Alcohol’s Effects On The Body
Alcohol is toxic to the human body, so when it is ingested, the body quickly gets to work to remove it. The ethanol in alcohol also passes the blood-brain barrier, so effects on the brain happen quickly. Over time, the long-term health risks of alcohol abuse begin to show up in physical ways, primarily in damage to organs, including the brain.
Alcohol Abuse And The Brain
When someone first ingests alcohol, the feeling might be pleasurable. That’s because the brain increases the release of specific neurotransmitters that cause pleasure in response to the ethanol consumed, likely increasing the pattern of continued drinking. Two neurotransmitters released are:
- Dopamine – This neurotransmitter is released whenever a person feels motivated or experiences pleasure during a task, such as consuming alcohol. This, in turn, motivates a person to want to keep drinking.
- GABA – Short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, this neurotransmitter reduces anxiety and can lead to better sleep. This is why people might turn to alcohol to relieve stress.
Long-term drinking can cause the brain to produce less of these neurotransmitters over time, creating an imbalance compared to what the body’s natural levels are. Without alcohol, a person can quickly start to feel depressed or anxious, as their body cannot maintain its natural levels of these neurotransmitters on its own.
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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome And Memory Issues
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, also known as wet brain, is a brain disorder that develops due to a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1). The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke stated that those with this disorder may have difficulty learning new information and have trouble retrieving old or establishing new memories.
Vitamin deficiency due to drinking also damages brain, nerve, and spinal cord cells, which can cause:
- Vision issues
- Low blood pressure
Physical Long-Term Effects
According to the National Cancer Institute, the increased cancer risks that prolonged alcohol consumption can have on the body include:
- Head and neck cancer – Those who drink moderately to excessively are 1.8 times more likely to experience oral and throat cancers and have a 2.6 times higher risk of developing larynx cancer.
- Esophageal cancer – The risk can range from 1.3 to 5 times higher depending on the severity of consumption.
- Liver cancer – Heavy consumption will increase the likelihood by twice as much.
- Colorectal cancer – The risk of developing this form of cancer can range from 1.2 to 1.5 times higher, based on the severity of consumption.
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) can greatly impact an individual’s health, especially with prolonged excessive alcohol consumption. The liver can tolerate mild alcohol consumption, but increased usage creates metabolic issues that impact its function. If consumption continues, the problems will get worse.
There are three stages of ARLD:
- Stage 1: Alcoholic fatty liver or steatosis – This is a build-up of fats in the liver. It rarely causes issues on its own, but it is a sign of too much alcohol consumption. This condition is reversible with alcohol cessation.
- Stage 2: Alcoholic hepatitis – This condition causes liver cells to become inflamed. Symptoms include belly tenderness, nausea, vomiting blood, and weight loss. Depending on the severity, the illness can be reversible, but the individual would have to stop drinking.
- Stage 3: Alcoholic cirrhosis – The final stage of ARLD is when the damage to the liver is irreversible. Symptoms can include bruising, jaundice, edema, and confusion.
Prolonged alcohol use can also lead to issues with the cardiovascular system and the heart. Issues typically include:
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart failure
What Is Excessive Drinking?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines excessive alcohol usage as:
- Eight or more drinks per week for a female
- Fifteen or more drinks per week for a male
Binge drinking is also considered excessive and is defined as four or more drinks for a female and five or more for a male. It is estimated that one in six adults participate in binge drinking, with 25% doing so every week. Binge drinking is responsible for 40% of alcohol-related deaths.
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If A Person Stops Drinking After Many Years, What Happens?
Excessive alcohol use can damage the body on a multitude of levels and can damage every organ in the body. The most significant damage appears in the liver and the GI tract, as they are the first areas exposed to the ethanol.
The good news is that the cessation of drinking can entirely or partially reverse the damage that heavy usage has caused. The National Institute of Health (NIH) points out that hypertension, GI issues, and many liver issues can be resolved with abstinence.
While it’s encouraging that these conditions can be reversed, it’s also important to be realistic about the degree of recovery from some of the medical issues. For instance, the NIH showed that only partial recovery was possible with cirrhosis. Other underlying medical conditions may be present that would make recovery harder.
Cessation gives the greatest chance for recovery but does not guarantee it. Since every individual’s body is different, some individuals may be able to fully physically recover after long-term alcohol use, while others may not. If you are concerned about your medical condition, the best course of action is to consult the appropriate medical professionals and seek treatment as soon as possible.
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Don’t Wait To Get Help
The health costs can be great for those who drink excessively. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol abuse, help is available. Start your recovery journey today and contact a treatment provider to explore your rehab options.
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