In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month this April, it is important to highlight the complex toll that alcohol can take on the human body.
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What exactly does Alcohol do to the Body?
Most people know that drinking too much alcohol can lead you to pass out, get a DUI, and have a raging headache the next morning – or that drinking just a little bit of alcohol can lead to an increased heartbeat and a bit of a “buzz”. However, most people don’t actually understand what alcohol is doing to their brain, nervous system, heart, liver, and the rest of the human body.
Did you know in 2013, 86.8 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime? Or that one in three suicides involves heavy alcohol misuse?
The need for clear education and understanding about the effects of alcohol is at an all-time high.
Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, and impaired memory are just a few of the ways that alcohol affects the brain. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol
Up to 80 percent of alcoholics, however, have a deficiency in thiamine (15), and some of these people will go on to develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) (16). WKS is a disease that consists of two separate syndromes, a short–lived and severe condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and a long–lasting and debilitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Alcohol affects the different regions of the brain in different ways:
- Cerebral cortex: In this region, where thought processing and consciousness are centered, alcohol depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers, making the person less inhibited; it slows down the processing of information from the eyes, ears, mouth and other senses; and it inhibits the thought processes, making it difficult to think clearly
- Cerebellum: Alcohol affects this center of movement and balance, resulting in the staggering, off-balance swagger we associate with the so-called “falling-down drunk.”
- Hypothalamus and pituitary: The hypothalamus and pituitary coordinate automatic brain functions and hormone release. Alcohol depresses nerve centers in the hypothalamus that control sexual arousal and performance. Although sexual urge may increase, sexual performance decreases.
- Medulla: This area of the brain handles such automatic functions as breathing, consciousness and body temperature. By acting on the medulla, alcohol induces sleepiness. It can also slow breathing and lower body temperature, which can be life threatening.
Alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in your brain’s “reward center.” The reward center is the same combination of brain areas (particularly the ventral striatum) that are affected by virtually all pleasurable activity.
However, over time, with more drinking, the dopamine effect diminishes until it’s almost nonexistent. But at this stage, a drinker is often “hooked” on the feeling of dopamine release in the reward center, even though they’re no longer getting it.
Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:
- Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
- Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
A large proportion of heavy drinkers develop serious alcoholic liver disease. Susceptibility to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis appears to be influenced by heredity, gender, diet, and co-occurring liver illness. Most alcoholic liver damage is attributed to alcohol metabolism.
Liver injury may be caused by direct toxicity of metabolic by-products of alcohol as well as by inflammation induced by these byproducts. Exposure of liver cells to bacterial toxins may contribute to liver disease. Escalating liver injury can lead to fibrosis and, ultimately, to cirrhosis.
Three Main Types of Alcohol-related Liver Disease:
Alcoholic fatty liver disease results from the deposition of fat in liver cells. It is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease. There are usually no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, weakness, and discomfort localized to the right upper abdomen. Liver enzymes may be elevated, however tests of liver function are often normal. Many heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease. Alcoholic fatty liver disease may be reversible with abstinence of alcohol.
Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by fat deposition in liver cells, inflammation and mild scarring of the liver. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. Liver enzymes are elevated and tests of liver function may be abnormal. Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis and of these 55% already have cirrhosis. Alcoholic hepatitis can be mild or severe. Mild alcoholic hepatitis may be reversed with abstinence. Severe alcoholic hepatitis may occur suddenly and lead to serious complications including liver failure and death.
Alcoholic cirrhosis, the most advanced type of alcohol induced liver injury is characterized by severe scarring and disruption of the normal structure of the liver — hard scar tissue replaces soft healthy tissue. Between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis. Symptoms of cirrhosis may be similar to those of severe alcoholic hepatitis. Cirrhosis is the most advanced type of alcohol-related liver disease and is not reversed with abstinence. However, abstinence may improve the symptoms and signs of liver disease and prevent further damage.
Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the: