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What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?

Drinking alcohol can take a toll on your body in a number of ways. While most people of the legal drinking age do drink alcohol — or have consumed alcohol at some point — drinking too much is dangerous.

Most people (85.6 percent) ages 18 and older report having drunk alcohol at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, 69.5 percent report having drunk alcohol in the last year, and 54.9 percent report having drunk alcohol in the past month.

While drinking in moderation isn’t necessarily bad, too many people misuse alcohol. Moderate drinking is considered two drinks or less in a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women. But some people with alcohol use disorders (AUD) and other drinking problems consume much more.

Nearly 15 million people (14.5 million) 12 years old and up had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019. Meanwhile, about 95,000 percent of people (an estimated 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes every year. This makes alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable death in the country, behind only tobacco and poor diet/physical inactivity.

It’s no surprise that alcohol can do damage to your body. Drinking too much alcohol at once can have unpleasant short-term effects. It can also lead to more permanent physical and mental health damage, and even death. 

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

The short-term effects of alcohol include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of coordination
  • Disinhibition
  • Urge to speak
  • Inability to speak coherently
  • Decreased attention
  • Poor memory
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Reddened skin
  • Flushed face
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncontrolled eye movements
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced responsiveness
  • Lack of awareness
  • Clumsiness
  • Decreased motor skills
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Injuries (such as car crashes and drowning)

If you drink too much alcohol, you might also experience a hangover the next day. This is linked to anxiety and depression, as well as general drowsiness. If you are hungover, you’ll probably have decreased energy and little motivation. You may also feel sick and make unhealthier choices.

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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

The long-term effects of alcohol include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Brain damage
  • Liver damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease 
  • Pancreas issues
  • Increased risk of some cancers (breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon)
  • Digestive issues
  • Weakened immune system
  • Learning problems (dementia)
  • Social problems with personal relationships
  • Financial implications
  • Mental health issues (anxiety and depression)
  • Alcohol use disorder

How is Alcohol Metabolized?

When you drink alcohol, it’s absorbed mostly from the small intestine into the veins that collect the blood from your stomach and bowels and into your portal vein, which leads to your liver. Once it reaches your liver, enzymes — alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) — break it down.

How Long Does it Take to Metabolize Alcohol?

How long it takes for your body to metabolize alcohol depends on various factors. These include how much alcohol you drank, your height, weight, gender, food intake that day, hydration levels, and more. 

On average, it may take about an hour to metabolize a standard drink.

How Alcohol Affects Specific Body Systems 

Alcohol affects your body in a multitude of ways. Here are some of them:

Immune System

Alcohol takes a toll on your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses.

Skeletal System

Studies show that too much alcohol consumption can hurt your bone health and boost your risk of osteoporosis.

Muscular System

A wealth of research suggests that alcohol affects your energy levels, which can demotivate you to work out. This, in turn, can take a toll on your muscular system.

Reproductive System 

Alcohol is linked to sexual dysfunction (especially in men) and can even be at the root of infertility in women.

Digestive System

Too much alcohol and alcohol’s metabolites can be overwhelming for your gastrointestinal tract (GI) and liver. This affects your overall digestive system.

Circulatory System

Too much alcohol consumption is linked to high blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure is linked to a whole host of health issues, from heart failure to vision loss.

Other Risks of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol can also lead to other dangerous situations. Here are some of the other risks of excessive alcohol consumption:

Blackouts

Drinking too much alcohol too fast can cause you to black out. Blackouts are gaps in your memory for events that happened while you were heavily intoxicated. This can lead to risky behaviors and put you in vulnerable situations.

Alcohol Poisoning (Intoxication)

Alcohol poisoning happens when there is too much alcohol in your blood. This causes parts of your brain to shut down. Alcohol poisoning can lead to serious health hazards, like seizures and slowed heart rate, trouble breathing, and more. It can also kill you. 

Chronic Inflammation

Alcohol is linked to inflammation and puffiness, particularly in the face. Alcohol can also cause your skin to redden and make your face appear flushed. 

Liver Damage

Alcohol can cause fatty liver disease and other liver problems. Alcohol-related liver disease, for example, is a result of years of excessive drinking that has made the liver inflamed. Swelling and scarring can also happen, which is known as cirrhosis.

Heart Damage

Alcohol is linked to a number of cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, strokes, irregular heartbeats, and more. The more you drink, the bigger your risk of developing heart disease and other heart complications.

Cancer

Alcohol has been linked to some types of cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon cancer.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas, which occurs when digestive enzymes digest the pancreas. This can be acute or chronic. Either way, alcohol can induce pancreatitis.

Diabetes

Drinking alcohol in combination with medications used to treat diabetes can be dangerous. Doing so can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Numbness

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to numbness and a tingling sensation on your skin. While this may only be temporary, it can be a very uncomfortable side effect.

Shrinking Brain

Studies show that your brain volume actually shrinks when you drink alcohol. The more you drink, the more your brain can shrink.

Coordination & Memory Problems

Alcohol lowers your ability to move and speak with coordination. It can also cause lapses in your memory, so you may have a hard time recounting the events that occurred while you were under the influence. 

Behavioral Changes & Mental Health Issues

Alcohol can cause mood swings and is linked to mental health disorders like depression. While some people may abuse alcohol to cope with depression, it can only become a vicious cycle.

Dependence (Addiction)

Alcohol addiction can take a physical, mental, social, emotional, and financial toll on your life. This is especially true if you don’t seek professional help to beat your alcohol addiction. 

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction 

The symptoms of alcohol addiction vary from person to person. They also depend on how serious the addiction is. The symptoms of alcohol addiction include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • You tend to think about alcohol a lot
  • You drink alone
  • You tend to lie about your drinking habits
  • You find that alcohol gets in the way of your responsibilities at home and at work or school
  • Alcohol hurts you financially or socially, but you continue to drink anyway
  • Alcohol takes a toll on your physical or mental health, but you continue to drink anyway
  • It’s difficult to quit drinking on your own

Tips: How to Drink Less Alcohol

Drinking less alcohol isn’t so easy for everyone — especially if you have an alcohol use disorder. Drinking in moderation can help you keep a healthy handle on your consumption. But you may need professional help to cut back or quit drinking altogether.

It’s worth checking out resource groups in your area. You may find support groups to connect with like-minded people on similar journeys. These groups can inspire and motivate you to drink less or quit.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol misuse or addiction, know that professional help is available. Check out inpatient or outpatient treatment centers in your area. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help you unpack triggers that drive you to drink.

Whatever kind of treatment you choose, you don’t have to go through the journey alone.

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Resources

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“Alcohol and Other Factors Affecting Osteoporosis Risk in Women.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/292-298.htm.

“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

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Arackal, Bijil Simon, and Vivek Benegal. “Prevalence of Sexual Dysfunction in Male Subjects with Alcohol Dependence.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Medknow Publications, Apr. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917074/

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“Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Feb. 2021, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

“Health Threats From High Blood Pressure.” Www.heart.org, www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/health-threats-from-high-blood-pressure

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Van Heertum, Kristin, and Brooke Rossi. “Alcohol and Fertility: How Much Is Too Much?” Fertility Research and Practice, BioMed Central, 10 July 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5504800/

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