The Ultimate Guide to the Effects of Alcohol
If you have been drinking heavily for a while or binge drinking – being unable to set a limit, you know how it affects you e.g. hang-overs and feeling low. But do you really understand the impacts alcohol is having on you internally, on your organs and the diseases it may be causing?
Well, in this detailed article you will find out. was written exclusively for me by a Doctor – who studied at Oxford University in the UK and then got her MD qualification at Brown Medical School in the US. This is high quality information you are about to read.
Alcohol abuse causes multiple medical problems, recognizing alcohol dependency and finding prompt treatment can reduce associated diseases and death toll. According to the World Health Organization, 60 diseases are reportedly associated with alcohol use and this article will explain the most important and the most common of those diseases.
Alcohol by the numbers:
1. 80,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are due to excessive drinking according to the Center for Disease Control.
2. Alcohol use is the 3rd leading cause of lifestyle-related deaths (after smoking and obesity)
3. The economic costs associated with alcohol abuse are estimated at $223.5 billion a year.
How can alcohol cause so many diseases? Alcohol does not need to be digested, unlike food, so it is absorbed rapidly in the stomach and the small intestines. What makes alcohol unique is its ability to enter most cells in the body and makes it possible for alcohol to reach nearly every organ, ultimately having negative effects on each of them. Once in the bloodstream, it reaches its peak concentration 20 to 60 minutes after ingestion and starts acting immediately, having the effects we will see below.
Alcohol and Your Brain
Why does drinking make you feel good and why is it hard to stop? Why do you experience slurred speech, delayed reaction time, trouble walking, blackouts and memory loss when you get drunk?
Once in the brain, alcohol triggers the release of “feel good” substances known as “Endorphins”. Endorphins are normally produced by brain cells and usually released whenever you are enjoying a pleasurable activity like after a nice meal with friends, a productive work out or after sexual activity…
However alcohol can cheat the system and stimulate your brain to release those same endorphins from areas of the brain responsible for general planning and reward. This tells your brain that it is enjoying what you are doing and it would like to be “rewarded” again the same way in the future. That is the reason why it is hard to stop drinking.
As for the area of the brain responsible for planning, have you ever noticed how drinkers think that they can still perform regular activities although they are clearly intoxicated? That is because when that area of the brain is affected by alcohol, it gives you the false sense that you can still plan and execute your actions normally.
What Happens Next
In the brain, alcohol acts as a nervous system depressant much like medications that have relaxing properties such as Xanax. This explains the feeling of relaxation associated with the first few drinks, the initial sensation of warmth, happiness…
As alcohol levels increase so do euphoria, poor judgment, slurred speech, decreased reaction time and reflexes, difficulty walking. In high doses, coma can occur because the body is not able to keep breathing on its own and that can eventually lead to death. Basically all the muscles of your body are too relaxed and the breathing muscles cannot contract enough to keep you breathing normally.
The Withdrawal Issues
When chronic drinkers stop drinking suddenly, it has the reverse effect because the brain does not receive those “relaxing signals” anymore. The brain goes into overstimulation and people experience opposite symptoms during withdrawal: tremors, anxiety, jitteriness, hallucinations and seizures. Think of it like the lid over a pan with boiling water, once you stop drinking, it is comparable to the protecting lid being taken away and water boiling over.
Have you ever wondered why drinking keeps you full? It’s because alcohol contains 7gm of calories which gives energy as well as a false sense of fullness. Therefore alcoholics are usually malnourished, they specifically do not have enough vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and vitamin B12. Vitamin B1 is important because it is needed for most tissues in the body and the brain. Lack of vitamin B1 lead to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome presents with the following symptoms: confusion, difficulty with coordination and difficulty with eye movements at first. For example affected people will have difficulty finding their way out of a room. This can be treated by improving diet to include food rich in vitamin B1 such as meat, poultry, soy beans. If left untreated, symptoms progress to increased forgetfulness, difficulty walking and difficulty remembering old and very recent events. In its most severe form, permanent brain damage can occur.
Why do alcoholics develop this syndrome? As stated above, they often lack vitamin B1 in their diet. There is an area of the brain called the cerebellum which is sensitive to low vitamin B1. The cerebellum is responsible for movement coordination and some forms of learning.
Alcohol and Your Liver
The effects of alcohol on liver are well known but how does alcohol cause liver cirrhosis or liver failure?
The role of the liver is to break down (metabolize) food and drinks into energy and nutrients. Additionally the liver clears harmful substances from the body.
Fatty liver : The liver prefers to break down free fat first except when alcohol is present. In that case, alcohol is broken down first while large amounts of fatty acids accumulate. Alcohol processing is toxic to liver cells and they become less efficient at getting rid of fatty acids. That fat accumulates, explaining why chronic drinkers develop fatty livers. Fatty liver is the first stage of liver disease.
Liver fibrosis: With persistent drinking, the liver is not able to keep up with the amount of alcohol ingested. Cells die and form scaring tissue or fibrosis, which is the second stage of liver disease. If alcohol intake stops, the scaring is still reversible otherwise the final stage of liver disease is cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis: It is the third and final stage of liver disease. It is irreversible and can lead to liver failure. However, stopping drinking at that point can prevent more damage in the future.
Nutritional deficiencies: They happen because alcohol gives you a false sense of fullness as explained above. Drinkers are also malnourished because their liver is scarred and cannot break down food normally, which leads to many nutritional deficiencies. This can cause, among other problems, nerve damage (neuropathy ) characterized by painful or decreased sensations in the arms and legs as well as numbness, difficulty containing urine or stools, difficulty keeping an erection.
Potential Issues When Taking Medication
Another important thing to keep in mind is that more harm can be done by also taking medications like Tylenol ( Acetaminophen). Tylenol is very toxic to the liver and is present in a fair number of over-the-counter medications such as cough syrup, cold tablets, flu medicines. Drinking and adding any of those medications greatly increases the risk of liver failure.
Why does your doctor ask you not to drink alcohol when you are taking medications? Because as seen above, alcohol causes the liver to work faster than usual. While doing this, it causes the liver to process some other medications too fast for them to have time to work in the body.
That is the case for many antibiotics so you may not get rid of an infection if you drink at the same time. Contraception may not be as effective and this leads to unwanted pregnancies. If you are taking anti-seizure medications, they may not be effective which puts you at risk of having seizures. Those are just a few examples.
Alcohol and Your Heart
Alcohol is bad for your heart they say… But how?
Drinking makes the blood more likely to form clots. Those clots can get lodged in the blood vessels of your heart causing heart attacks.
Enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy):
Alcohol can cause your heart to become abnormally large. It stretches your heart muscles until they become weak and eventually unable to perform they job and maintain normal heart beating.
An enlarged heart can also cause irregular heart rhythms because those stretched muscles become somewhat unstable. Those abnormal heart rhythms are called atrial and ventricular fibrillation. The heart is composed of 2 small upper chambers (the atria) and 2 large lower chambers (the ventricles).
Atrial fibrillation affects the upper chambers of the heart which start beating in a disorganized manner, this causes blood pooling and blood clots. Those blood clots again can get lodged in the arteries of the heart itself causing heart attacks, in the lungs causing difficulty breathing or go from the heart to the brain to cause strokes.
In the same way, ventricular fibrillation happens when the 2 lower chambers (main pumping chambers) beat in a disorganized manner, leading to decreased blood flow to the brain and rapid loss of consciousness. This can be fatal if immediate assistance is not provided.
Drinking can disrupt the part of the nervous system that controls blood pressure (sympathetic nervous system). This disruption leads to high blood pressure (hypertension).
Alcohol and Other Effects On Your Body
Did you know that alcohol can affect your lungs too?
When you drink, you start feeling relaxed because alcohol acts very much like a muscle relaxant such as Xanax (refer to the brain section above). It relaxes all the muscles of the body including the muscles in your throat which explains why people snore more often when they are drunk.
Because they are too relaxed, those muscles are not able to do their job properly and prevent saliva from going down to your lungs. Saliva contains many bacteria from our mouth, once it is allowed to go down to the lungs, those bacteria start to multiply and can cause pneumonia. That’s why alcohol drinkers are more likely to get a specific type of pneumonia called “Aspiration pneumonia.”
Drinking causes inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). Long-term pancreatitis disrupts digestion causing chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea. Chronic pancreatitis is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer which the 4th most common cancer in the U.S.
Alcohol decreases the number of red blood cells available to carry oxygen leading to anemia. A decrease in oxygen leads to fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness.
Drinking causes internal bleeding by damaging the lining of the stomach but also the lining of the esophagus. Because of this, it is not unusual for alcoholics to vomit blood.
The immune system can be weakened by alcohol, increasing the likelihood of infections such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS.
Links to cancer
The most significant long-term effect of alcohol is its link to various cancers. Alcohol is broken down into acetaldehyde which causes cancer (it is a carcinogen) and the most common cancers related to drinking include stomach, pancreas, liver, breast, mouth, esophagus. Alcohol has been clearly shown to be linked to head and neck cancers, especially for people who are also smokers.
Psychological effects of alcohol are not negligible: linked to depression, increased risk of suicide and increased risk of additional drug abuse. Additionally alcoholism affects social life, family, leads to lost work time, violence, automobile accidents among other accidents.
Women who drink while pregnant put their children at risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Alcohol affects every organ in the body in almost every negative way possible. It is important to keep those effects in mind when considering your next glass of wine because the effects will go way beyond the hangover.