Drinking alcohol puts you in a league with 70 percent of Americans who also do. And though nights spent with a beer, a glass of your favorite vino, or a mixed drink might seem like harmless fun, do you really know how it’s affecting your body?
Like all things, alcohol is meant to be enjoyed in moderation. Drinking heavily can take a heavy toll on your body.
This animagraph is a breakdown of the science of drinking, one step at a time.
Effects of Alcohol on the Mouth, Throat, and Esophagus
Alcohol consumption and its effects start with the point of entry. Alcohol is an irritant; it burns when it touches any bodily surface, as you may know if you’ve ever used it as a disinfectant on a cut.
When you take an initial sip of alcohol, the impact is not different – especially when you consume a high-proof liquor. You’ll notice an immediate burning sensation as it goes into your mouth and down the delicate lining of your esophagus.
It’s a burn that could eventually kill your body’s living tissues. With prolonged, heavy consumption, alcohol can lead to the development of various head and neck cancers. Drinking five drinks or more a day can double or triple your risk of developing cancer in your mouth, throat, or voice box.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Stomach
As alcohol travels to the stomach, it’s absorbed into the bloodstream or passes through to the intestines.
However, some alcohol does neither. Some can stay in the stomach, increasing the stomach’s acidity and irritating its protective lining. This irritation, when experienced chronically, can lead to corrosion of the stomach lining. Even moderate alcohol consumption can give rise to or exacerbate existing stomach and intestinal ulcers.
When the alcohol travels to the small intestine, it can do damage by interrupting the digestive system. It blocks the body from absorbing thiamin, folic acid, fat, Vitamin B1, B12, and amino acids.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Heart
On a short-term basis, as alcohol passes through the heart, it can cause inflammation of the muscle’s walls. However, it’s long-term drinking and even shorter-term binge drinking that have the worst effects on the heart’s functions.
Both long-term drinking and binge drinking negatively affect heart rate, disrupting its rhythm by causing it to speed up or beat irregularly.
Worse, it can lead to a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This condition – which can include the conditions of cardiomegaly or dilated cardiomyopathy (translation: big, underperforming heart muscle) – causes heart muscles to weaken from repeated toxic exposure from alcohol abuse over time. The heart’s pumping function becomes inefficient and reduces its effectiveness at sending blood throughout the body, which wreaks havoc on various organ systems by depriving them of blood.
Long-term drinking and binge drinking can not only lead to other disastrous heart problems, such as hypertension, but it can also lead to strokes. In fact, binge drinkers are 56 percent more likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke over a 10-year period.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Bloodstream
Studies show that moderate alcohol intake can result in a “blood thinning” phenomenon. However, excessive alcohol use can elicit quite the opposite reaction. Once alcohol is in the bloodstream, it can lead to a hypercoagulable state – bringing platelets and red blood cells together, causing them to clump up. These “sticky” red blood cells increase the chance of clot formation and can slow circulation and deprive tissues of needed oxygen.
Alcohol’s presence in the bloodstream can have adverse effects on the body’s ability to fight off illness or infection, because it diminishes white blood cells’ ability to battle bacteria or other foreign pathogens, making it easier for you to get sick.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
It’s the effects of alcohol on the brain that make it so desirable – and dangerous.
Though we often hear alcohol is a depressant, and it is, alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers, which is what gives drinking alcohol its pleasurable sensation. As you keep drinking, the dopamine effect diminishes, putting you at risk for feeling the need to go back to the well more often. This is how alcohol addiction begins.
Alcohol depresses brain centers, enhances effects of calming agents on the brain, and slows down the rate at which information travels down the brain’s highways. This is what causes its disorienting effects as well as deterioration of motor skills and judgment. If you drink too much alcohol, these brain centers can become so severely impaired that you could fall into a coma or die.
The depression of brain centers can also trigger adverse effects on memory. Even just a few drinks can impact your memory in a big way, rendering you unable to recall parts of events or even entire nights. Studies show females are also more susceptible to these effects than men due to the differences in how the genders metabolize alcohol.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
When the liver attempts to break down alcohol, the resulting reaction can create inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis) and, over time, irreversible damage to the liver. Over time, this type of of prolonged stress to the liver can result in profound liver changes, such as enlargement, scarring, or cirrhosis – a deadly condition when severe.
Alcohol also inflames the liver’s cells, causing swelling that can trap or inhibit normal bile flow. If bile buildup occurs, the skin and eyes will turn yellow, a condition called jaundice. Jaundice results when a red blood cell breakdown pigment (known as bilirubin and normally excreted in bile) is reabsorbed in the blood and deposited abnormally in other body tissues. Jaundice is an ominous sign in the setting of alcohol abuse and can point to the development of end-stage liver failure.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Pancreas
Prolonged binge drinking can cause irreversible damage to the pancreas, a two-in-one hormone-producing endocrine and digestive exocrine gland. Even a single, isolated incident of binge drinking has been known to result in an episode of acute pancreatitis. Alcoholic inflammation of the pancreas can lead to chronic fibrosis, which can cause insufficiency in both the exocrine (digestive enzymes) and endocrine (insulin) systems. When inflammation blocks digestive enzymes from being released normally into the GI tract, they can attack the pancreas itself, as well as seep out to other surrounding tissues. The resulting auto-digestion of previously healthy tissues can lead to acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis and pseudo-cyst formation. Yes, it’s as unpleasant as it sounds – and could be a surgical emergency.
Pancreatitis can lead to other medical conditions as well, such as severe abdominal pain, diabetes, jaundice, and even circulatory collapse.
It’s worth noting that not everyone suffers from these conditions. Some are more susceptible than others. A person who drinks as little as 20g or more than 200g of alcohol could develop these complications. Others, no matter how much they drink, will never develop these issues. But there’s always a risk.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Bladder/Kidneys
Alcohol is a diuretic. The more you take in, the more you urinate. It’s a mildly inconvenient effect of alcohol on the bladder and kidneys.
However, alcohol can have a much more sinister effect for long-term drinkers or binge drinkers. Alcohol can inflame the lining of the bladder, causing it to swell and stretch to a dangerous size. If it swells, it can block flow to the kidneys, which could cause renal failure.
Know What Alcohol Can Do
While some are able to enjoy alcohol in moderation, its potential for abuse is difficult to ignore. Our lengthy list of disastrous health effects should underscore alcohol’s dangerous potential. Encouragingly, recovery from alcohol, as well as medical treatment for many of its associated health conditions, can occur simultaneously. If you’re concerned that binge drinking or chronic excessive alcohol abuse is negatively impacting your own health, or that of someone you love, or you have already experienced any of the aforementioned health consequences, now is the time for help – call 1-888-744-0069, 24 hours a day, to speak to a support advisor about alcohol addiction treatment options today.
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