The Physical & Psychological Effects of Alcohol

Millions of people in the United States struggle with alcohol dependence, abuse, and alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Only 10 percent of people with a diagnosed AUD get the help they need, which means millions of people every year struggle with acute and chronic health problems from drinking too much. Short-term and long-term harm comes from consuming too much alcohol regularly or in one sitting.

Short-Term Harm from Alcohol Abuse

The liver can metabolize about one serving of alcohol per hour, depending on the individual’s age, weight, and gender. Typically, consuming more than one beverage per hour leads to intoxication. As a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) rises, they develop different signs of intoxication, leading up to passing out, vomiting, stumbling or falling, and even experiencing alcohol poisoning.

Consuming between one and two drinks in an hour can increase a person’s BAC to 0.05 percent. They will appear relaxed; their inhibitions will be lowered; and their judgment and reaction times may be slowed or impaired, but not to dangerous levels.

When a person’s BAC reaches 0.08 percent – which can occur with 2-4 drinks in one hour – they are no longer legally safe to drive in the United States. This BAC indicates that the person likely exhibits signs of intoxication like much slower reaction time, clumsiness, exaggerated behaviors and emotions, and a decrease in finer motor skills. They may begin to slur their speech.

As a person continues to drink, and their BAC continues to rise, they will display signs of intoxication, including:

Once a person’s BAC reaches 0.2 percent, they are a danger to themselves; at 0.3 percent, they are at risk of choking, falling, and hurting themselves accidentally in other ways; 0.35 percent is considered the same level as surgical anesthesia. If a person’s BAC reaches 0.4 percent, they are likely to die suddenly.

Binge drinking – consuming more than four drinks for women, or five drinks for men, in about a two-hour span – can be very dangerous, as it quickly raises BAC. If the person continues to drink more per hour than the liver can metabolize, they are very likely to experience alcohol poisoning.

Other forms of problem drinking, including AUD and heavy drinking, will cause long-term damage to the body.

Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking, or consuming more than five alcoholic beverages in two hours, which brings one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08, is a dangerous practice that can cause acute physical and mental harm. Continuing to drink after five drinks in one event can cause alcohol poisoning. This may occur after eight drinks per hour or when an individual’s BAC hits 0.15. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Cyanosis, or a bluish tint to the skin due to oxygen deprivation
  • Low body temperature, or hypothermia
  • Unconsciousness
  • Memory loss about events that happened recently
  • Seizures

It is extremely important to call 911 if a person experiences alcohol poisoning. Emergency medical attention will help them survive.

Long-Term Health Problems from Chronic Alcohol Abuse

Drinking too much in one sitting can cause acute harm to the body, but drinking too much over time can cause chronic physical and mental health issues. Liver damage, cardiovascular disease, and cancer are the most dangerous long-term side effects from heavy drinking; however, struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction can also trigger mental illness.

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Physical Damage from Too Much Alcohol

Consuming a large amount of alcohol can lead to several changes in the body. These areas of the body are affected:

  • Liver: Of all the physical harm caused by drinking too much, damage to the liver is the most prevalent and likely. The liver may become inflamed, leading to scarring and eventual cirrhosis. People who drink heavily may also develop alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver disease, or liver cancer.
  • Digestive system: Consuming a lot of alcohol can inflame the lining of the stomach; short-term, this can lead to indigestion or nausea, especially as the effects of alcohol wear off. Long-term, inflammation in the stomach increases the risk of ulcers, chronic heart burn, and gastritis. The intestines are less able to digest important nutrients, particularly B12 or thiamine, which can lead to malnutrition, problems with blood production and the immune system, and brain damage. Alcohol especially affects two organs in the digestive system:
    • Pancreas: Abnormal activation of stomach enzymes can inflame the pancreas; chronic inflammation leads to pancreatitis. Changes to pancreatic enzymes can also affect insulin production, putting a person at greater risk of diabetes.
    • Liver: This organ pulls toxins out of the body by metabolizing many substances, including alcohol. Long-term, high-volume alcohol consumption changes how the liver metabolizes toxins, making it less effective; this can cause scarring to the liver, add fat to the organ, and trigger chronic inflammation. This leads to all kinds of problems, including cirrhosis, steatosis (fatty liver disease), alcoholic hepatitis, and liver cancer.
  • Endocrine, pancreas, and sugar levels: Alcohol is not food, but it will trigger a buildup of digestive enzymes in the pancreas, which can lead to inflammation, pancreatitis (acute, then chronic if it is not managed), and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), which may cause problems with diabetes.
  • Central nervous system: The brain is deeply affected by alcohol consumption. This intoxicating substance triggers the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with the brain’s reward system; this, in turn, can reinforce problem drinking. Thiamine, or B12, deficiency associated with chronic heavy drinking can lead to dementia-like symptoms. Too much alcohol can also lead to memory loss, blacking out, and trouble forming new memories.
  • Circulatory system: The heart and lungs can be very affected by alcohol consumption, including binge drinking and heavy drinking. Consuming too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, trouble pumping blood through the body, blood clots, stroke, cardiomyopathy (sagging heart muscle), heart attack, other heart disease, and breathing difficulty. Malnutrition from alcohol consumption can also lead to anemia.
  • Reproductive health: In the short-term, consuming too much alcohol can lead to reproductive problems, from erectile dysfunction to irregular menstruation. Both men and women are at a greater risk for infertility. Women who drink while pregnant are at risk for premature birth, miscarriage, stillbirth, or having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
  • Skeleton and muscles: Loss of nutrients increases the risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, which increase the risk of dangerous bone fractures and weak muscles.
  • Immune system: Consuming any intoxicating substance, including alcohol, lowers the body’s natural defenses in the immune system, increasing the risk of catching a contagious disease, including pneumonia or tuberculosis.
  • Cancer risk: People who drink excessively increase their risk of developing several cancers, including cancer of the:
    • Mouth
    • Esophagus
    • Throat
    • Bowel
    • Liver
    • Breast

Mental Health Changes Due to AUD

People who struggle with mental illness, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions are at a greater risk for developing AUD; however, some mental illnesses may also be triggered by consuming too much alcohol, which can change brain chemistry. For example, alcohol increases anxiety and stress, although its initial effects may include feeling physically relaxed. People who struggle with depression are at greater risk for social isolation and reduced neurotransmitters after drinking episodes, which can worsen depression. Alcohol can also trigger depressive cycles in people who struggle with bipolar disorder.

Alcohol shrinks the brain, making memory, mental illness, and learning worse over time. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a collection of dementia-like symptoms coupled with reduced mobility, is caused by thiamine deficiency, which may be triggered by drinking too much. Even moderate drinking, which is 1-2 servings of alcohol per day, may cause damage to cognition and memory.

Get Help Ending AUD

People who struggle with alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependence, or other forms of problem drinking may not know that there is evidence-based help available to them. Because alcohol is one of the most abused intoxicating substances on the planet, there are many programs that help people safely detox and then change behaviors related to alcohol or drugs.

While the process may take months or years, ending addiction to alcohol will help one get healthy, repairing both physical and mental damage caused by alcohol abuse. Ending problem drinking reduces the risk of harm from accidents like car crashes or falls, while also reducing the risk of chronic health problems like cancer, liver damage, ulcers, and more. Some medications during and after detox, along with group and individual therapy, can help one overcome alcohol use disorder and avoid relapse, but the backbone of addiction treatment is therapy.

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