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Impact Of Alcohol On The Body

Drinking too much alcohol not only affects your liver, but your brain, central nervous system, immune system, digestion and heart health.

Impact Of Alcohol On The Body

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Most of us enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer after a long, hard day, but do we really know the impact alcohol has on our body?

While having the odd alcoholic drink every now and again poses a lower risk to our health, it's regularly consuming more than 14 units a week where the risks to health increase.

It has been reported that some types of alcohol such as red wine can protect against diseases, such as heart disease due to it's antioxidant properties.  However, a British Heart Foundation funded study in 2018 into the '...effect of alcohol consumption on heart and circulatory diseases concluded that the risks outweigh the benefits, and drinking more than the recommended limits will have a negative effect on your health.'

In this article we look at the health impacts of drinking alcohol and why you should consider cutting back or giving up completely.

Contents

 

Health Impact Of Drinking Alcohol

According to a survey carried out by Drinkaware in 2017, 56% of men and 64% of women said they had drunk in the last year and the average amount of alcohol they drank each week was above the recommended 14 units [1]. In addition, 4% of men said their weekly alcohol consumption was above 50 units per week and 3% of women said their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 35 units.

 

Short Term Effects Of Alcohol

We all know the short term effects of drinking alcohol and the symptoms vary depending on how much alcohol we drink but include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Poor vision
  • Fluctuating emotions
  • Dehydration
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Upset stomach
  • Poor sleep

Fortunately these symptoms wear off a few hours after we've stopped drinking as our body metabolises the alcohol in our system. However, depending on how much you drink, your gender, age and weight, alcohol can still be present in your system between 12 and 48 hours after your last drink.

 

Longer Term Effects Of Alcohol

However, consistently drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time can lead to health issues which affect both your mind and body. The more you drink the greater the risk you will develop alcohol related health problems.

Alcohol affects many parts of our body including:

  • The liver and lungs
  • The brain and central nervous system
  • Digestive system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Skeletal and muscle systems
  • Immune system

The long term health risks of drinking too much alcohol include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver disease or liver cancer
  • Mouth, throat, head, neck cancers
  • Breast cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Mental health problems
  • Dementia
  • Sexual health and reproductive issues

 

The Liver

Most of us relate drinking to too much to liver damage. Although the liver has an amazing capability of being able to regenerate itself, making it robust and able to deal with harsh conditions, every time you drink alcohol, some of your liver cells will be killed off. If this is not a regular occurrence, there’s every chance it will repair itself. However, continuous misuse of alcohol can impair the liver's ability to regenerate itself, leading to inflammation of the liver and liver disease.

 

The Lungs

People who drink well over the recommended limit of alcohol on a regular basis are also at a greater risk of developing alcohol related lung disease [3] and lung infections as the body is less able to fight off infections caused by viruses or bacteria.

According to one study '...alcohol abuse now is recognized as an independent factor that increases by three- to four-fold the incidence of the acute respiratory distress syndrome, a severe form of acute lung injury with a mortality rate of 40 to 50 percent.' [3].

 

The Brain & Central Nervous System

Long term use of alcohol can impact your brain by shrinking the frontal lobes.  This can result in what's known as alcohol-related dementia [2] which causes a variety of symptoms including difficulty staying focused, struggling to solve problems, plan and organise, trouble setting goals and making decisions or judgements, loss of empathy for others, memory problems, difficulty with balance and mood changes. 

Alcohol also has an effect on our central nervous system. When we are drunk our speech becomes slurred, we struggle to communicate and we can also lose our balance or ability to walk properly. All these symptoms are signs that the alcohol is impacting our central nervous system making it difficult for our body to communicate with the brain.

In addition, as alcohol changes the brain's chemistry it can also contribute to poor mental health. Our brains rely on a fine balance of chemicals and processes which alcohol consumption disrupts. Alcohol is a depressant affecting our thoughts and feelings and can lead to long-term mental health problems. If you already suffer from anxiety or depression then drinking too much alcohol will exacerbate these feelings. [7]

 

Digestive System

There is a clear link between alcohol and digestive problems, although these may not present themselves immediately. Often, you’ll only notice the signs and symptoms after damage has occurred and continuing to drink can make them worse. The symptoms include:

  • bloating
  • flatulence/gas
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling of fullness in your abdomen

Heavy drinkers may also experience haemorrhoids, also known as piles, or ulcers. It’s important to have these diagnosed as they can lead to more serious effects such as internal bleeding. These people are also at a greater risk of developing cancers related to the digestive system, such as:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • oesophagus
  • liver
  • colon

 

Cardiovascular System

If you drink excessively on a regular basis, your cardiovascular system is at an increased risk of damage and disease. People who drink alcohol are at a greater risk of alcohol-related heart problems compared to those who don’t drink. When we drink alcohol it temporarily increases our heart rate and blood pressure, so having too much alcohol over a longer period of time can lead to persistently high heart rate, high blood pressure, irregular heart beat and a weakened heart [4].

 

Skeletal and Muscle Systems

Heavy drinkers may also suffer from skeletal and muscle problems due to excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol can affect bone, muscle and peripheral nerves. This can lead to bone complications such as fractures, osteoporosis or osteonecrosis. And muscle problems such as weakness in upper or lower limbs, known as proximal myopathy and a syndrome known as rhabdomyolysis which results in the death of muscle fibres and the release of their contents into the bloodstream which can lead to kidney failure. [5].

 

Immune System

Alcohol also has a negative impact on our immune system, making us more susceptible to infection. According to research, alcohol impacts the immune pathways which impairs the body's ability to fight off infection. This can result in more frequent illness but also impact the body's ability to recovery from physical injury and wound healing. [6]

 

Alcohol And Sexual Health

Drinking during pregnancy, which is not recommended, increases the chance of miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth. Men who drink large amounts of alcohol are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction and may even have a reduced libido.

 

Alcohol And Sleep

Alcohol may help you to drift off to sleep but it’s unlikely to help you stay asleep. If you regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week it’s likely your drinking is disrupting your sleep, leaving you feeling tired the next day.

If you drink more than 6 units in one night, you may have more deep sleep but less rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is important for learning processes and retaining memories. Plus, because alcohol is a diuretic, it’s likely you’ll find yourself waking up needing the loo, disrupting your sleep even further.

Overall, the impact on your sleep affects your ability to function properly the next day. In addition, having poor quality sleep can affect your mental health as well.

 

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

So, now we know the impact of alcohol on our bodies, how much alcohol is safe to drink?

Current guidelines recommend drinking less than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women as this should keep alcohol health risks low.

14 units looks like:

  • 6 pints of beer
  • 6 medium glasses of red wine
  • 14 single 25ml shots of spirit (40%)

If you are regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week, then it could well lead to serious health issues as outlined above.

In addition, these 14 units of alcohol should be spread out across the week. Not drinking Monday to Friday then consuming 14 units over one or two days is not the best solution. Instead spread alcohol consumption across three or more days. But remember, the 14 units isn't a target, you should always aim to be well below this amount.

 

How To Stop Drinking Alcohol

If you’re looking to give up alcohol or reduce your intake there are things you can do to make it easier.

Firstly:

  • work out how much you currently drink per week
  • ask yourself why you drink
  • do you want to quit completely or cut down your intake?

Once, you have answered these questions you will be able to develop a plan for cutting back or giving up alcohol. For example, introducing alcohol free days or replacing your usual alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one. The rise in NoLow drinks has seen drinks manufacturers launch a variety of no alcohol or low alcohol drinks to give you more choice and better options for cutting back or cutting out alcohol.

When you are going to stop drinking, consider these factors:

  • tell your loved ones about your intentions as they can help you to reach your goals and keep you motivated
  • change the environment you are in e.g., remove alcohol from your house, swap alcoholic for non-alcoholic drinks for social gatherings
  • reward yourself when you achieve a goal for example self-care
  • ask for help or support if you need it
  • rediscover or find new hobbies, these can act as distracting tools

Note, if you are a heavy drinker it isn’t safe to suddenly stop drinking. You will need to speak to a doctor for medical guidance on the safest way for you to stop drinking.

 

Health Benefits Of Not Drinking Alcohol

If you are giving up alcohol completely, you’ll start to notice the difference within the first week. You should notice an improvement in your sleep pattern, energy levels, cognitive function, digestion and moods.

Within four weeks of giving up alcohol your liver should have fully recovered from the effects of alcohol. Within one month, your liver will lose the excess fat it has accumulated and if your alcohol intake hasn’t been too excessive then your liver should begin to heal within 4-8 weeks.

Plus, you'll be reducing the risks of long-term health issues related to ongoing and excessive alcohol consumption.

 

Conclusion

According to the NHS drinking less than 14 units a week is low-risk drinking. However, it is still not deemed safe as it still carries a risk to health, albeit low. The NHS also state that serious health issues can arise from regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week over the course of 10 to 20 years.  Drinking regularly can impact your mood, digestion, sleep and ability to cope with every day life.

There are numerous health benefits to cutting back on alcohol, even if you are a moderate drinker. These benefits include better sleep, more energy, a sharper brain and better digestion. It will also help improve your immune system strength to help you fight off viruses and infections.

Drinking alcohol is habit forming, so when looking to cut back think of ways to replace the habit, such as replacing your evening drink with a non-alcoholic beverage instead. If you often want a drink before a meal, see if you can wait until you've eaten and see if you still want a drink.

For further help on cutting back or stopping drinking visit www.drinkaware.co.uk.

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