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The Effects of Alcoholism on the Body

Effects of Alcoholism on the Body Infographics

Drunk man laying down in the street with ankle chained to liquor bottlesAlcohol plays a large role in our culture. We consume it during celebrations, social occasions and even during some religious ceremonies. But, indulging in too much alcohol can have detrimental effects on the body.

According to the, in 2013 24.6% of people 18 years of age and over reported engaging in binge drinking during the last month. 6.8% of respondents reported heavy drinking.

While most of us understand the dangers of drinking and driving or becoming dependent on alcohol, many people don’t see the damage that alcohol does to our body’s organs and other vital functions.

While you can receive treatment for alcohol addiction, the disease itself creates long-lasting and sometimes permanent effects on your body. The liver, an organ that can regenerate, is damaged very quickly by alcohol abuse. In fact, alcohol-related liver disease is the cause of 1 out of every 3 liver transplants in the United States.

Let’s look at the ways in which chronic alcohol abuse can damage your body and its vital functions.

The Brain

Anyone who’s felt even the slightest effects of alcohol knows that alcohol quickly impacts the brain. For many consumers, a few drinks can take you from talking normally to slurring your words. If may seem like once you’re sober, you go back to being yourself. However, even the slightest indulgence impacts the brain.

Research done using brain imaging and psychological tests has discovered the regions of the brain that are most impacted by alcoholism.

The cerebellum is the area of the brain that controls motor function. Damage to this region results in an inability to balance (such as stumbling), and can also impact memory and emotional response. The limbic system monitors memory and emotion as well, and is similarly affected by alcohol abuse. The cerebral cortex controls our ability to think, plan and interact socially, as well as our nervous system. Damage to this area impairs our ability to solve problems, learn and remember.

Changes in Mood

We’ve already discussed how alcohol affects the neurotransmitters, even after one night of heavy drinking. When neurotransmitters slow down, you will start feeling drowsy. They can also trigger mood and behavioral changes, including memory loss, agitation and depression.

Reduction in Brain Mass

Long-term heavy drinking can cause alterations within the neurons, and even cause a reduction in the size of brain cells. This causes brain mass to shrink, resulting in problems in motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood, learning and memory.

Black Outs

Glutamate is one neurotransmitter that is particularly susceptible to even light drinking. Interference in this transmitter is thought to cause the temporary “blackouts” that some people experience after a night of heavy drinking.

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Liver damage can also impact the brain. A damaged liver’s cells no longer function the way they should, and they create toxic substances – such as ammonia and manganese – that travel to the brain. These cause a potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy. This disorder causes a range of problems including insomnia, personality changes, anxiety, depression, shortened attention span, coordination problems, and even coma or death.

The Heart

We don’t always recognize the impact that alcohol consumption can have on heart function. Since the heart doesn’t directly metabolize the alcohol we drink, many people aren’t aware of the consequences of alcohol abuse for proper heart function. Let’s explore the various ways in which alcohol abuse can negatively impact our heart’s health.

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Alcohol abuse weakens the heart muscle, a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The weakened muscle is unable to contract and starts drooping. As a result, not enough blood is pumped to vital organs. In some cases, this blood flow shortage can result in severe organ and tissue damage. Symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy include a shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling and an irregular heartbeat.


Binge and long-term drinking can impact how fast the heart beats. The heart uses an internal pacemaker to pump blood consistency. Alcohol abuse disturbs this system, causing the heart to beat too fast or irregularly.

Two types of arrhythmias are:

Atrial fibrillation causes the heart’s chambers to contract improperly, causing blood to collect or clot in the upper chambers of the heart. A blood clot traveling from here to the brain can cause a stroke or a blockage in a blood vessel.

Ventricular tachycardia occurs in the heart’s lower chambers. Alcohol damage causes the muscle to contract too many times, resulting in the heart beating too fast and not being able to fill up with blood between each beat. This can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, cardiac arrest or even death.


When blood cannot reach the brain, it causes a stroke. About 80% of the time, this is caused by a blood clot- called an ischemic stroke. Sometimes, blood will accumulate in the heart causing a hemorrhagic stroke.

Binge drinkers are 56% more likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke, and 39% more likely to suffer from any kind of stroke, when compared to those that don’t binge drink.


Alcohol abuse also causes high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Heavy alcohol consumption leads to a release in stress hormones, causing blood vessels to constrict. This increases blood pressure and results in hypertension.

The Liver

More than 2 million Americans suffer from liver disease caused by alcohol abuse. The liver works hard to keep the body healthy by ridding the body of toxic substances such as alcohol. Since the liver is responsible for breaking down most of the alcohol consumed, it is more susceptible to being damaged due to alcohol abuse.

Fatty Liver

Drinking heavily can cause fat to build up over the liver. This is called fatty liver, or steatosis, and is considered the first stage of alcoholic liver disease. The excessive fat makes it difficult for the liver to function properly.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

A fatty liver that is unable to function properly can often develop inflammations, such as alcoholic hepatitis. Symptoms of this disease include a fever, loss of appetite, pain in the abdomen, nausea, and even mental confusion. As this condition gets worse, it causes the liver to enlarge and results in jaundice, excessive bleeding and clotting problems.

Fibrosis & Cirrhosis

Fibrosis of the liver causes scar tissue to build up around the liver. Alcohol affects the chemicals the liver uses to break this scar tissue down, and as a result, the liver is unable to remove it and heal.

The excessive scar tissue buildup eventually causes cirrhosis, which is a slow deterioration in liver function. Cirrhosis stops the liver from being able to perform critical functions, such as managing infections and removing toxins from the blood. This can result in jaundice, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and liver cancer.

The Pancreas

Excessive drinking can cause damage to the pancreas, resulting in eventual pancreatitis. Alcohol abuse damages pancreatic cells and impacts the metabolic processes that regulate insulin.


Alcohol impacts the way the pancreas metabolize food. When an excess of alcohol is consumed over time, the pancreas begins to secrete digestive juices internally instead of sending those enzymes to the small intestine. These enzymes are extremely harmful to the pancreas. Over time, this can result in pancreatitis- an inflammation of the pancreas.

Pancreatitis eventually causes the pancreas to stop working. Acute pancreatitis usually appears suddenly. Over time, this inflammation can become permanent, leading to chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis may lead to cancer of the pancreas.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, increased heart rate, diarrhea and abnormal sweating.

Chronic pancreatitis causes all of these symptoms, as well as a significant reduction in pancreatic function. This can slowly wipe out the pancreas and lead to diabetes or death.

Cancer Risks

Excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer. Studies show that the more you drink, the higher your risk is for developing these cancers. Liver cancer, mentioned above, is one of many cancers that can develop as a result of alcoholism.

The National Cancer Institute identifies the following types of cancers as being related to alcohol abuse:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Pharynx
  • Larynx
  • Liver
  • Breast

Drinking five or more drinks a day can also increase the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer. According to the World Cancer Research Fund report, women who drink more than five alcoholic drinks a day have 1.2 times the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer than women who do not drink.

Damage Caused by Acetylaldehyde

Linking alcohol abuse to cancer is difficult because usually alcohol is not the primary cause of cancer. Metabolizing alcohol results in harmful toxins being released in the body. One of these, known as acetylaldehyde, damages the genetic materials in cells and prevents them from being able to repair themselves. This may cause the cells to grow too quickly, resulting in genetic changes that can lead to cancer.

Damage Caused by VEGF

As cells break down alcohol in the body, they cause the body to produce excessive amounts of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). This protein promotes the growth of blood vessels and organ tissue, but can also cause blood vessels in cancer cells to develop into tumors.

The Immune System

Our immune system’s job is to protect our bodies from the many foreign substances that can make us sick. Drinking too much alcohol can weaken the immune system, increasing your chances of catching a disease.

Our bodies have two kinds of immune responses. The innate system exists in our body before we are exposed to foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses, while the adaptive system kicks in after first exposure.

Alcohol suppresses both the innate and adaptive immune systems. It reduces the ability of white blood cells to effectively fight again harmful bacteria. Alcohol abuse also causes the body to produce too many or too few cytokines. Cytokines are chemical messengers used by white blood cells to help fight infections. Too many cytokines can result in tissue damage, while too few will leave you open to infections.

Chronic alcohol use can also result in a reduction of T-cells, and reduce the body’s ability to destroy cancerous cells. It also leaves you more open to bacteria and viruses. Diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis become harder to fight off. Immune system damage may also increase your risk of catching HIV infections.

Overall, alcohol abuse has been linked to more than 60 diseases. There are very few body systems that are not impacted by excessive alcohol use, and many of these can be permanently damaged with consistent abuse.

In some cases, the damage of excessive alcohol consumption can be reversed. Therefore, it is important to treat alcoholism quickly in order to avoid permanent damage. If a loved one is abusing alcohol, it is important to get them to a treatment center as soon as possible.

Help your loved ones reverse any repairable damage that alcohol may have done to their body. Contact us