Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Brain. The brain is a complex system of nerve cells that work together to process our world, send messages to each other, sustain the body’s physiological function, and make all our complex decisions. Alcohol interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain, slowing their communication which means slowing every psychological and physical activity of our body.
Within the different regions of the brain, alcoholism causes damage as well. By affecting the cerebellum (the area that controls motor coordination), alcohol use results in tremors, coordination problems, slow reaction time, and loss of balance. Deeper brain damage results in memory disruptions, interrupted emotional responses, and poor consequence association. In the prefrontal cerebral cortex, alcohol leads to impairment in areas such as learning, social interactions, planning or thinking clearly, decision making, and problem solving.
Heavy alcohol use actually causes brain cells to shrink and the brain to atrophy leading to loss of motor coordination, motor weakness, sleep disruptions, mood swings, memory and learning impairment, and eventually dementia. Some of these brain disruptions can be reversible over long periods of time, but some effects can be permanent.
Heart. The heart and cardiovascular system are directly impacted by heavy alcohol use. Alcoholism weakens the heart muscle, leading to poor circulation and a condition called cardiomyopathy. This condition is characterized by shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, arrhythmia, and swelling in the extremities. Binge drinking and alcoholism put a lot of strain on the heart, causing it to beat too quickly, or to beat irregularly. Atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia are heart arrhythmias that can be caused by excessive alcohol use. Excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to high blood pressure, or hypertension. Alcoholic heart disease is deadly and hard to reverse.
In addition, strokes can occur when alcohol keeps blood from reaching the brain. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people who binge drink are about 56 percent more likely than people who never binge drink to suffer an ischemic stroke over 10 years. Binge drinkers also are about 39 percent more likely to suffer any type of stroke than people who never binge drink. These strokes lead to thinking or motor deficits, or both.
Liver. The liver is one of the organs that suffer the most because of heavy alcohol consumption. The liver’s function is to cleanse the body of toxins by breaking them down, and chronic alcohol use overloads this organ with toxins so that it cannot function correctly anymore. Binge drinking causes the liver to store extra fat and lose its effectiveness. This leads to inflammation and hepatitis. Symptoms of this include nausea, appetite loss, stomach pain, and jaundice (turning yellow). Prolonged drinking also causes scar tissue to build up in the liver, which leads to cirrhosis. This condition can lead to jaundice, insulin resistance, and liver cancer, as well as increased infections in the body and decreased ability to absorb nutrients.
Furthermore, some liver disease leads to a buildup of toxic substances (ammonia) in the body and brain, causing mood disturbances, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, insomnia, coma, and even death.
The liver is a fairly resilient organ and can repair minimal damage, but for those that consistently bombard the body with alcohol, some liver damage will be irreversible.
Pancreas. The pancreas helps the body process food by providing the enzymes needed to digest food, and releases insulin to regulate blood sugar level. Excessive alcohol use damages the pancreas, causing inflammation and reducing this organ’s effectiveness. Pancreatitis (a painful swelling of the pancreas), very deadly pancreatic cancer, and diabetes are pancreatic illnesses caused by alcoholism. The alcohol user will experience severe nausea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. Effects on the pancreas are not easily reversed and very hazardous.
Immune System. The immune system is responsible for protecting the body from germs, infection, and disease. Alcohol suppresses the immune system and interferes with its message transmission. This increases the body’s risk for developing disease and infection, as it cannot fight these threats off as well as it normally should.
Nervous System. Similar to the toxic effects alcohol has on brain cells, it is also toxic to the rest of our nerves, often leading to lack of sensation or coordination in our feet and hands.
Reproductive System. Because of the effects on the nervous and circulatory system, erectile dysfunction is common in men. Alcohol also lowers testosterone leading to low sex drive, men developing breasts, and gaining weight especially around the belly.
Cancer Risks. Finally, alcoholism increases a person’s risk for developing cancer. Because of the way this substance attacks the various systems of the body, it makes it a prime target for cancer to develop. The most common types of cancer associated with excessive alcohol use include mouth, esophageal, larynx, liver, and breast cancer.
Mental Signals that a Person Cannot Stop Drinking
Many physical and psychological warning signs of alcohol dependence are usually present. If you are concerned your loved one is an alcoholic, you can watch for the signs. The person will develop a high tolerance for alcohol, as shown by drinking large amounts or drinking frequently. Next, your loved one will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking – cravings, headache, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, agitation, tremor, and fatigue. The person will show a loss of control when they drink – drinking large amounts, drinking despite negative consequences, drinking even when it is inappropriate.
Over time, your loved one will find it difficult to keep it together in their everyday life, and will experience a decrease in performance at work, neglect personal hygiene, and lose interest in people or activities that once were important to them. In addition, your loved one might become defensive about their drinking, hide their drinking, become secretive about many issues, or make excuses for their irresponsibility.
Depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, false bravado, insecurity, isolation, and cutting off most things except for alcohol related people and activities become main components of their life as their relationship to alcohol grows and relationships with anything else dies away.
If the signals above are part of your loved one’s life, they probably have an alcohol dependence problem. Even if they try to stop drinking, they won’t be able to, because their body is dependent on it to function. They need professional help to take control of their life for them and provide supervision to put their life on an alcohol-free path.
Spiritual and Family Issues
Along with physical and behavioral signs of alcohol dependence come spiritual and family issues that go along with this disease. A person who is addicted to alcohol has allowed this substance to take top priority in their life. This means that everything else – God, family, relationships, work – take second, or third, or fourth place. One of the biggest changes a family will notice in their loved one is the lack of hope, peace, or joy and the abundance of despair, failure, doom, frustration, and apathy that encompass them because they have isolated themselves from God and their family. Instead of belonging to God and their loved ones, they feel their only connection is to alcohol.
These deeper issues can be healed and the alcoholic can go on to develop a healthy spiritual existence, but it takes a renewing of the mind that only comes through faith and focus on God. Holistic healing, in the form of psychological, spiritual, and physical rehab, is necessary for true recovery to start and transformation to have a chance.
Trust Your Gut
If you start to see some of these signs in your life or a loved one’s, or even the sense that something isn’t adding up right, don’t hesitate or be afraid to ask questions. Alcohol addiction can masquerade as many different things because of its infectious assault on all our spheres of existence.
If you see the signs described in this article, don’t turn a blind eye. Trust your gut. If something isn’t adding up or the dots aren’t connecting in somebody’s story; if the explanation or stories they’ve told don’t match what you see in their lives, or if you suspect something might be going on and it could be alcohol abuse, ask more questions or get them a professional assessment. You will be saving at least one life and dramatically impacting the many others they contact now and in the future.