When you drink alcohol, it’s absorbed into your bloodstream and affects every part of your body. After the first sip, alcohol races to the brain releasing feel-good endorphins and your heart rate may increase. For heavy drinkers, in the long term, alcohol severely impacts your overall well-being, including your personality and mental health. Most importantly, alcohol puts your physical health at serious risk. Below are the long-term side effects that alcohol has on the body after extended periods of time:
Heavy drinking can lead to brain damage and memory loss. A recent study examined over 36,000 middle-aged adults and the relationship between their alcohol consumption and brain volume. Researchers found that one to two drinks a day was linked with changes in the brain equivalent to aging two years. In other words, a 50-year-old who drinks a pint of beer or a glass of wine a day effectively ages their brain by 2 years. Participants self-reported their alcohol consumption over one year, which could lead to inaccuracies if they forgot how much they consumed or their consumption was heavier in other years. So although this study is in its early stages, the initial findings contrast with the common myth that “a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away.”
Another way heavy drinking can affect the brain is through the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). This debilitating brain disease can be caused by a thiamine deficiency, which is a vitamin that most chronic alcoholic users lack because of poor nutrition and low bodily absorption. The initial symptoms of WKS are loss of muscle coordination, vision problems, and confusion. If left untreated, the brain suffers further damage, impairing learning and memory skills. WKS can be treated with abstinence from alcohol and proper nutrition, but it may take years to fully recover.
People who drink heavily are at risk of having tooth decay, periodontal disease, and potentially precancerous oral lesions. Many alcoholic drinks have a high sugar content that causes tooth erosion and cavities. Bacteria feed on sugar, so a person with an alcohol use disorder provides the perfect environment in their mouth for bacteria to thrive. The acid from wine, beer, and citrus drinks also wears down the enamel.
Unhealthy eating habits – from the over consumption of sugars and fats to the under consumption of critical vitamins and minerals – are common among excessive drinkers and can lead to gum disease. Bad breath – caused by rotting teeth and infected gums – is one of the clear signs that someone may struggle with alcoholism. Heavy drinkers are also at greater risk of developing cancer in the mouth, throat, and esophagus. In the long-term, alcohol has a severe effect on this part of the body.
Alcohol is a sedative, so one of its properties is that it slows down breathing. For people who have been heavily drinking for years, alcohol damages their airways and interferes with their lungs’ ability to fight off infection. Furthermore, alcohol impairs the body’s ability to remove mucus from the lungs, leading to a higher risk of pneumonia and other health complications.
Opioids, another sedative, are sometimes taken with alcohol to enhance stress relieving and calming effects, but this comes with major risks. When alcohol and opioids are combined, overdose can happen. The respiratory system can become so suppressed that it cannot sustain breathing. Without enough oxygen going to the brain, organs start shutting down and the brain can face irreversible damage. If treatment is not given immediately, then it can be fatal.
Alcohol impacts the body’s ability to create healthy, new muscles as the substance reduces the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process of producing protein to repair damaged muscles and increase mass. In addition, drinking disrupts the flow of calcium in muscle cells, affecting the way the muscles contract. Repeated abuse combined with a poor diet, also hinders the body from repairing damaged muscles.
As a result, in the long-term, excessive drinking may cause muscle weakness, or “alcoholic myopathy,” a condition that causes loss of muscle strength. Common symptoms of alcoholic myopathy are muscle cramps, spasms, numbness, and aches all over the body. Acute alcoholic myopathy can temporarily occur after a night of binge drinking as well. Eating a balanced diet, physical therapy, and abstaining from alcohol can help reverse this condition.
During intoxication, it becomes difficult for pupils to constrict and dilate as they normally would. The automatic physiological function becomes impaired, and eyes are unable to quickly adjust to different changes in light. For example, if bright lights are suddenly turned on in a room, people who have been drinking will often complain it is “too bright.”
Alcohol also affects the communication between the brain and the eyes. As a result, this can cause double vision, a condition where the brain slows down the rate at which its visual system synchronizes information from the two eyes. The problem of double vision and delayed adjustment to changes in light make it extremely dangerous to drive while intoxicated. Moreover, excessive alcohol abuse can weaken eye muscles, alter peripheral vision, and the ability to distinguish between colors. In rarer cases, alcoholism can cause blindness brought on by optic nerve damage.
Rapid or irregular heart rate is common among people who frequently drink. Alcohol can have a profound effect on this part of the body as well. In fact, some studies show that having as little as one to three alcoholic drinks each day may increase the risk of developing an abnormal heartbeat. Having an irregular heartbeat may trigger fatigue, dizziness, or shortness of breath.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, or a weakening of the heart muscle, is another serious ailment caused by excessive alcohol misuse. Over long periods of time, alcohol can thin and weaken the heart muscle so that it becomes less efficient in pumping blood throughout the body. As alcoholic cardiomyopathy worsens, it can lead to other complications like heart failure.
The liver plays one of the most vital roles in the alcohol breakdown process. Responsible for producing enzymes and filtering out harmful substances in the blood, the liver processes over 90% of alcohol. In the liver, enzymes work hard to destroy alcohol molecules while the rest of the substance exits the body via urine, sweat, and breath.
The liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol each hour. Typically, one drink per hour. When individuals binge drink, the liver can’t process the toxins quick enough and the excess alcohol enters the bloodstream, causing users to feel intoxicated. Repeated heavy drinking can damage the organ and result in cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver.
Common signs of liver disease:
- Yellowish skin and eye (jaundice)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Chronic fatigue
- Leg swelling
- Dark urine
- Discolored stool
The stomach is the first body part alcohol comes into contact with after the mouth. Excessive alcohol abuse can increase stomach acid production, gradually wearing away the stomach lining. If enough erosion occurs, this can result in a condition called gastritis. Gastritis causes a burning sensation in the stomach, a feeling of being uncomfortably full after eating, and nausea. If left untreated, ulcers will likely form in the digestive tract along with stomach tumors.
Beyond the stomach lining becoming irritated, heavy drinking also throws the body’s gut microbiome off balance, resulting in an overgrowth of bad bacteria. Too much bad bacteria could lead to fluctuating weight, skin problems, and a disrupted sleep cycle. Alcohol consumption destroys cells in the digestive system, thus hindering the stomach’s ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients from food. This is why many drinkers become mildly malnourished over time.
An additional long-term effect alcohol has on the body is damage t0 the pancreas, another important organ that aids in digestion. When functioning normally, the pancreas releases digestive enzymes to help break down food and exocrine hormones to help regulate blood sugar levels. However, chronic alcohol consumption will impair those functions often leading to pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas that can be acute or chronic. This condition occurs when an abundance of toxins from the alcohol breakdown process starts to harm the cells of the pancreas. Furthermore, digestive enzymes normally released into the small intestine remain trapped in the pancreas and begin to self-digest the organ. Damaged tissue then becomes inflamed, and if heavy drinking continues, this condition can become permanent. Some of the effects of pancreatitis are jaundice, back and abdomen pain, discolored stool, and vomiting.
Kidneys filter waste from the blood, regulate the balance of water and minerals in the body, and produce hormones. Excessive alcohol use can have harmful side effects on this part of the body. Since drinking causes dehydration, the kidneys, along with other organs in the body, become overworked with limited water. Alcohol-induced dehydration is a common cause of kidney stones as urine becomes more concentrated and the organ cannot remove toxins properly.
People who maintain a heavy drinking habit double their chances of developing kidney disease compared to the general population. Binge drinking, or consuming four to five drinks in under two hours, can sometimes impair the kidneys so much that acute kidney failure occurs. This is when the kidneys temporarily lose their filtering ability and dangerous levels of waste start to build up. If left untreated or drinking continues, then kidney disease is possible.
Common symptoms of kidney disease:
- High blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep issues
- Swelling in feet and ankles
- Painful urination
Prolonged alcohol use has a serious effect on nearly every organ in the body. While some effects are irreversible, many can be fixed over time with the right treatment and care. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction, please seek help as soon as possible to prevent any further physical deterioration.