The Long-Term Health Impact of Alcohol: Driving Under The InfluenceUpdated Dec. 25, 2020
Alcohol is a readily accepted part of modern society, but it is still dangerous. Alcohol is technically a drug in that it is a “substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.” We all know that illegal drugs can be harmful, and alcohol is no different. The fact that this particular substance is legal for over 21s and available on practically every street corner around the country does not make it safe. In addition to the obvious short-term negative impact, alcohol consumption can seriously damage your mind and body when used repeatedly over a prolonged period.
These long-term effects include:
- Disease and degeneration of organ tissue
- A chemical imbalance in the brain and nervous system
- Psychological dependence and physical addiction
In order to make sensible decisions concerning alcohol, you need to be fully informed about the consequences of consuming it. In this module, you will find everything you need to know about alcohol’s long-term health impact.
No part of your body is safe from the negative effects of alcohol, as it will be carried to every organ and tissue via the bloodstream when ingested. Regular drinking can interfere with the normal function of every organ, though the liver and kidneys often take the brunt of the damage as they are responsible for cleaning alcohol from the blood. Liver damage is one of the most common outcomes of alcohol abuse, though there are many other ways in which your health can be affected.
Long-term alcohol consumption will damage your liver, stomach, pancreas, heart, esophagus and brain. Extreme alcohol consumption will eventually lead to liver failure, stroke, heart failure and other fatal medical conditions. Let’s find out more about how each major organ in your body is affected.
The liver is your body’s primary detoxification system. It works 24 hours a day to filter dangerous toxins from your blood and break them down into less harmful chemicals which are easily expelled with other waste. This process is known as metabolism.
As the human liver has evolved to deal with naturally occurring toxins and poisons, it is not equipped to deal with regular, high-level alcohol consumption. After a long time working hard to process alcohol, your liver’s tissue will begin to malfunction and die-off. As the liver is also responsible for storing sugar, vitamins and minerals, processing fat, fighting infections and clotting blood, damage to your liver tissue can have a devastating effect on overall health.
Around 80% of the alcohol a person drinks is processed in the liver. While the liver is working overtime, it will not be able to do its other jobs properly. This can result in a build-up of fatty tissue around the liver and other vital organs, plus insufficient protein metabolism (protein is essential for tissue repair). The following diseases commonly occur as a result of alcohol abuse:
Fatty liver disease.
When the liver cannot process fat properly, fatty patches build-up in and around the organ. This will enlarge the liver and leave it unable to function properly.
This acute liver inflammation causes painful swelling, liver enlargement, mental confusion caused by unprocessed toxins in the blood and extreme fluid retention around the abdomen. Hepatitis is often fatal.
In a liver with cirrhosis, clumps of cells malfunction, break down and die off altogether. It can result in bad breath, skin discoloration, coma, liver cancer, infertility, impotence, liver failure and death.
Alcoholics and other people who have abused alcohol to an extreme level often end up with alcoholic liver disease, which encompasses all three of the above conditions.
Stomach damage as a result of alcohol consumption is unavoidable, as all the alcohol you drink must pass through your stomach. This organ breaks down the food you eat with an extremely potent acid, which is harmful to human tissue. A thick membrane of mucous coats the inside of the stomach, to protect it from damage from the acid. Regular or heavy alcohol consumption wears away this protective mucous lining, leaving the walls of the stomach vulnerable to acid erosion. This will result in gastritis, which is a painful inflammation of the stomach lining. Gastritis can cause:
- Extreme stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach ulcers
- Internal bleeding
Alcohol can also damage the portion of the digestive tract leading into the stomach, called the esophagus. At the opening of the stomach there is a ring-shaped muscle known as the esophageal sphincter, which tightens when not allowing food into the stomach, to prevent harmful stomach acid from escaping. Alcohol consumption relaxes this muscle, allowing acid to bubble up into the esophagus. This can result in heartburn, ulcers and even esophageal cancer.
Esophagus tissue can also be damaged by the metabolic byproducts of alcohol in the blood. When the liver breaks down alcohol into other chemicals ready for expulsion, these will first circulate the body in the blood before being filtered out by the kidneys. Acetaldehyde is one of these metabolic byproducts. When exposed to this toxic substance, the delicate cells and tissues in the digestive tract can malfunction and mutate. This can lead to cancer of the esophagus, mouth, larynx, pharynx, stomach or intestines.
The pancreas is a small but essential organ, responsible for producing insulin (the hormone which tells your liver to convert excess sugar into fat) and releasing digestive enzymes into the small intestine. Alcohol is known to damage the pancreas by “tricking” it into releasing heavy-duty enzymes internally rather than into the intestines. As opposed to breaking down food, the pancreas will begin to break down its own tissue. This can result in a serious condition called pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.
When the pancreas becomes inflamed and cannot function properly, you will suffer from nausea, vomiting, digestive disturbance, the inability to absorb nutrients from food and severe abdominal pain. Severe pancreatitis will eventually lead to other life-changing or fatal conditions like diabetes and cancer. If the pancreas fails altogether, you will die.
Around 100,000 times each day, your heart beats to pump blood around your body. Without the heart, cells and tissues could not be supplied with vital nutrients and oxygen, nor could waste products be removed. This organ is the single most powerful and important component in the complex biomechanical system that is the human body. It relies on having strong, healthy muscles. If the heart cannot function properly, every other organ, tissue and cell in the body will suffer.
Alcohol consumption damages your heart muscle and the rest of the circulatory systems. Alcohol slows down the heart, resulting in less frequent and forceful contractions. As blood then moves through the heart more slowly, fat from the blood can build-up around arteries and veins supplying its vital muscle. Eventually, this can lead to heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and complete heart failure.
Regular alcohol consumption can result in an irreversible and often fatal condition known as cardiomyopathy. When this condition develops, the heart will become misshapen and enlarged as it attempts to compensate for damage to its muscle tissue. Cardiomyopathy is frequently deadly, particularly when it occurs in young and otherwise healthy people, as is often the case. A young active person may develop cardiomyopathy as a result of alcohol consumption and have absolutely no idea until a sudden heart attack causes them to drop dead.
While cardiomyopathy often goes undetected, there are some symptoms to watch out for. These include:
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme fatigue
- Inability to concentrate
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to high blood pressure, the medical term for which is hypertension. Hypertension puts increased pressure on delicate blood vessels called capillaries, which connect major veins and arteries to tissues and cells. It can also prevent certain vital nutrients from entering tissues from the bloodstream. The effects of long-term hypertension include:
- Damage to the eyes
- Loss of bone density
- Arterial damage
- Sexual dysfunction
- Heart disease and failure
- Kidney disease and failure
Alcohol can also affect the circulatory system by hindering blood platelet production in a condition known as thrombocytopenia. This disease results in thin blood, which can present as fatigue, bleeding excessively when cut, gum bleeds, nose bleeds and blood blisters in the mouth.
People who regularly abuse alcohol may also develop macrocytic anemia, whereby blood cells become less efficient at transporting oxygen. The symptoms of this condition include increased heart rate, heart enlargement, shortness of breath, irregular heart rhythm and deformed bone growths.
Regular or excessive alcohol consumption can even damage your lungs! By slowing down and interfering with normal lung function, alcohol stops the tissues in your lungs from maintaining and repairing themselves properly. This will leave you more susceptible to chronic and deadly lung diseases, such as cancer, pneumonia, bronchitis, respiratory distress and collapsed lung.
Nervous system damage
Alcohol disrupts the nervous system, starting a domino effect that interferes with every system elsewhere in your body. This happens as alcohol directly affects vital nervous system signaling components known as neurons. Plus, it imbalances the chemicals which govern how the nervous system operates.
Hormones and neurotransmitters regulate every essential process in the body, including sleep, sexual function, appetite, energy, mood changes and your self-preservation “fight or flight” response. As these chemicals work together, increasing or decreasing the amount of any single hormone or neurotransmitter will have a ripple effect that disrupts every other. Eventually, regular alcohol consumption will leave your body unable to return to its natural chemical balance. This can lead to personality changes, loss of intelligence, memory loss and serious mental health problems.
Your brain controls every conscious and unconscious action your body makes. It also governs who you are, how you feel, your memories and your sense of identity. Long-term alcohol consumption will damage your brain’s actual tissue and interfere with the balance of neurotransmitters and hormones, through which it controls bodily functions.
Dehydration as a result of regular alcohol consumption will begin to re-shape your brain. Certain parts of the brain will shrivel, while others will swell beyond their normal size. You may even develop gaps in brain tissue or abnormal growths, resulting in memory loss, confusion, severe personality changes and motor skill impairment.
We have all heard the warning that “alcohol kills brain cells” and while this is close to the truth, it is actually the tips of the brain cell’s neurons that are affected. Neuron ends are called dendrites; they connect each neuron to its neighbor and allow complex electrical signals to be sent everywhere around the body. Where dendrites are damaged, signals will be disrupted, and your entire body may stop working as it should.
Alcohol's disruptive effect on brain chemicals can be equally devastating. Over time, chemical imbalances can cause life-changing mental illnesses and disorders to develop. When one chemical in the sophisticated network of neurotransmitters and hormones is out of balance, it will, in turn, affect other chemicals, until the entire system is out of whack. The way we feel and behave is a direct product of brain chemicals. When things go wrong and the brain cannot right itself, conditions such as major depression, manic depression and schizophrenia can occur.
When alcohol is ingested regularly, the brain will eventually adapt to the supply of alcohol entering it via the bloodstream. It effectively changes its normal operating parameters so that it can function as normally as possible when alcohol is present. If you then cut off the alcohol supply, the brain will cease to function normally. This is known as alcohol withdrawal and is a symptom of physical addiction.
When an alcoholic stops drinking alcohol, it takes a while for the brain to return to its normal operating parameters. In the meantime, the withdrawal will cause mood disturbances, depression, confusion, nausea, insomnia, hypertension and even hallucinations. This is why so many alcoholics end up going back to alcohol after trying to kick the habit. Once you are addicted, it is very difficult to give up.
Excessive, long-term alcohol consumption will eventually increase your ability to withstand the effects of intoxication. Despite how it sounds, this is not a positive thing. While you may be more able to talk, move and think normally while under the influence of alcohol, your body will be suffering just as much damage from the alcohol in your blood. Moreover, people with a high tolerance for alcohol often consume more in one sitting to try and achieve the same effect as they did when they first started drinking. This will speed up organ damage and lead to a faster decline in overall health.
Immune system damage
Your body’s immune system is responsible for preventing and fighting off infection from hostile organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. It also detects and eliminates dangerous cell mutations that could lead to cancer. Alcohol consumption will impair the immune system in several ways:
- White blood cells that bond to and eliminate invading cells will become less effective.
- The activity of tumor-targeting white blood cells will be reduced.
- The production of immune T-cells will be slowed.
- Cytokine production will be limited, making it easier for infecting organisms to replicate and spread.
Drinking too much alcohol can also aggravate the immune system and lead to autoimmunity. When this happens, your immune system’s defense cells will become confused and may end up attacking your own healthy tissue. Autoimmunity can cause psoriasis (inflammation of the skin cells), rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation and degradation of the joints), multiple sclerosis (degradation of the nerves), lupus (total body autoimmunity) and various other chronic conditions.
Alcohol can lead to malnutrition, which will adversely affect the health of your entire body. Studies suggest that alcohol interferes with the intestines' ability to absorb nutrients from food. This is likely due to inflammation of the mucous membranes in the stomach and gut, plus insufficient enzymes being released from the pancreas. No part of the body is spared from the adverse effects of malnutrition. When your body’s cells are not getting the nourishment needed to function correctly, you will experience:
- Extreme fatigue
- Sleep disturbances
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Aches and pains
- Frequent infections and illnesses
- Hair loss
- Slow healing from wounds and injuries
When allowed to continue for a prolonged period, malnutrition can eventually lead to severe illness, organ failure and death.
Long-term alcohol consumption has been strongly linked to obesity. Contrary to what you may think, it is possible to be malnourished and obese at the same time. Even if you cannot properly absorb micronutrients like vitamins and minerals from your food, you will still be able to process calories and put on fat. To make matters worse, alcohol has been shown to encourage overeating of unhealthy junk foods packed with sugar, salt and fat, that are deficient of the nutrients your body really needs.
Rapid, systemic health decline
Your body’s circulatory, nervous, respiratory and digestive systems (and all the organs and components within those systems) do not work independently of each other. Each system communicates with and takes its cues from another, in order to keep the complex machine that is your body running smoothly and at an optimum level of health.
Alcohol puts incredible strain on all your body’s systems. Any health problem that develops as a result of alcohol abuse will immediately put a strain on other organs, tissues and processes. Alcohol-related diseases and illnesses rarely occur on their own for this reason. As soon as one health problem develops, other parts of your body will start to malfunction, and more health problems will follow. Once this deadly domino effect has begun, it is incredibly difficult to slow down and stop. Particularly when the affected person is suffering from an alcohol addiction that leads them to continue poisoning themselves day in and day out.
Remember that alcohol is a dangerous drug. It ruins lives, kills and deprives families of their loved ones every day.
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