Physical and mental changes produced by alcohol
In this article we look at both the physical and mental changes produced by alcohol. Alcohol effects everyone in different ways, in the short term we can see everything from personality changes on a night out to more serious effects that drinking has had in the long term. Listening to our bodies is crucial and from a physical and mental standpoint we need to recognise how drinking can effect not just ourselves but also our family and friends.
Short Term Effects
Alcohol begins to have an effect on the human body within minutes of consumption, it is absorbed into the bloodstream where it then makes its way to the brain. People are affected in different ways and the length of time for these affects to become apparent depend on different factors such as size and weight, sex, how much has been eaten prior to consumption, how much is consumed and how quickly.
Signs of intoxication can include:
- Becoming more chatty
- Becoming louder
- Out of character
- Increased aggression
- Slurring speech
- Unsteady gait
- Distorted senses
The liver needs approximately one hour to process one alcoholic drink, in the real world, say on a night out with friends several drinks can be consumed in an hour, this causes alcohol to build up in the body as the body absorbs alcohol quickly.
Long Term Effects
Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a period of years has a negative effect on the body, organs receive a constant battering and become damaged – these include the brain, liver, pancreas and heart. Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol which in turn increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Besides from the physical damage and risks that we hear about regularly on the media alcohol misuse also affects other parts of our lives, families can come under extreme pressure, relationships become strained sometimes to breaking point resulting in marital conflict, divorce and break up, children are neglected, finances disrupted and unemployment.
Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Did you know that secondary to the brain the liver is the most complex organ in the body? The liver filters toxins from the blood, regulates cholesterol and blood sugar, aids digestion and helps fight off infections. The liver is without doubt the most ‘heard of’ organ when it comes to alcohol abuse with cirrhosis being top of the list in alcohol related diseases however there are ways in which excessive alcohol consumption can affect the liver.
Fatty liver disease as the name suggests is a build up of fat in the liver, many think that this, like other liver diseases is a result of long term heavy drinking but the truth is that fatty deposits in the liver can build up after just a few days, the good news is that abstaining from alcohol for 2 weeks can reverse this.
Something that can pose a serious risk to health due to alcohol abuse over a longer period is alcoholic hepatitis, this condition cal also occur due to heavy ‘binge drinking although this cause is generally less common.
Lastly we have cirrhosis which is a serious condition, cirrhosis is scarring of the liver and is irreversible, stopping drinking straight away will prevent further damage however if drinking continues there is a less than a 50% chance of living five years or more. (source)
It may seem that almost anything contributes to heart disease these days but excessive drinking can affect the heart through increased blood pressure. Heavy drinking weakens the heart muscle which in turn diminishes the heart’s ability to pump blood through the body, this significantly increases the risk of heart attack or stroke. There is an argument that small amounts of alcohol ‘may’ actually prove beneficial to the heart, red wine is usually the drink of choice that is thrown into this argument due to it’s antioxidants however the word ‘may’ is always carefully chosen.
There are two types of pancreatitus, acute and chronic, the former comes on very suddenly and causes severe pain, this condition can actually be life threatening. The latter is when the pancreas becomes inflamed and remains so resulting in a failure to work as it should. The main advice is to cut down on alcohol.
The function of the kidneys is to filter all the harmful substances and toxins from the blood – this includes alcohol. Alcohol can affect the kidney’s ability to filter the blood and also their role in balancing the correct amount of water in the body. What happens when we drink too much or have a hangover? We get a dry mouth as the alcohol dehydrates the body – this affects the kidneys and other vital organs.
As mentioned above alcohol intake can result in high blood pressure which is a common factor in kidney disease , the liver being affected also puts additional pressure on the kidneys to do their job as a certain level of blood flow is required for filtering, this is a balance which can be upset as a result of liver disease.
When you consume alcohol it is not digested the same way as other foods, alcohol travels to the stomach and small intestine where is avoids the usual digestion process and instead gets absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
Heavy drinkers often suffer from heartburn and stomach pain as alcohol increases acid in the stomach. Alcohol harms the microbiome (micro-organisms that live in the intestinal tract), consider the fact that alcohol which is essentially ethanol is used as a disinfectant then this stands to reason, alcohol consumption results in an inflammatory response within the gut causing discomfort.
Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking can damage the immune system, it stands to reason that if we consume something like ethanol which is essentially a poison that it will not do us any good at all. The good news is that in a lot of cases abstinence can reverse this damage – the human body is an amazing thing when it comes to repairing itself.
One of the effects of long term alcohol exposure is a deficient immune response, the result is a reduced level of white blood cells which in turn make us more vulnerable to illness and disease. (source)
Excessive alcohol consumption (particularly long term) can cause problems in the female reproductive system. Two of the most common effects on the female body are abnormal menstrual cycles and failure to ovulate, women who drink excessively are also at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Couple this with a higher chance of contracting an STD by way of sexual encounters through lowered inhibitions and the risks become bigger.
Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, consuming several alcohol drinks in one sitting can raise blood pressure temporarily but repeated heavy drinking and binge drinking can result on more longer term effects. Heavy drinkers that need to reduce their blood pressure should ease off the alcohol gradually as a sudden stop can lead to severe high blood pressure over several days. Alcohol also contains calories which in turn contribute to weight gain – another cause of high blood pressure.
There are a lot of things that cause vomiting and too much alcohol is one of them, we have all had the ‘spins’ when you go to bed and the whole room starts to go… Basically vomiting is a way for the body to rid itself of a toxin.
Despite what people might say (including a way to avoid the killer hangover the next day) self induced vomiting is a bad idea. When you throw up voluntarily it puts strain on the esophagus which can result in tears, it is also different to the body doing it naturally as you are trying to get rid of as much as you can – hence the strain. Let’s face it, no body enjoys being sick so perhaps the best thing to do is to refrain from the cause in the first place.
Some people can be affected by night sweats after alcohol consumption, night sweats can happen for number of reasons but alcohol consumption is common especially given the fact that most drinking occurs during the evening. Alcohol intake speeds up the heart rate which in turn widen blood vessels near the skin, this can trigger sweating. Other causes are alcohol withdrawal and alcohol intolerance.
Diarrhea, a lovely subject and one that is common among consistent heavy drinkers and it can also come about after a heavy night of drinking or binge drinking. Basically it comes down to fluid – large amounts of alcohol cause the intestine to release water in order to flush out the system, faster contractions also occur within the colon, alcohol speeds up this process, again to get rid of what’s inside. Diarrhea also increases dehydration through the loss of fluid.
Effects of Alcohol and the Brain
Short term memory loss: Doctors call this a blackout, a heavy night of binge drinking can cause this where you can’t remember certain things from the night before or indeed the entire night. Excessive alcohol consumption slows down how nerves communicate with something in the brain called the hippocampus – when the usual nerve activity slows down the result can be short term memory loss.
Long term memory loss: As with the aforementioned the hippocampus comes into play once again only this time instead of slowing it is actually damaged. It is worth mentioning that in older people cells degenerate in the hippocampus and as a person ages the brain becomes more sensitive to alcohol as their metabolism slows resulting in alcohol remaining in the system for longer.
It is not clear whether or not alcohol can actually cause anxiety however research suggests that there is a link. For those that suffer from anxiety alcohol intake can cause a vicious circle – alcohol is a sedative so once consumed it helps you relax, easing anxiety however once the effects begin to wear off and particularly with a hangover it can make anxiety worse.
When we first start drinking (say on a night out) we are there to have a good time, usually with friends and alcohol helps us relax, it’s acceptable, it’s social and we feel good about our situation. General mood can be influenced by alcohol in many ways and this is dependent on how much we consume. That night out can be one of the very best to remember or one to remember for all the wrong reasons.
Moods change after drinking and is perhaps one of the more notable changes produced by alcohol, we become happier and it lowers our inhibitions, for some however excessive alcohol consumption can spark aggression, some people can become argumentative, awkward, knowing which buttons to press to wind up their partner or friend, jealousy can raise its head and for others it may just be a case of bursting into tears. Do we really want a great night out to turn nasty?
Alcohol can ultimately demonstrate to some that they lack control whilst under the influence and while there have been many studies performed around how alcohol affects our mood, the message remains the same – too much alcohol is not a good thing.
Discover this in depth look at how alcohol affects the brain with this Q&A with Dr Clara Vasquez
When a person drinks alcohol the brain releases that chemical that most of us will have heard of, the one that makes us feel good – dopamine. A couple of drinks in a social scene may well relax someone but go past that or on a binge drinking session and inhibitions are significantly lowered – you do and say things you otherwise would if you were sober, this is how alcohol changes us and opens up the flood gates.
Drinking changes behaviour to such a degree that we become very different, risky sexual encounters, altercations, driving under the influence, aggression and basically being downright stupid are all on the usual main suspects list – remember you have to deal with yourself the next day but some behaviours can have life altering consequences.
“It makes you wonder if a drug was introduced to society today that made people act in the way they do under the influence would it be banned? Instead we accept its advertising, normalisation and heavy costs to the emergency services week in, week out…”
Alcohol impairs judgement and this ties in closely with lowered inhibitions as described above. Interestingly, the more alcohol we consume the higher the impact on the brain which impairs the pre-frontal cortex – as a consequence behaviour is then driven by the more primitive areas of the brain which increases aggression and sexual tendencies.
A good example of this is something commonly referred to as ‘beer goggles‘, when someone who is under the influence finds another person attractive only to discover when they sober up that the person was not their cup of tea at all.
The area of the brain that is associated with coordination becomes affected after alcohol consumption, the brain’s ability to manage movements is significantly lowered the more alcohol is consumed, the result is poor or inability to balance, hand eye coordination deteriorates and reaction time slows. We have all seen clips on TV of inebriated people or those miserably failing a sobriety test, the more alcohol consumed the worse our coordination becomes.
Drinking heavily affects vision, getting back to the liver again, if it cannot filter the alcohol in time then the alcohol remains in the body and one side affect is blurred or double vision. Decreased peripheral vision may occur giving the perception of tunnel vision and pupils are slower to react. The eye muscles weaken after heavy drinking affecting overall visual performance which in turn affects coordination. Drinking also causes redness in the eyes, alcohol causes vessels in the eyes to expand resulting in a ‘bloodshot’ appearance.
It’s all about GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid, too much of this in your brain and your speech deteriorates because the brain can’t process the information your body is trying to send it. Slurred speech can be both a short term and long term affect of alcohol abuse.
In the short term you can tell if someone is drunk by their speech (the police also use speech as an indicator of how much someone might have had to drink), if someone is slurring their words it’s a good indicator that they have already had too much to drink. Longer term affects can be a result of damage to the brain through excess drinking or alcoholism.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is essentially when a person consumes too much or, a toxic amount. Binge drinking can result in alcohol poisoning due to a very large amount of alcohol being drank in a short space of time – the liver cannot filter the alcohol from your bloodstream quickly enough causing a build up of alcohol in the body hence poisoning.
Being poisoned by anything is a serious health risk and alcohol is no different – your life could be in danger.
- Slurred speech
- Loss of co-ordination
- Slow breathing
- Unresponsive (but still conscious)
- Passing out
One of the worst things to do if you suspect a person has alcohol poisoning is to leave them to ‘sleep it off’, alcohol levels in the bloodstream can continue to rise after the last drink causing a person’s condition to deteriorate further. The cold shower and strong coffee are also not advised as these can even be dangerous. The best advice from experts if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning is to call the ambulance for professional medical care.
Are You Secretly Concerned?
In today’s modern society we are continually bombarded with the results from the latest surveys and findings, how much we can eat, when and how, what is good for us and what isn’t, the results of a recent survey have suggested… the list is extensive which we will not go into here but there is always something that causes heart disease or some type of cancer. Whether or not you take heed of this advice is up to the individual and to be fair, because there is so much of it a lot tends to go ignored.
Your body and your mind however are definitely worth listening to, are you secretly concerned that you are drinking too much? Is that little ‘niggle’ in the back of your mind trying to tell you something? Counting how much alcohol is left the next morning or planning when you will buy more later that day?
If you are justifying your drinking but deep down know it’s too much then perhaps it’s time to do something about it. Cancers and all the detrimental effects alcohol can have on your body do exist, they are real so the question has to be, is it really worth putting yourself in harm’s way?
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Quitting Drinking Why Can’t I Just Moderate? – This article looks at why willpower and moderating doesn’t necessarily work and what approach to take instead. Read more
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Physical and mental changes produced by alcohol was contributed by Iain Macdonald