Alcohol Effects on the Body

Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed mind-altering substances. Though alcohol is legal and readily available, there are both short- and long-term effects of alcohol on the body, including the development of alcoholism—or alcohol use disorder (AUD).1

In this article: 

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Use

The noticeable effects of alcohol use include general relaxation, changes in mood, movement, or even speaking volume. As you begin to use alcohol initially, some of the short-term effects of alcohol can be felt or experienced within a small amount of time.2 Some of the changes experienced by an individual who has recently had an alcoholic beverage include:

  • Changes in attention and focus
  • Mood changes
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Hazy memory or seemingly altered memories

With continued alcohol use, some of the following effects may be observed:

  • Cognitive changes, such as confusion
  • Significant memory loss
  • Loss of physical sensation or strength
  • Difficulty with respiration

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Alcohol can have adverse reactions with certain medications, especially those with a sedative effect, even if the medications are available over-the-counter or are prescribed to you. If you have any concerns or any recent medication changes, discuss your medication history with your primary care doctor before using alcohol.

When alcohol is consumed in greater quantities than recommended, it is called “binge drinking.” Binge drinking is defined as five or more alcoholic drinks per sitting for men and four or more alcoholic drinks per sitting for women.3 The phenomenon referred to as alcohol poisoning is caused by an excessive and noteworthy amount of binge drinking.4

As with other central nervous system depressants, such as opioids, alcohol can lead to overdose, or “alcohol poisoning.” An overdose from alcohol occurs when the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream begins to affect the function of vital, life-supporting bodily systems. If someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, their ability to breathe and maintain a heartbeat is compromised.5 Some of the symptoms of an alcohol overdose are:

  • Confusion or lack of understanding of present circumstances
  • Vomiting (emesis)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Moist or clammy skin
  • Lack of responsiveness to surroundings, including noises or other stimuli
  • Lowered heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing or slowed breathing
  • Low core body temperature

Without intervention, alcohol poisoning or overdose can result in seizures. Research demonstrates that approximately six people die every day in the United States from alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Misuse

Chronic alcohol misuse has significant adverse effects on physical health over time. Alcohol misuse has been associated with more than 30 different health conditions and is viewed as a causal factor for other additional diseases.6 The following are some of the more commonly observed medical complications associated with AUD or chronic alcohol misuse.

Cardiovascular Disease

Although alcohol misuse varies in its effects on cardiovascular health, research shows that for conditions like hypertension, increased alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of disease development.6 In 2016, 19% of worldwide deaths caused by alcohol misuse were associated with the development of cardiovascular diseases.7

Liver Disease

Research has demonstrated that within the United States, alcohol misuse is associated with a significant percentage of liver disease cases that result in death each year. Studies have shown that alcohol is associated with nearly half of cirrhosis-related deaths in the United States per year and that the percentages are much higher for select younger age groups.7

Diabetes

Although research has demonstrated a unique relationship between alcohol and diabetes development, studies indicate that high levels of alcohol misuse may increase the risk of developing diabetes.6

Neuropsychiatric disease

Alcohol misuse may increase the risk of developing a number of neuropsychiatric conditions, including AUD. Researchers have demonstrated a relationship between alcohol misuse and seizure activity in the brain.6,8 Seizures may also occur in the context of withdrawal after alcohol dependence develops.

Research into the relationship between alcohol misuse and various mental health diagnoses—such as depressive disorders—indicates some associations. However, it can be difficult to determine which disorder causes the other in these dual diagnosis relationships.8 Alcohol’s disinhibiting and relaxing effects can make its misuse seem like a viable form of self-medication for conditions like depression and anxiety. However, alcohol misuse is also associated with increased symptom severity for individuals with these mental health diagnoses. For individuals with dual diagnoses, formal treatment for both the AUD and the co-occurring mental health disorder is key in achieving long-term sobriety.

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What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

To diagnose AUD, according to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders1 (DSM–5), a medical professional evaluates for the following criteria:

  • More alcohol is consumed than was intended
  • Repeated efforts are made to abstain from drinking
  • A lot of time is devoted to consuming and acquiring alcohol
  • Cravings are experienced in the absence of alcohol
  • Alcohol use repeatedly causes interference and problems in significant areas of life, such as school, work, or family
  • Alcohol use has been associated with another psychological or medical condition, but the misuse continues
  • Tolerance for alcohol—or the need for more alcohol to achieve a similar effect—occurs over time
  • Withdrawal symptoms are experienced

The DSM-5 defines alcohol withdrawal based on the presence of some or all of the following criteria:

  • Significant amounts of alcohol must have been consumed and over time
  • You must have significantly decreased consumption or discontinued use all together
  • A combination of some of the following physiological symptoms must be present:
    • Increased nervous system activity as evidenced by physical symptoms like sweating or increased heart rate
    • Shaky hands or having tremors in the hands
    • Sleeplessness or insomnia
    • The presence of perceptual hallucinations
    • Restlessness or increased body movements
    • Nervousness or anxiety
    • Seizures

If you want to stop using alcohol after a significant period of binge drinking or alcohol misuse, work with appropriate medical professionals to prevent the risk of complications from withdrawal, such as seeking treatment at a detox center.

If you are looking for a way to safely address this problem, talking to an addiction specialist is the first step. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today to learn more about what you can do to get the support that you need to begin living the life you deserve.

Resources

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  2. Valenzuela C. F. (1997). Alcohol and neurotransmitter interactions. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 144-148.
  3. Hingson RW, Zha W, White AM. (2017). Drinking Beyond the Binge Threshold: Predictors, Consequences, and Changes in the U.S. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 52 (6).
  4. Kanny, D., Brewer, R. D., Mesnick, J. B., Paulozzi, L. J., Naimi, T. S., & Lu, H. (2015). Vital signs: alcohol poisoning deaths – United States, 2010-2012. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 63(53), 1238-1242.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
  6. Rehm, J. (2011). The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism. Alcohol Research & Health, 34(2), 135-143.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol facts and statistics.
  8. Shield, K. D., Parry, C., & Rehm, J. (2013). Chronic diseases and conditions related to alcohol use. Alcohol research: current reviews, 35(2), 155-173.

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