The Truth About Alcohol
The Price of Cocktails Is Even Higher Than You Think
The subject of drinking alcohol stirs up passion in many people: They either love it or they’ve sworn off of it, while many simply enjoy the occasional happy hour to socialize and unwind. But what does an excessive amount of alcohol actually do to your body?
It’s important to note the effects of alcohol vary from person to person. Many people associate modest amounts of alcohol with confidence and a warm, buzzy feeling. But the short-term effects of overindulgence may include drowsiness, slurring of speech, poor coordination, nausea, vomiting, speech impairment, lack of judgment, blackouts, and possible emotional changes along with a painful morning-after hangover. And the truth is, most people have experienced at least some of these effects at some point, because it’s easy to lose track of how much we drink and how quickly—crossing the line from a moderate, normal amount to an excessive, unhealthy amount.
Casual Consumption vs. Abuse
Of course, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a drink every now and then, but it’s important to be mindful of how much you consume in a given week and how much you consume in one sitting. More than five standard alcoholic beverages in one session is considered binge drinking, and more than nine per week is also considered abuse.1-2 So what exactly are the long-term effects of chronic alcohol abuse? While excessive consumption is harmful to anyone—often with severe side effects—chronic alcohol abuse affects each person differently.
Most immediately, alcohol impairs the connections between the central nervous system, brain, and body. The brain is the control center of the body, and it is arguably the most important organ we have. Not only does alcohol impair brain functioning, it can actually cause brain damage,3 and over many years, it can actually shrink the brain.4 Cognitive impairment, behavior changes, and hallucinations are also common, along with blackouts, slurred speech, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. Over time, alcohol abuse can damage the central nervous system. Common signs of central nervous system degradation include muscle cramping and poor coordination.
And the negative effects do not stop there. Other areas include:
- Liver: Alcohol abuse stresses the liver, the filtration system of the body. Over time, damage occurs in the form of cancer, cirrhosis, and various other diseases.5,6
- Pancreas: The harmful effects of alcohol can result in pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas.5,6
- Stomach: The pancreas and stomach play an important role in digestion, and alcohol abuse can cause the stomach to produce more acid than usual. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea also may occur—leading to malnutrition.7
- Heart: Alcohol can disrupt the signals sent to and from the heart,7 which in turn can disrupt the heartbeat and the pace of the heart. The risks for hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease are greatly increased with alcohol abuse,7 as well as risks for ischemic (restricted supply of blood to tissue) heart disease and ischemic stroke.8,9
- Sexual function: This can be affected by alcohol abuse as early as birth if a mother is consuming alcohol regularly during pregnancy, which poses a higher risk for birth defects.10 Sexual dysfunction, lack of sexual drive, and infertility are also common in people who abuse alcohol.
- Other: Along with the disruption of a variety of body systems and organs, too much alcohol can also cause cancer—specifically that of the mouth, throat, esophagus, breasts, and liver. Because overconsumption may lead to a weakened immune system—even in social drinkers—it can perpetuate cancers, cause fatigue, and increase susceptibility to diseases and infections.
The good news? Studies have shown that one glass of red wine per day for women and two per day for men can be cardioprotective.11 But again, anything more than the recommended amount might be problematic.
Always Drink Responsibly
Overconsumption on a regular basis can cause the body to become dependent on alcohol. For those who are genetically prone to addiction (i.e., an addictive personality), it can be especially challenging to monitor drinking habits. Either way, dependency makes quitting even harder. That’s why it’s important for even social drinkers to realize the effects alcohol has on the body, so when they choose to drink, they may be more inclined to do so responsibly.
Before indulging in a drink or two, it’s important to be cognizant of the detrimental influence alcohol can have on our bodies—which extends far beyond impaired motor skills. If you or someone you know may be suffering from alcohol abuse, seek help as soon as possible.
- Wallace C, Black DJ, Fothergill A. Integrated assessment of older adults who misuse alcohol. Nursing Standard. 2010;24(33):51-58.
- Courtney KE, Polich J. Binge drinking in young adults: Data, definitions, and determinants. Psychological Bulletin. 2009;135(1):142-56.
- Harper C. The neuropathology of alcohol-related brain damage. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 2009:136-140.
- Le Berre AP et al. Impaired decision-making and brain shrinkage in alcoholism. Eur Psyc. 2014;29(3):125-133.
- Warren KR et al. Alcoholic liver disease and pancreatitis: Global health problems being addressed by the US National Institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism. J Gast Hep. 2013;28(S1):4-6.
- Roerecke M et al. The cardioprotective association of average alcohol consumption and ischaemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction. 2012;107(7):1246-60.
- Shield KD et al. Chronic diseases and conditions related to alcohol use. Alcohol Res. 2014;35(2):155-171.
- Taylor B et al. Alcohol and hypertension: gender differences in dose-response relationships determined through systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction. 2009;104(2):1981-90.
- Williams JF et al. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Amer Acad Peds clinical report. 2015;106(2):358.
- Rocco A et al. Alcoholic disease: liver and beyond. World J Gast. 2014;20(40):14652-14659.
- O’Keefe JH et al. Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the dose makes the poison…or the remedy. Mayo Clin Proc. 2014;89(3):382-93.