The Harmful Effects Of Drinking Alcohol

By Sonia Gulati. May 7th 2016


Alcohol has always been used for celebratory purposes for many, many years. However, the consumption of alcohol carries a risk of detrimental health and social repercussions related to its intoxicating, toxic and addictive properties. Excessive and chronic alcohol use has been associated with damage to major organs, some cancers, and is a leading cause of death in industrialized countries. Excessive drinking is defined as consuming an average of more than two drinks per day for men and more than one drink per day for women.

Alcohol's Effects on the Brain

Chronic and excessive use of alcohol is associated with impaired cognitive development and alterations in the anatomy of the brain. Structurally, increased alcohol consumption has contributed to the occurrence of brain lesions and a reduction in brain mass. These changes can cause:

  • Decrease in motor coordination
  • Altered temperature regulation
  • Disruption in normal sleep patterns
  • Diminished learning and memory capacity

Alcohol consumption can also alter one's brain chemistry; in particular it increases the release of serotonin, which helps regulate emotional expression and endorphins, which enhance feelings of relaxation and euphoria.

Researchers believe that changes in chemicals released by the brain may contribute to:

  • Building alcohol tolerance
  • Developing alcohol dependence
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Alcohol's Effects on the Liver

Liver damage is one of the most prevalent and adverse effects associated with chronic alcohol use. Excessive drinking contributes to detrimental changes in the liver over time, often starting with the accumulation of fat in the liver (fatty liver). This build-up of fat in some cases may lead to inflammation or alcoholic hepatitis. For some, alcoholic hepatitis does not present obvious symptoms. For others, however, alcoholic hepatitis can cause a variety of symptoms including:

As it increases in severity, alcoholic hepatitis enlarges the liver causing jaundice, excessive bleeding, and clotting difficulties.

Fibrosis is also associated with heavy drinking and causes scar tissue to accumulate in the liver. Alcohol alters the chemicals in the liver needed to break down and remove this scar tissue, and as a result, liver function diminishes. If you continue to drink, this excessive scar tissue builds up and creates a condition called cirrhosis, which is a slow deterioration of the liver. Cirrhosis prevents the liver from performing its primary functions, including managing infections, detoxification of the body, and absorbing nutrients.

Alcohol's Effects on the Heart

Increased alcohol intake for a significant period of time can also damage the heart. It can cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle that interferes with its ability to pump an adequate amount of blood to peripheral organs. For some, this reduced blood flow may result in severe damage to organs and tissues.

Cardiomyopathy can also cause such symptoms as:

  • Shortness of breath or obstructed breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen legs and feet (edema)
  • Irregular heartbeat

Moreover, binge drinking or chronic drinking can also affect the rhythm and regularity of your heartbeat. Alcohol interferes with the heart's natural pacemaker causing arrhythmias, a condition in which the heart beats too rapidly or irregularly.

Alcohol's Effects on the Pancreas

Another major organ affected by increased alcohol intake is the pancreas. Alcohol interferes with the ability of the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes to the small intestine, resulting in a build-up of these enzymes. These enzymes and acetaldehyde (a substance produced by metabolically breaking down alcohol in the body) cause pancreatitis, which is the inflammation of the pancreas.

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden attack of inflammation and presents itself with abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea and rapid heart rate. Chronic pancreatitis (persistent inflammation) causes these symptoms as well as severe abdominal pain, significant impairment of pancreas function, and in some cases diabetes.

Alcohol Increases the Risk of Cancer

Heavy drinking has also been identified as a risk factor for some cancers including mouth, esophageal, liver, and breast cancer. Excessive and chronic drinking (drinking five or more drinks per day) can also enhance your risk of developing colon or rectal cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund reports that women who drink five standard alcohol drinks each day have approximately 1.2 times the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer than women who do not drink.

Bottom Line

Excessive and sustained alcohol use can result in a multitude of detrimental health consequences that may eventually lead to death. Decreasing alcohol intake or abstaining from it altogether may ameliorate or in some cases reverse sustained organ damage or cognitive difficulties. When drinking alcohol, moderation is key. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate drinking as- up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men. So at the next wedding go ahead and raise your glass, just keep it to one glass for the night.


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