developing several types of cancer. The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. Therefore the more ethanol a person regularly consumes, the higher their risk of developing cancer.
However, even those who consume no more than one drink per day and binge drink have a considerably increased risk of cancer. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the U.S. (about 19,500 deaths) were related to alcohol abuse.
Types of cancer linked to alcohol use are:
- Head and neck cancer, including oral cavity, larynx, and pharynx cancers.
- Esophageal cancer, especially esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. (People who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that processes alcohol have been found to have a significantly increased risk for esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume alcohol.)
- Liver cancer.
- Breast cancer. (Studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer in women who partake in heavy alcohol use. Women who regularly consume one standard drink have a 5-9% higher chance of developing breast cancer than those who do not.)
- Colorectal cancer
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Another possible long-term effect of excessive alcohol consumption is alcohol use disorder. Individuals who drink heavily may eventually develop a tolerance to alcohol. As a result, they may need increasing doses of alcohol to achieve their desired effect. This may eventually lead to a dependence on alcohol.
Signs of alcohol addiction include the following:
- Finding it difficult to control their drinking habits
- Continuing to drink despite the negative effects it has on one’s health, personal, professional, and social life
- Wanting to cut back or quit alcohol consumption but finding it difficult to do so
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Preferring to drink over engaging in other activities or hobbies
- Staying isolated from family and friends
- Spending a considerable amount of time using and recovering from alcohol
- Having uncontrollable cravings for alcohol
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
Individuals with alcohol use disorder may also experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit or reduce their alcohol use abruptly. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can range from mild to severe and can be highly unpredictable. Hence, individuals who wish to quit their alcohol consumption are advised to seek professional help.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
The first step in alcohol addiction treatment is medical detoxification. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening and, thus, should always be done under the supervision and care of medical professionals. Once an individual has successfully detoxed from alcohol, they can follow an inpatient or outpatient treatment program to address the root causes of addiction and master the tools and strategies needed to lead a healthier, more productive life.
Individuals may also be advised to engage in alcohol addiction support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as part of the treatment program. Support groups help those in recovery find fellowship and support from others in similar situations.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, contact Futures Recovery Healthcare today to learn more about available treatment options. We offer onsite medical detox as well as evidence-based treatment options. Instead of a one–size–fits–all approach to addiction treatment, we strive to make personalized treatment a key factor in improving our patients’ physical and mental health.