When Use Becomes Abuse: The Short– and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Drinking alcohol is considered to be socially acceptable in today’s society. While many people regularly consume alcohol, it is not without its side effects, both short-term and long-term.
While you may decide alcohol is pleasurable, it’s easy to forget the negative consequences that might result. This could set you up to more easily cross the line between social drinking and alcohol abuse, with all of its effects on the body and the brain.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Depending on how much someone drinks and their physical condition, alcohol can cause a number of effects. The short-term effects of drinking alcohol excessively include:4
- Slurred speech
- Memory lapses
- Aggressive outbursts
- Impulsive behavior
- Loss of motor coordination
- Upset stomach
- Breathing difficulties
- Distorted vision and hearing
- Impaired judgment
Alcohol’s Short-Term Effects on the Brain
Alcohol affects several regions of the brain that are involved in essential brain and body functions.5 These are the parts of the brain that are involved with controlling movement, speech, judgment, and memory.
The following are the specific areas of the brain affected by alcohol:
- Cerebellum: The cerebellum is the center of movement and balance. When a person drinks, this area is impaired and can result in feeling off balance and possibly staggering.
- Cerebral cortex: This is the brain region where our thoughts are processed and our consciousness is centered. When alcohol is present, it slows down processing information from the senses, including the eyes, ears, mouth, and skin. It also makes it difficult for people to think clearly.
- Hypothalamus: This region coordinates the automatic functions in the brain and regulates temperature control along with hormone release. Alcohol depresses nerve cells within the hypothalamus, which influences arousal, ability, and performance.
- Medulla: The medulla is the brain region that regulates breathing, consciousness, body temperature, and other automatic functions. Alcohol acts on the medulla by causing drowsiness that interferes with the ability to control temperature and respiration.
- Hippocampus: Alcohol stresses cells in the hippocampus region causing a release of corticosteroids. These are chemicals released to protect the brain cells. In doing so, they, in effect, inhibit the cells from creating connections responsible for memory. A blackout is a form of amnesia that occurs due to the alcohol effect on areas in the hippocampus. This short-term effect of alcohol on the brain occurs because the level of alcohol in the blood rises too fast.
Dangers of Binge Drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) indicates that binge drinking is a drinking pattern that typically leads to a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08%, the legal limit for driving, and above.7
For men, this means drinking 5 or more alcoholic beverages in 2 to 3 hours. For women, drinking 4 or more alcoholic beverages in 3 hours is considered binge drinking.
Binge drinking has very significant short-term side effects on both the brain and body, including:
- Coordination problems
- Dulled perception
- Blurred vision
- Lower body temperature
- Increased blood pressure
- Passing out
- Alcohol-induced amnesia
- Impaired decision-making
- Mood swings
- Poor critical judgment
- Difficulty concentrating
Binge drinking, along with continued alcohol use in large amounts, may lead to a number of health issues, including:
- High blood pressure, stroke, and other heart-related diseases
- Liver disease
- Nerve damage
- Sexual problems
- Permanent brain damage
- Vitamin B1 deficiency
- Cancer of the mouth and throat
Drinking too much, especially in a short time, can lead to alcohol overdose, also called alcohol poisoning.8 When you drink too much alcohol, areas of the brain involved in maintaining basic life-supporting functions such as breathing, temperature, and heart rate begin to shut down, which can lead to death.
Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Pale skin
- Low body temperature
After becoming intoxicated, you may continue to feel the effects of alcohol when you wake up with what is called a hangover. This is because alcohol stays in the body, and the body is still trying to rid itself of the toxin.9
Many of these symptoms are caused by dehydration, but some chemicals in alcohol can cause a reaction within the blood vessels and the brain that makes symptoms worse. These symptoms include:
- Racing heart
- Dry mouth and eyes
- Difficulty concentrating
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Long-term alcohol abuse can contribute to a number of medical diseases and serious health issues.10
- Liver: The liver may become inflamed and scarred over time leading to conditions such as fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
- Digestive system: Alcohol can wear down the lining of the stomach and increase stomach acid production that can result in ulcers. Alcohol can also alter nutrient breakdown, absorption, storage, and excretion that leads to nutrient deficiencies and trouble using nutrients. Thiamine deficiency is common and can contribute to serious neurological problems.
- Pancreas: Alcohol can cause pancreatic production of harmful substances that can cause pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that impairs digestion.
- Cardiovascular health: Drinking alcohol can compromise a person’s cardiovascular health. Consuming too much alcohol is linked to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, difficulty pumping blood through the body, blood clots, stroke, cardiomyopathy, or heart attack.
- Reproductive health: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to reproductive problems that include erectile dysfunction and irregular menstruation. Fertility issues can occur easily with long-term heavy drinking.
- Bones: Alcohol misuse can cause calcium imbalance in the body. This is important in maintaining healthy bones. Too much alcohol can disrupt the production of vitamin D that is needed for calcium absorption. Lack of calcium increases the risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis increases the risk of bone fractures that can cause pain and disability.
- Circulatory system: Damage to the circulatory system can include heart-related issues like heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure.
- Cancer: Prolonged alcohol use may be associated with many types of cancer throughout the body. This includes such cancers as esophageal, liver, colorectal, and throat cancer.
- Malnutrition: Heavy drinking can cause damage to the inside of the intestines making it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients.
- Weakened immune system: Heavy drinking leads to a weaker immune system, which is why those suffering from an alcohol use disorder more easily contract pneumonia.
- Psychiatric illness: Excessive chronic alcohol use can lead to alcohol-induced psychiatric issues such as an alcohol-induced depressive disorder, alcohol-induced bipolar disorder, alcohol alcohol-induced sleep disorder, and alcohol-induced anxiety disorder.
Long-term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Brain
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse include potentially damaging effects of alcohol on the brain. Drinking too much alcohol may hinder new brain cell growth and has been associated with reduced blood flow, shrinking neuronal density, and glucose metabolism. Glucose metabolism declines because of the decrease in Vitamin B1, an essential ingredient for brain tissue.
Thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency associated with chronic heavy drinking can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms may include:
- Impaired coordination
- Learning problems
- Memory difficulties
You can also experience alterations in mood, personality changes, depression, anxiety, impaired concentration, and incoordination.11
Neurologic conditions or movement disorders such as essential tremor and myoclonus dystonia can also occur. Peripheral neuropathy, a condition characterized by tingling, pain, or other irregular sensations in the arms or legs is related to long-term alcohol use, as is hepatic encephalopathy, a dangerous and potentially fatal brain disorder caused by compromised liver function.
Long-term high levels of alcohol cause the brain to shrink, killing brain cells. Studies have shown that those who have a long history of heavy alcohol usage are three times more likely to develop alcohol-related dementia than the general population. Alcohol-related dementia is a syndrome that is characterized by:12
- Thinking impairment
- Inability to perform daily tasks
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Poor organizational and planning skills
Approximately 14.4 million Americans age 12 and older qualified as having an alcohol use disorder in the past year. Only 1.1 million of those received substance misuse treatment during that time.
If you consume large amounts of alcohol regularly, your tolerance can increase and your body will require more alcohol to achieve the same effect. As your body adapts to this presence of alcohol, alcohol addiction can develop.13
Alcohol addiction is a disease characterized by strong cravings for alcohol and continued use despite a negative impact on areas including:
- Interpersonal relationships
- Ability to work
Stopping consumption suddenly may cause an experience of withdrawal symptoms. Signs and symptoms of withdrawal can occur between four and 72 hours after the last drink and peak at about 48 hours and can last as long as five days.
Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Mild tremors
In severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, you may experience delirium tremens (DTs). This condition involves:
- Body tremors or shaking
- Hallucinations or changes in mental status
- Extreme sleepiness
- Seizures that can result in death
Delirium tremens is a medical emergency and you should call. Anyone with an alcohol dependency disorder who wants to stop drinking should seek professional medical care or a treatment center specializing in safe alcohol detoxification. In addition to alcohol detox, inpatient treatment that involves a 12-step recovery program may be beneficial.
It is important to take alcohol dependence seriously. If you or a loved one may be experiencing the effects of long-term alcohol abuse, call [Phone] for assistance.
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How Your Body Processes Alcohol
An alcoholic drink contains ethanol, which is its active ingredient. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach. Most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine. About 5% of the alcohol that is consumed exits through the lungs, kidneys, and skin. The liver removes the rest.3
The liver can metabolize about 1 standard drink of alcohol per hour. This amount varies according to a range of factors, including a person’s:
- Liver function
Consuming more than 1 alcoholic drink per hour can increase a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) with each drink leading to intoxication, especially if the person continues to drink on that occasion. The effects of alcohol linger due to the amount of time it takes the body to process alcohol.
- Mihic, S.J., & Harris, R.A. (1997). Gaba and the Gaba-a Receptor. Neurotransmitter Review, 21(2), 127-132. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-2/127.pdf
- Brosnan, J.T., & Brosnan, M.E. (2012, April 18). Glutamate: a truly functional amino acid. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22526238/
- Mayo Clinic. (2019, October 16). Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/alcohol/art-20044551
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018, June 18). Alcohol’s effects on the body. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
- Merz, B. (2017, July 17). This is your brain on alcohol. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/this-is-your-brain-on-alcohol-2017071412000
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, Dec 30). Binge drinking. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015, November 5). Drinking levels defined. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
- Mayo Clinic. (2018, January 19). Alcohol poisoning. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
- Mayo Clinic. (2017, December 16). Hangovers. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hangovers/symptoms-causes/syc-20373012
- Mayo Clinic. (2019, November 6). Alcohol use disorder. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243
- Mukerjee, S. (2013, August 10). Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system. National Library of Medicine, 10(3), 256-62. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713737/
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004, October). Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain, (63), 1-7. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
- Harvard Medical School. (2014, December). Alcohol abuse. https://www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/alcohol-abuse