What alcohol does to your body

April 20, 2017 | by Aaron Weiner, Ph.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Many of us know that familiar feeling after having a few drinks. At first, you feel pretty good. You’re relaxed, laughing and having fun. That’s because alcohol triggers the release of endorphins, or “feel good” chemicals, in the brain’s reward centers. You keep on drinking to keep the good feelings going.

Alcohol draws you in and makes you feel good. Until it doesn’t. Soon, you can’t think clearly, you feel bloated, drowsy, uncoordinated, moody. As you keep drinking, the positive effects of alcohol start to fade while the negative effects increase (known as the biphasic effect). What exactly is alcohol doing to your body?

When you drink, alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream and quickly travels throughout your body. Drink too much and your whole body feels the effects.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines what alcohol does to different areas of your body:

  • Brain & Nervous System: Alcohol affects the way the brain works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and impair judgement, concentration and memory. Excessive alcohol use can damage your nervous system and cause neuropathy (burning and numbness in the feet and hands). Severe alcoholism can cause permanent brain damage and dementia. Excessive drinking can lead to coma and even death.
  • Bones & Muscles: Alcohol immediately affects coordination and increases the likelihood of injury. Long-term alcohol use can lead to muscle wasting and weakness, osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and bone fractures.
  • Eyes: Drinking too much can cause blurred vision. Chronic alcohol use can cause a vitamin B1 deficiency, which can result in involuntary rapid eye movements, weakness or paralysis of the eye muscles.
  • Heart: While research suggests drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may protect healthy adults from heart disease, long-term drinking and binge drinking can damage the heart, causing: cardiomyopathy (heart muscle stretches and weakens), irregular heart beat (arrhythmias) and high blood pressure. This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Immune System: Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making it more difficult for your body to fight off illness or infection. Chronic drinkers are more likely to get diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Even drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections.
  • Kidneys: The kidneys filter blood, remove waste and are responsible for the re-absorption of water. Alcohol is a diuretic, so it causes water to be lost from the body, which can lead to dehydration.
  • Liver: The liver’s job is to break down harmful substances, including alcohol. Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver. When the liver fails to perform, toxic substances remain in your body which can lead to: fatty liver (steatosis), inflammation of the liver (alcohol hepatitis), firbrosis, and cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver). Liver disease is life threatening.
  • Mouth: Drinking too much can cause slurred speech. Alcohol abuse can damage the salivary glands and irritate the mouth and tongue, leading to gum disease, tooth decay and even tooth loss.
  • Pancreas: Your pancreas helps you digest food and regulate metabolism. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that interferes with these functions. This can result in pancreatitis (a dangerous inflammation in the pancreas) which prevents proper digestion and is major risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Heavy drinking can also lead to diabetes.
  • Sexual Health: Chronic heavy alcohol use can lead to erectile dysfunction for men, and infertility in men and women. Excessive drinking can also increase a woman’s risk of miscarriage, premature delivery and stillbirth.
  • Stomach: Alcohol can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Heavy drinking can cause ulcers, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), acid reflux and heartburn.

Chronic alcohol use can also increase your risk of developing many forms of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, pancreas, breast and colon. Moderate drinking combined with tobacco use can further raise the risk of many cancers.

Alcohol affects each person differently. It’s important to know how much you are drinking and understand the risks. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men, and consuming 8 drinks or more per week for women.

Alcohol leaves the body in two ways. About 10 percent leaves through the breath, perspiration and urine. The rest is broken down through metabolism, but the body can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol per hour. Drink more than your body and can process and you’ll get drunk. Learn more about the stages and effect of alcohol at various breath alcohol concentrations.

Drinking too much alcohol can take a serious toll on your health. Over time, heavy drinking can cause alcohol dependency, or alcoholism. It may be very difficult to gain control. Unlike most other common addictions, acute alcohol withdrawal can be life threatening.

If you or a family member needs help with drug or alcohol addiction, you aren’t alone. Get help for addiction from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Parents, talk to your kids about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Get tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol.

Learn signs your teen may be abusing alcohol.

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