alcohol's-effects-on-physical-health

Alcohol's Effects on Physical Health

Alcohol consumption in any amount can have a variety of adverse effects on physical health, including both short-term and long-term impacts. These negative impacts include more than the familiar liver complications. Additionally, alcohol use can be extremely detrimental to those who have diabetes, can negatively impact a healthy person’s immune system, and has been linked to certain cancers.

Dissolution in Blood

Alcohol absorbs into the blood when upon consumption. Immediately after consumption, the blood absorbs about 33% of the alcohol through the stomach lining. The rest slowly diffuses into the blood through the small intestine. 1

The bloodstream carries the alcohol to the liver, and the liver metabolizes a certain amount of it. The rest of the alcohol circulates throughout the body. Blood alcohol level (BAL) increases when someone consumes more alcohol than their body can metabolize. BAL slows down the respiratory system, which interrupts the brain’s oxygen supply. This interruption can result in a fatality or the coma stage. 1

Sugar in Alcohol

While alcohol on its own does not contain much sugar, many mixed alcohol beverages include additional ingredients that contain a high amount of added sugar. For example, a 4-ounce pina colada contains 28 grams of added sugar, a 4-ounce daiquiri has 6.7 grams of sugar, and a 1.5-ounce shot of creme de menthe contains 21 grams of sugar. 2

Too much added sugar could cause weight gain, tooth decay, and even heart disease. In general, men shouldn’t consume more than 36 grams of sugar per day, and women shouldn’t consume more than 24 grams. When drinking, it is better to stick with beer, wine, or hard liquor to avoid consuming too much sugar. 2  However, even though these drinks do not contain much sugar, they can negatively affect health in other ways.

Health Effects of Alcohol

Regular consumption of alcohol can result in burdensome and harmful short-term and long-term health effects. These effects can negatively alter the mental health and lifestyle of an individual who drinks alcohol. 1

Short-Term Health Effects

The severity of short-term effects of alcohol use varies depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and the metabolizing composition of a body. 

Common short-term effects include: 11

  • Abnormal sleeping patterns: While alcohol causes drowsiness and makes it easier to fall asleep, it negatively affects sleep quality and disturbs the sleeping cycle. Alcohol is processed throughout the night, and once its effects wear off, tossing and turning begins. The body does not get the REM sleep that it needs, and nightmares and vivid dreams are more likely. 3
  • Alcohol poisoning: Heavy consumption of alcohol in a short time can cause alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can result in confusion, vomiting, irregular breathing, stupor, blue-tinged or pale skin, hypothermia, seizures, etc. If someone experiences alcohol poisoning, immediate medical assistance is necessary. 1
  • Hangover: A hangover usually occurs the day after a night of heavy drinking. Typical hangover symptoms include frequent urination, an inflammatory response from the immune system, headache, muscle aches, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, extreme thirst, dry eyes, tachycardia, hypertension, increased sensitivity, anxiety, irritability, depression, and fatigue. 1
Long-Term Health Effects
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol is responsible for over 200 diseases and injuries. Long-term alcohol effects can include negative impacts on a variety of bodily functions including those in the mouth, stomach, kidneys, brain, heart, liver, and pancreas.1

Mouth

The mouth consists of many sensitive layers and membranes. Heavy alcohol consumption can result in a variety of oral and throat cancers. About 70% of people who are considered heavy drinkers experience some form of mouth cancer. 1

Stomach

Alcohol can irritate the stomach lining, and when enough acid and alcohol build up in the system, it can cause extreme nausea and vomiting. Heavy drinking over a long time can cause ulcers in the stomach, ultimately suppressing appetite. Many long-term heavy drinkers do not get all the nutrients they need. 3

Kidney

Regular and consistent drinking can result in kidney damage, even without binge drinking. Damage to the kidneys due to heavy drinking is a slow process, but regularly heavy drinking can double the risk of chronic kidney disease, which does not go away. 4

The kidneys are responsible for filtering harmful substances, including alcohol. The kidneys of heavy drinkers have to work harder, which causes changes in their function and reduces their ability to filter the blood. Alcohol also dries out the body and can disrupt hormones which can affect the kidneys’ normal functioning.4

Brain

Alcohol disrupts the communication pathways in the brain and can affect how it looks and works. These changes can alter mood and behavior and can cause foggy thoughts and coordination issues.5 Drinking heavily over a long time can change and shrink cells in the brain and even shrink the entire brain. These changes affect someone’s overall ability to think, learn, and remember things.3

Alcohol also interferes with the neurotransmitter called glutamate, affecting memory and potentially resulting in total blackout. This interference can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which impairs memory and can cause someone to develop seizures. Levels of neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), endorphin, and dopamine increase, leading to hallucinations, aggression, infertility, fatigue, and dyspnea.1

Heart

Consistent drinking over a long time or heavily drinking too much in a single day or night can cause damage to the heart. Heart problems that can result from drinking include: 5

  • Cardiomyopathy:
  • Weakening of the heart muscle 6
  • Arrhythmias: Irregular heartbeat 6
  • Stroke 5
  • High blood pressure 5
  • Hypertension 1

Drinking can also stimulate myocarditis or inflammation in the cardiac muscle and can increase cholesterol levels. 1

Liver

Excessive drinking can lead to a variety of problems with the liver. These issues include:

  • Steatosis: An accumulation of fat in the liver
  • Alcohol hepatitis: Liver inflammation that leads to enlarged varices, jaundice, bleeding, etc.
  • Fibrosis: Normal liver tissue turns into scar tissue
  • Cirrhosis: Permanent damage to the liver cells affects the liver’s full function by preventing nutrient absorption and the removal of toxic substances from the blood. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, type II diabetes, jaundice, liver cancer, and fatality.1

Pancreas

Heavy alcohol use causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances. Eventually, this production can lead to pancreatitis, which is the inflammation and swelling of the pancreas’ blood vessels. 5 Pancreatitis is dangerous and can prevent proper digestion and reduce the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin, which can result in diabetes. 1

Alcohol and Diabetes

The consumption of alcohol can negatively affect someone with diabetes by creating dangerously low blood sugar. When alcohol is consumed, the liver focuses on removing alcohol from the blood instead of managing blood sugar levels. Additionally, the cognitive impairment caused by drinking can lead to situational unawareness of low blood sugar.7 Alcohol can have additional impacts on someone who has diabetes.

These impacts include: 11

  • Appetite stimulation, encouraging overeating and increasing blood sugar levels
  • Difficulty shifting additional weight because of the calories in alcohol
  • Higher chance of making poor dietary choices due to the reduction in willpower caused by alcohol
  • Interference with some oral diabetes medications
  • Increase in blood pressure 7

Alcohol and the Immune System

The first contact for alcohol in the body is typically the gastrointestinal (GI) system, where alcohol absorbs into the bloodstream. Alcohol immediately affects the GI tract structure by altering the number of microbes in the gut microbiome, which is responsible for aiding in normal gut function and affects the immune system. Alcohol disrupts communication between organisms in the microbiome and the intestinal immune system. 8

Alcohol’s impact on the immune system can lead to things like increased susceptibility to pneumonia. This association is also linked with a greater likelihood of acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), sepsis, alcohol liver disease (ALD), higher incidence of postoperative complications, slower and incomplete recovery from infection, and physical trauma (including poor wound healing). 8

Alcohol and Cancer

All alcoholic beverages have the potential to cause cancer. These beverages include red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor. The more alcohol someone consumes, the higher their risk of developing cancer.9

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a known human carcinogen. In 2009, about 3.5% of cancer deaths in the US (19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.10

The body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, damaging the DNA, which controls a cell’s normal function and growth, and prevents the body from repairing this damage. 9 Alcohol also generates reactive oxygen species that, through oxidation, can also damage the DNA and proteins and lipids (fats) in the body. 10 When the DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing uncontrollably and create a cancer tumor. 9

Additionally, alcohol can impair the body’s ability to break down and absorb many different nutrients such as vitamin A, nutrients in the vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and carotenoids. Alcohol can also increase the blood levels of estrogen, which is linked to breast cancer. Alcohol may also contain carcinogens such as nitrosamines, asbestos fibers, phenols, and hydrocarbons. 10

Drinking alcohol can increase someone’s risk of developing esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer in women, and colon and rectum cancer. 9 Alcohol consumption can also increase someone’s risk of head and neck cancers, including cancers in the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box). 10

Esophageal Cancer

Those who consume alcohol in any amount are 1.3 times (light drinkers) to 5 times (heavy drinkers) more likely than non-drinkers to develop a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. People who have a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol are even more likely to develop esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume any alcohol at all.10

Liver Cancer

Those who are heavy drinkers are twice as likely as non-drinkers to develop two types of liver cancer. These liver cancers are known as hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma.10

Breast Cancer

The risk of breast cancer increases as the level of alcohol intake increases. Those who are light drinkers are 1.04 times more likely than non-drinkers to develop breast cancer. Those who are moderate drinkers are 1.23 times more likely to develop breast cancer, and those who are heavy drinkers are 1.6 times more likely. Among women, light to moderate drinkers are 1.13 times more likely to develop alcohol-related cancers, typically breast cancer.10

Colorectal Cancer
Those who are moderate drinkers are 1.2 times more likely than those who do not consume any alcohol to develop colon and rectum cancer. Those who are heavy drinkers are 1.5 times more likely to develop these cancers.10
Head and Neck Cancer

Those who are moderate drinkers are 1.8 times more likely than those who don’t drink to develop oral cavity and pharynx cancers and are 1.4 times more likely to develop larynx cancers. Heavy drinkers are five times more likely than non-drinkers to develop cavity and pharynx cancers and are 2.6 times more likely to develop larynx cancers.10

If you or someone you love is struggling to stop drinking, many medical professionals and treatment centers can effectively address your needs. Please do not hesitate to reach out and get the help you need. You are not alone.

References & Resources

  1. How Does Alcohol Affect the Body? (2019, February 26). Retrieved from https://www.news-medical.net/health/How-Does-Alcohol-Affect-the-Body.aspx
  2. Bruso, J. (2018, December 12). What Alcoholic Drinks Have the Least Amount of Calories. Retrieved from https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/alcoholic-drinks-least-amount-calories-3432.html
  3. How Alcohol Affects Your Body. (2019, October 13). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/ss/slideshow-alcohol-body-effects
  4. Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Kidneys. (2017, March 03). Retrieved from https://www.kidney.org/news/kidneyCare/winter10/AlcoholAffects
  5. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
  6. Team, D. H. (2020, September 18). 6 Surprising Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health – Not Just Your Liver. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/6-surprising-ways-alcohol-affects-health-not-just-liver/
  7. Alcohol and diabetes: Alcohol effects, blood sugar levels, guidelines. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312918
  8. Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155.
  9. Alcohol and Cancer. (2019, July 08). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm
  10. Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet