According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 14.4 million Americans ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year.1 However, only an estimated 1.1 million Americans ages 12 and older with a diagnosable AUD in the past year received substance use treatment in the past year.2
Regardless of whether you consider yourself a social drinker or have a diagnosed AUD, there are both short- and long-term physical and psychological consequences to overdrinking.
Although a person may not be abusing alcohol regularly, they can still experience its short-term effects on the mind and body. The liver can metabolize about one standard drink of alcohol per hour.3 However, this can vary depending on a number of factors, including the individual’s age, weight, liver function, and gender.9 Typically, consuming more than one beverage per hour can lead to intoxication, raising an individual’s blood alcohol content (BAC) with each drink.3
The effects of alcohol can range from mild, such as skin flushing, to more severe symptoms such as passing out or vomiting. Other short-term effects can include: 3,4,13
- Lowered inhibitions, leading to poor social judgment.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Loss of coordination.
- Loss of critical judgement.
- Dulled perception, especially vision.
- Mood swings.
- Reduced core body temperature.
- Raised blood pressure.
- Passing out.
Drinking too much over time can cause chronic physical and mental health issues. Heavy drinking can cause or contribute to liver damage, cardiovascular disease, and multiple types of cancer.5,7,13 Long-term effects of excessive drinking may include: 5,11,13,16
- Diminished gray matter and white matter in the brain.
- Memory loss.
- Loss of attention span.
- Trouble learning.
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver fibrosis.
- Steatosis (i.e., fatty liver).
- Throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal, or esophageal cancer.
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart beat
Binge drinking is a dangerous practice that can cause physical harm. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) classifies binge drinking as a drinking pattern that leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 g/dL and above.6 For adult women, that’s typically around 4 drinks (5 for adult men) within a couple hours of each other.6
Drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:18
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Slowed or irregular breathing.
- Cyanosis, or a blue-tinted skin.
- Pale skin.
- Low body temperature, or hypothermia.
It is extremely important to call 911 if you feel a person is experiencing alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can cause permanent brain damage and even death. A person’s BAC can keep rising after they stop drinking and even after they pass out.18
Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Chronic heavy drinking is associated with many serious health problems.5 Below are some of the ways alcohol may affect the body:
Liver: One of the possible severe medical consequences of chronic alcohol abuse is liver disease. Over time, with consistent alcohol abuse, the liver may become inflamed and/or scarred. Conditions such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis may develop. A person may also develop liver cancer. 5,7,8
Digestive system: Alcohol can wear down the lining of the stomach and increase the production of stomach acid, which can contribute to ulcers.24 Alcohol may also alter nutrient breakdown, absorption, transportation, storage, and excretion, leading to nutrient deficiencies and/or trouble fully using nutrients. For example, thiamine deficiency is common and can lead to serious neurological issues. Alcohol can also impair blood sugar control.10
Pancreas: Alcohol prompts pancreatic production of harmful substances, which can lead to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that impairs digestion.5
Central nervous system (CNS): Thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency associated with chronic heavy drinking can lead to Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms may include confusion, impaired coordination, learning problems, and memory difficulties. Liver disease can also harm the brain, resulting in symptoms such as sleep changes, alterations in mood, personality changes, depression, anxiety, impaired concentration, and incoordination. Too much alcohol may also hinder new brain cell growth.16
Cardiovascular (CV) health: Drinking alcohol has complicated impacts on cardiovascular health. In 2016, alcohol-related CV diseases caused an estimated 593,000 deaths globally.12 Consuming too much alcohol is linked to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, trouble pumping blood through the body, blood clots, stroke, cardiomyopathy (sagging, stretched heart muscle), or heart attack.5,13 Excessive alcohol use, both directly and through malnutrition, can also lead to anemia.19
Reproductive health: Consuming too much alcohol can lead to reproductive problems, including erectile dysfunction and irregular menstruation.20 Both men and women may have reduced fertility with long-term, heavy drinking.21Women who drink while pregnant are at increased risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, or having a child with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).14
Bones: Alcohol abuse can cause a calcium imbalance in the body, which is an important nutrient to maintain healthy bones. Consuming too much alcohol can also cause a disruption to the production of vitamin D, which is needed for calcium absorption. Lack of calcium increases the risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis increases the risk of bone fractures, which can cause serious pain and disability.15
When it comes to the brain, alcohol acts as a depressant to the CNS. However, it can have inconsistent effects, exciting users under some conditions and sedating users under other conditions. Excitement, typically at lower doses, may be due to alcohol suppressing the inhibitory parts of the brain. Functions such as breathing, speech, thought, memory, and movement can be impacted by consuming alcohol. Mental effects may include mood changes, decreased inhibitions, relaxation, impaired judgment, slowed reaction times, difficulty remembering, confusion, and loss of consciousness.3 Chronic use of alcohol can lead to changes in the brain, as described in previous sections.
Excessive alcohol use, even if not chronic, can lead to alcohol–induced psychiatric syndromes, such as alcohol-induced depressive disorder, alcohol-induced bipolar disorder, alcohol-induced sleep disorder, alcohol-induced psychotic disorder, and more.17,22 These disorders are temporary and can occur after significant intoxication and/or withdrawal.22
Alcohol use disorder is also linked to several mental illnesses which can develop separately from the disorder and may even predate it, such as major depression, some anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and others.17 These disorders may increase the likelihood of alcohol-related issues, possibly due, in part, to using alcohol as a self-medicating substance.17,23 There also may be common underlying risk factors that increase the likelihood of both substance use disorders and mental illnesses.23
Alcohol use disorders, or alcoholism, occur on a spectrum, and each person is unique. If you or someone you know is ready to discuss treatment, our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to speak with you today. The type of treatment that will be most suitable for you will likely be influenced by your alcohol history, other substance use history, previous attempts at treatment, any co-occurring medical and/or mental health conditions, and your current situation.
More Articles on the Effects of Alcohol
- The Term Beer Goggles
- Kindling from Withdrawal
- Effects On Your Memory
- Sexual Assaults On Campus
- Kidney Disease
- Fatty Liver Disease
- Epilepsy & Seizures
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2017). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 10.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2017). Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.
. Mark Keller, George E. Vaillant. (2018). Alcohol consumption. Encyclopedia Britannica.
. Dubowski, Kurt. ResearchGate. (2019). Stages of acute alcoholic influence/intoxication blood alcohol concentration grams/100 ml stage of alcoholic influence clinical signs/symptoms.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). (2019). Drinking Levels Defined.
. MedlinePlus. (2019). Alcoholic liver disease.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Liver Cancer.
. Better Health Channel. (2012). Know The Facts.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1993). Alcohol and Nutrition. Alcohol Alert. No. 22(346).
. Pfefferbaum, A., Sullivan, E. V., Mathalon, D. H., Shear, P. K., Rosenbloom, M. J., & Lim, K. O. (1995). Longitudinal changes in magnetic resonance imaging brain volumes in abstinent and relapsed alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 19(5), 1177-1191.
. World Health Organization. (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. 73-74.
. Piano MR. (2017). Alcohol's Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol Res. 38(2):219–241.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2018). Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.
. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2018). What People Recovering From Alcoholism Need To Know About Osteoporosis.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain. Alcohol Alert. No. 63.
. Ramesh Shivani, M.D., R. Jeffrey Goldsmith, M.D., and Robert M. Anthenelli, M.D. (2002). Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders. Alcohol Research & Health. 26(2): 90-98.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). (2018). A Word About Alcohol Poisoning. Parents: Help Your Teen Party Right at Graduation, NIH No. 07-5641.
. Ballard, H. S. (1997). The hematological complications of alcoholism. Alcohol health and research world, 21, 42-52.
. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. Van Heertum, K., & Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much?. Fertility research and practice, 3(1), 10.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). (2018). Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses.
. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Peptic ulcer.