Alcohol: Not Such a “Good Time” for the Body
Many people drink alcohol to have a “good time,” but for their bodies, consuming liquor isn’t so much fun. Hangovers are an immediate negative effect of alcohol consumption, of course, but imbibing can have other unhealthy consequences.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Human Body
Drinking too much all of the time – or even overdoing it once – can take a serious toll on health, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It can affect the heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system. Consuming alcohol can even increase the risk of some types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Alcohol interferes with communication paths within the brain, which can affect the way the brain works and can even change the way the brain looks. Altering these paths causes the signs and symptoms of being drunk, such as difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, impaired memory, and slow reaction times. These effects usually resolve a few hours after the individual stops drinking, but long-term alcohol use can cause the effects to persist for a while even after the individual sobers up.
Up to 80 percent of people with alcoholism have a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), which is a molecule that helps convert food into energy for the brain, nerves and heart. Thiamine deficiency can lead to loss of appetite, constipation, fatigue, and muscle weakness. It can also lead to serious brain disorders, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome that causes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and poor coordination, especially of the lower extremities.
Research shows that long-term moderate use of alcohol can shrink the areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.
The liver breaks down toxins, such as alcohol, into harmless byproducts that the body can safely eliminate. Heavy, long-term drinking can damage the liver in ways that prevent it from functioning well enough to sustain life, according to the American Liver Foundation. Alcohol use can cause cirrhosis, which is serious condition characterized by scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis can lead to complete liver failure.
Liver damage associated with alcohol use can also affect the brain. Damage prevents the liver from doing its job of removing toxins from the body, which allows toxins to accumulate in the brain and in other organs. Liver damage can even lead to hepatic encephalopathy, a serious condition that can cause personality changes, cognitive dysfunction, sleep abnormalities, and impaired motor function.
The American Heart Association says that drinking alcohol can affect the heart by increasing triglycerides, which are a type of unhealthy fat in the blood. Alcohol consumption can lead to high blood pressure and heart failure, a condition where the heart does a poor job of pumping blood. Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to a stroke and other serious heart problems, such as sudden cardiac death.
Alcohol can impair the function of the muscles separating the esophagus from the stomach, which increases the risk of heartburn, according to NIH. Mayo Clinic says that alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach to cause gastritis. Alcohol can also cause inflammation in the intestinal tract. Ingesting small amounts of alcohol can speed up digestion to cause diarrhea, but drinking large amounts of alcohol can slow digestion to cause constipation.
Many of these effects subside once the individual stops using alcohol, but long-term or excessive alcohol use can cause long-lasting problems. The severity and duration of the effects depend largely on how much alcohol a person consumes in a sitting, the frequency at which he or she drinks, and the number of years the individual continues to drink.