July 10th, 2020

What Are the Effects of Alcohol?

A woman drinking out of a glass beer stein.

Social alcohol use is a common pastime for adults in the United States. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 70% of Americans over 18 reported drinking alcohol in the past year, while 55.3% of Americans over 18 reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Alcohol is often used socially, especially during celebrations. For this reason, its harmful effects are often overlooked.

Everyone who chooses to drink alcohol should understand that alcohol use has short-term and long-term effects. Some short-term effects can start after your first sip. Alcohol addiction or activities like binge-drinking can produce long-term effects, many of which are permanent. Below, we explain how various systems in the body are affected by frequent or infrequent alcohol use. Understanding how alcohol harms the body may encourage some people to seek rehab services to get help for their alcohol consumption.

Effects on the heart

Alcohol can have serious long-term effects on the heart. Associations between excessive drinking and diseases such as hypertension and coronary heart disease have been studied extensively. Alcohol can also cause short-term increases in heart rate, which can cause dizziness or fainting spells.

Effects on the lungs

Your lungs can also be adversely affected by alcohol use. Alcohol disrupts the function of immune cells in the upper airways of the lungs. It also weakens the barriers of the lower airways of the lungs, which impairs your body’s ability to fight infection and repair organ damage.

Effects on the sex organs

Heavy alcohol use can affect both the male and female reproductive systems. Heavy alcohol consumption, either frequent or infrequent, is linked to reduced testosterone levels. Heavy drinking can affect sperm maturation. In females, alcohol can disrupt the menstrual cycle. Alcohol use during pregnancy can be harmful to the baby. Prolonged overuse of alcohol can cease ovulation and trigger early menopause.

Effects on the digestive system

The digestive system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and colon. Short-term, moderate alcohol use can kill vital gut microbiota and increase acid production in the stomach. This can cause bloating, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and even intestinal bleeding. Long-term, heavy, and repeated alcohol use can cause acid reflux and ulcers and increase the risk for several types of cancers, including esophageal, intestinal, and stomach cancer.

Effects on the immune system

As mentioned above, alcohol interferes with immune cells in the lungs. Thus, alcohol can suppress your ability to fight infections. But that is not the only way that heavy alcohol use impairs the immune system. It also kills vital immune cells in the intestines and halts the maturation of the immune system in underaged drinkers. Those suffering from or at risk for alcoholism have been proven to be at higher risk for diseases like tuberculosis, cancer, and even HIV.

Effects on bone and muscle

In the short term, alcohol can reduce coordination. It causes feelings of muscle weakness and impairs movement. These effects can lead to accidents, which can cause fractures or broken bones. Long-term, heavy use of alcohol, especially in underage drinkers, can impair the growth, formation, and density of bone. This may lead to osteoporosis and muscle atrophy later in life.

Effects on the kidneys

The kidneys are responsible for filtering the blood and removing excess water. The kidneys also help regulate blood pressure. The kidneys even produce a hormone that tells the bone marrow to produce red blood cells.

Alcohol is a diuretic. It suppresses the hormone that tells your kidneys to hold onto water. As a result, more water than normal is passed in the urine. Alcohol’s diuretic effect can lead to dehydration and low electrolytes, which can cause light-headedness, dizziness, fatigue, and an increase in heart and breathing rate.

Chronic alcoholism can have a disastrous impact on the kidneys. Kidney damage can lead to problems with blood pressure. It can also cause chemical imbalances that can lead to complete kidney failure.

Effects on the brain

Alcohol affects the brain. That is why it makes people feel drunk. Alcohol’s effects on the brain can produce slurred speech, impaired spatial awareness and balance, short-term memory loss, and even loss of consciousness.

Prolonged heavy alcohol use can produce long-term damage to the brain. These long-term effects can be especially bad for underage drinkers, whose brains are not fully formed. The damage can include developmental delays in the frontal lobe. It can also lead to neurodegeneration (destruction of brain cells), which can lead to impaired recall and memory storage, and even to Alzheimer’s disease. Alcohol use disorder might also increase the person’s risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Effects on mental health

Alcohol can also impact your mental health. As a known depressant, alcohol suppresses the functions of the brain, including mood stabilizers. This is why people often feel emotionally unstable or have mood swings while under the influence of alcohol. Studies show that alcoholism can contribute to or result in psychological disorders, such as major depression and anxiety. The disease model of addiction focuses on how the chemical outcomes of addiction in the brain — such as developing a psychological disorder — remove or impair a person’s ability to stop using.

If you or someone you know is suffering because they are drinking too much, it is possible to get help and get treatment.

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