What Are the Effects of Alcohol
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Francine Mends, MD on August 4, 2020
We all know that drinking alcohol comes with risks like driving under the influence, impaired judgment, and even blackouts. But that’s far from all of the effects that you contend with when you decide to get drunk.
Alcohol has serious short-term and long-term effects on the body, ranging from nutritional problems to inflammatory diseases and even cancer.
There’s been controversy in recent years about whether alcohol is beneficial to your health or not. Today, the research is clear: there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption. In 2018, a global study of millions found that all beneficial health effects from alcohol are outweighed by the negative effects.
The safest amount to drink is none at all. Even moderate drinking—which is one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men—is not safe. The long-term effects of alcohol cause 3 million deaths every year across the globe.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol?
When you get drunk, you can expect a range of short-term effects. Some of them are well-known, like a state of stupor or blacking out. The others may not be so familiar.
The effects that you experience depend on how much alcohol you consumed. These are the short-term effects of alcohol by BAC (blood alcohol percentage by volume):
0.001 to 0.029 BAC
Below 0.030 BAC, there may not be any detectable short-term effects.
0.030 to 0.059 BAC
Most people reach this BAC after one drink. The effects include:
- Less social inhibition
- Feelings of joy and euphoria
- Desire to talk
- Less control over focus and attention
0.060 to 0.099 BAC
At this stage, you may experience:
- Alcohol flushing
- Less affect, or trouble showing your emotions properly
- Disinhibition, or less restraint over your behavior
- A desire to socialize
- Pain tolerance
- Problems with depth perception and peripheral vision
- Trouble reasoning
0.100 to 0.199 BAC
This BAC level is where short-term effects become more troublesome, including:
- Pain relief
- Trouble with motor functions
- Trouble controlling emotions
- Nausea and vomiting
- Problems with reflexes
- Trouble speaking
- Erectile dysfunction
0.200 to 0.299 BAC
At this range, you may experience:
- Mood changes, like anger or anxiety
- Memory problems
- Feeling less sensation
- Blacking out
- Trouble following a line of thought
- Problems with sexual performance
- Nausea and vomiting
0.300 to 0.399 BAC
Above 0.300 BAC, the effects can include:
- Balance problems
- Breathing problems
- Slow heart rate
- Trouble controlling your bowels and bladder
- Periods of unconsciousness
- Inability to understand or participate in a conversation
At this stage, there’s a small chance for death to occur without medical help. A person with these short-term effects is overdosing on alcohol and needs medical attention.
0.400 to 0.500 BAC
- Breathing slows or stops
- Heart rate slows or stops
- Dizziness and sickness when placed sideways (called positional alcohol nystagmus)
At this stage, there’s a strong possibility of death. Call 911 right away if you suspect an alcohol overdose.
Over 0.500 BAC
Most people experience death if their BAC reaches over 0.500 without receiving medical attention. A BAC this high is a medical emergency.
Call 911 immediately if you suspect an alcohol overdose. Someone with BAC over 0.500 is likely to be completely unresponsive and they will stop breathing in most cases.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol?
According to the global study mentioned earlier, it only takes any amount of regular long-term drinking to lead to side effects. Even a single drink a day can cause health problems over months or years.
Those health effects can affect nearly every system in your body ranging from the digestive system to the immune system to the central nervous system.
These are the long-term effects of drinking alcohol:
Alcohol and Nutritional Deficiencies
Alcohol leads to nutritional problems over the long-term for many reasons. For instance, it can:
- Encourage overeating and high blood sugar
- Provide up to 9,000 empty calories in a binge sitting
- Irritate the gut wall, causing intestinal inflammation and trouble absorbing nutrients
- Deplete certain nutritional stores, like red blood cells and vitamin B1
Anemia is extremely common in people who drink alcohol. People with alcohol-induced anemia have low red blood cell numbers, which leads to problems like fatigue, depression, and problems sleeping.
Vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency is another common problem in people who drink. The effects of thiamine deficiency include appetite loss, fatigue, irritability, altered reflexes, weak muscles, and nerve pain in the limbs.
Alcohol and Blood Sugar
Alcohol can affect your blood sugar levels even if you don’t have diabetes or an endocrine issue. When you drink alcohol, your liver prioritizes processing that alcohol so your digestive system slows down.
Even hours after you eat, your blood sugar can crash because your food isn’t being digested in the presence of alcohol.
At the same time, alcoholic drinks can be extremely high in carbs, especially mixed drinks that contain sugar, or even beer. Depending on the drink you choose, alcohol can cause high blood sugar, especially if you drink on an empty stomach.
The signs of low blood sugar from drinking alcohol include:
- Agitation or anxiety
- Fast heart rate
- Food cravings
- Night sweats
In severe cases, low blood sugar causes blurred vision, slurred speech, and seizures, all of which are common effects of drinking too much.
The signs of high blood sugar from drinking alcohol include:
- Frequent urination
- Increased thirst
- Nausea and vomiting
If you don’t treat high blood sugar caused by alcohol, it can lead to nerve pain, dental and gum disease, slow-healing sores on the feet, and recurring yeast infections.
Alcohol and the Central Nervous System
Alcohol has severe effects on the central nervous system because it’s neurotoxic, which means it’s damaging to the brain and the nerves that communicate with it.
There are a few ways that alcohol damages the CNS:
- Brain shrinkage, which can lead to memory problems and other executive function issues
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which causes psychosis, confusion, altered eye movements, trouble walking, and trouble remembering old memories
- Hepatic encephalopathy, or brain damage that’s caused by alcohol damaging the liver and allowing toxic ammonia to enter the brain cells
- Fetal alcohol syndrome, or brain damage that occurs in a fetus when a pregnant woman uses alcohol
- Disruption in brain cell growth, which hampers the brain’s ability to heal from damage
Alcohol and Dependency
Alcohol addiction is one of the most well-known effects of drinking. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects 15 million people in the United States.
When you drink alcohol, it increases the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid-A or GABA, a chemical in your CNS that slows down the central nervous system.
The problem is, your body stops producing its own GABA when you drink alcohol regularly over a long period. The result is a withdrawal syndrome that happens after you quit drinking. This happens because your body is GABA-deficient while it relearns how to make its own chemicals.
The effects of alcohol withdrawal can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mood changes, including anxiety and fear
The most telling sign is a craving for alcohol that feels like a physical need. When experiencing withdrawal, you may do anything to get your hands on alcohol to stop the feeling.
If you experience withdrawal when you try to stop using alcohol, that’s a sign that you have developed dependence or AUD. Reach out to a treatment center if you think that you have alcohol dependency. Detoxing from alcohol alone is usually unsuccessful and it can be life-threatening after heavy alcohol use.
Alcohol and the Liver
Drinking alcohol inflames the liver and causes damage and scarring. In fact, alcohol is the leading cause of chronic liver disease in Western nations like the United States.
Liver damage can affect the entire body because it affects how you process food, drugs, and more. Early liver damage can be hard to notice, and by the time you have symptoms the damage can be irreversible.
In 2014, almost 20,000 people died from alcoholic liver disease. It’s the third leading cause of liver transplants in the United States. The only way to reverse alcoholic liver damage is recovery from alcohol.
The signs of alcoholic liver disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low appetite
In later stages, the signs include:
- Upper right side pain
- Swelling in the limbs
- Fluid in the abdomen
- Fever and chills
- Clubbed fingernails
- Weight loss
- Weakness and muscle wasting
- Bleeding and bruising
- Unusual skin rashes
- Sensitive reactions to drugs and alcohol
- Blood in your stools
At this stage, liver disease can be permanent. It’s critical to see a doctor if you think you have late-stage liver disease from alcohol.
Alcohol and the Digestive System
Like pretty much every other bodily system, alcohol is toxic to the digestive system. The problems that alcohol can cause include:
- Ulcers in the esophagus and mouth
- Acid reflux and heartburn
- Increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer
- Inflammation of the stomach lining
- Ulcerative colitis, or inflammation of the colon
- Inflammation of the small intestine’s lining
The first signs that alcohol is affecting your digestive system can include:
- Blood in your stool or vomit
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Bloating and gas
In the long-term, an untreated GI disorder can lead to nutritional deficiencies because you aren’t eating enough or the alcohol isn’t allowing your body to process food. It’s very important to get medical attention if you suspect that alcohol is affecting your digestion. Without treatment, you have an increased risk of cancer while you have an inflammatory digestive disease.
Alcohol and the Pancreas
It’s no surprise that alcohol can severely impact your pancreas. It does that in two ways: by causing pancreatitis and by causing pancreatic cancer.
Alcohol causes your pancreas to become inflamed each time you drink. When your pancreas stays inflamed over a long period of time (due to daily drinking), your risk of pancreatitis and cancer increases.
Pancreatitis comes in two varieties: acute and chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is a single inflammation that can last days, weeks, or until you get medical attention. Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition.
It’s more common for alcohol to cause chronic pancreatitis, but acute pancreatitis can happen from mixing alcohol with too much sugar and too many carbs. It can also happen from binge drinking.
The signs of acute pancreatitis from alcohol use include:
- High heart rate
- Severe upper stomach pain that radiates into your back and gets worse when you eat
- Swollen abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
The signs of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Constant upper stomach and back pain that is impossible to ignore
- Diarrhea and weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
Alcohol and Inflammation
Alcohol is linked with many inflammatory diseases, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Gum disease
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Ulcerative colitis
In short, if it’s an inflammatory disease, you can expect alcohol to increase your risk! That’s because alcohol increases full-body inflammation in many ways.
- Dysbiosis: Alcohol changes the balance of good to bad gut bacteria. When there are too many bad bacteria, your gut starts producing chemicals called endotoxins, which activate the immune system and cause inflammation.
- Intestinal permeability: Alcohol makes the gut “leaky”, which means that the barrier between your intestines and your bloodstream is easy to cross. When alcohol is already causing your body to produce endotoxins, this is a recipe for disaster. It’s common for endotoxins in the gut to end up in the bloodstream, which causes inflammation across the entire body.
- Inhibited immune response: In most people, too many endotoxins in the body triggers the immune system to attack. Your immune system would activate and attack the harmful bacteria, allowing good bacteria to come back into balance in your gut. Alcohol damages the immune response, so your body won’t fight back as hard when endotoxins cause inflammation.
The result of this entire process is chronic inflammation, which can cause permanent damage to any organ system in the body.
In fact, gut inflammation can even affect alcohol addiction by reducing the amount of serotonin that your body produces. 95% of serotonin comes from the gut, and without it, you’re more prone to addiction. This leads to a cycle where alcohol reduces your gut serotonin, and your low gut serotonin makes you crave more alcohol.
The only way to stop the cycle of alcohol-induced inflammation is to remove drinking from your life.
Alcohol and the Circulatory System
Alcohol can have long-lasting effects on the circulatory system. Like every other organ system that alcohol affects, the cardiovascular effects of alcohol are caused by inflammation.
They can include:
- Increased or abnormal heart rate: Alcohol increases the risk for atrial fibrillation, which is a heart rhythm where the left atrium doesn’t pump blood into the next chamber. This causes blood to pool, which causes clots. Alcohol can also cause your heart to beat too fast, which puts stress and strain on the heart muscle and blood vessels.
- Increased blood pressure: When you’re actively drunk, your blood pressure is low. But after, your blood pressure skyrockets to compensate. The cycle of daily drinking can cause your blood pressure to go all over the charts. When your blood pressure constantly goes high after drinking, it can cause stroke, heart attack, and clots.
- Weakened heart muscles: When you drink heavily, your heart stops being so effective because the muscle weakens over time. This leads to cardiomyopathy, which is a common cause of heart failure. It can cause severe fatigue and exercise intolerance.
Cardiovascular death is a leading cause of death in the United States, and so are deaths caused by alcohol. If you suspect you have alcohol-related damage to your heart or blood vessels, you should seek medical attention.
Alcohol and Sexual Health
Alcohol can have severe effects on your sexual health in a few ways.
First, alcohol causes loss of inhibition and it affects decision-making. That means you may be more likely to make questionable decisions about your sexual health while under the influence of alcohol.
While you’re drinking, your risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is increased. Your risk of experiencing sexual assault or rape is also increased.
Second, alcohol can cause erectile dysfunction. This happens because being under the influence lowers your blood pressure temporarily, affecting sexual performance in men. Alcohol also reduces sexual sensation, reduces libido, and makes it harder to achieve orgasm.
Alcohol and the Skeletal and Muscular Systems
Alcohol abuse can even affect your bones and muscles by causing malnutrition and hormonal changes, which in turn hurt your bones’ ability to build new cells and stay healthy.
Daily drinking can cause your body to have trouble:
- Absorbing calcium, which is important for bone health
- Absorbing vitamin D, which is necessary for absorbing calcium
- Increasing cortisol and parathyroid hormone levels, which slow down the bone formation and cause you to lose calcium from your bones
- Decreasing estrogen levels, which can cause problems forming strong bones in women
The result of all of this is that your bones are more prone to breakage and you’re more likely to develop osteoporosis, which is more common in people who drink.
If you have alcohol-induced osteoporosis, your symptoms may include:
- Frequent broken bones
- Back pain
- Loss of height
- Changes in your posture, such as stooping or hunching
Alcohol and the Immune System
Alcohol can affect every single part of the immune system by making it harder for your body to do what it needs to function.
For instance, alcohol can impair sleep quality, which makes it harder to fight off infections. Even small doses of alcohol can affect your immune system.
People who drink alcohol develop more infections than people who don’t because of this link. That includes bacterial, fungal, yeast, and viral infections. If you develop too many infections and have trouble fighting them off, alcohol could be the cause.
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
Because it increases inflammation in the body, alcohol increases the risk for most types of cancer. In 2009, research suggested that alcohol causes 19,500 cancer deaths each year in the United States.
The link between alcohol and cancer scales, so the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk grows. At the same time, even light drinking increases your cancer risk, so there’s no safe amount.
The most common types of alcohol-related cancers include:
- Head and neck cancer: People who drink alcohol are more likely to develop head and neck cancer, including mouth cancer, throat cancer and pharynx cancer. Your risk is even higher if you use tobacco and drink.
- Esophageal cancer: Any amount of alcohol drinking is linked to esophageal cancer. People who drink heavily have a 5-fold increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. In people who only drink lightly, that risk is still 1.3-fold higher.
- Liver cancer: People who drink heavily are twice as likely to develop two kinds of liver cancer, which are hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma.
- Breast cancer: Moderate drinkers have a 1.23-fold increase in breast cancer risk, and heavy drinkers have a 1.6-fold increase in their risk.
- Colorectal cancer: Moderate drinkers have a 1.2-fold increase in colorectal cancer, while heavy drinkers have a 1.5-fold increase in cancer risk.
There’s also evidence that alcohol consumption may be related to the risk of melanoma (skin cancer), prostate cancer or pancreatic cancer.
If you have a gene that affects your body’s ability to break down alcohol, then your risk may be even higher. People who experience the “alcohol flush” reaction when they drink (which includes flushing, heart palpitations, sweating, and nausea) are more likely to have one of these genes. East Asian people are also more likely to have the gene.
Find a Treatment Center for Alcohol Recovery Near You
If you’re worrying about how alcohol is affecting your long-term health, it’s probably time to think about seeking treatment. Alcohol has permanent effects on your health when you drink for an extended period of time. You can only begin to stop the damage when you start recovery.
The right alcohol treatment program can help you by evaluating your history and condition, then working with you to create a personalized treatment plan that includes behavioral therapy, medication, and addiction education. This sets you up for long-term health in recovery from alcohol.
The most effective treatments for alcohol addiction can include:
- Detox: Medical detox takes place before the real treatment begins. You’ll stop using alcohol under the care of compassionate professionals. You’ll receive comfort care and symptom management to ensure a safe detox.
- Behavioral treatment: Addiction is a behavioral disorder that responds to treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches you to understand and anticipate the links between your thoughts and your addiction behaviors.
- Counseling: Personal counseling can help you work through personal or addiction-related problems that are derailing your recovery.
- Group therapy: Connecting with others who have been in your shoes can be powerful when you’re recovering from alcohol. This can take the form of group counseling, 12 Steps or group talk therapy.
- Family therapy: Addiction starts with your environment, so the people around you are in the best position to help. Family therapy can help you understand each other’s perspectives and learn to heal from recovery together.
- Medication: Medication-assisted treatment is an important part of alcohol recovery for many people. It can include medications like naltrexone, which reduces alcohol cravings, or acamprosate. If you have complications after detox, you may receive medications to treat anxiety, seizures, or sleeplessness.
The right treatment plan is individual and it may include some of those elements or all of them. It all depends on finding a treatment center that’s the right fit. Browse our treatment directory today to find an alcohol treatment center near you!
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