How Drinking Too Much Effects Your Body and the Long-term Health Impacts of Alcohol Intake
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
adapted from www.maxliving.com
Most Canadian Adults Drink Alcohol
About 70 percent of adults reported that they drank alcohol in the past year, and 56 percent had a drink during the past month. That’s according to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Some of those adults enjoyed an occasional glass of chardonnay with dinner. For others, “a drink or two” became more. Sometimes, a lot more. And that’s where problems begin.
Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Addiction
One survey found that early 32 million American adults have had more than twice the number of drinks (which is considered binge drinking) on at least one occasion. Binge drinking entails at least four drinks for women at least five for men on one occasion.
Overall, Americans drink 50 percent more alcohol than the global average. About seven to 10 percent of North Americans suffer from alcohol use disorders that contribute to nearly 90,000 alcohol-related deaths every year.
Simply put: Alcohol is one of the most abused intoxicating substances with wide-ranging detrimental health repercussions.
We’re not entirely sure why some people can stop with a glass whereas others finish an entire bottle, develop serious alcohol-related health problems, and become addicted to alcohol.
Genetics also impact those factors, as well as how your body breaks down and eliminates alcohol. Ultimately, any form of addiction becomes complicated and multifaceted. That doesn’t mean it’s not fixable.
Please note: Alcohol abuse can take numerous forms. If you believe you have a drinking problem, please seek professional support and help from a licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor and/or healthcare practitioner. If you do not currently drink, please do not start because of any purported health benefits. As you will see, the drawbacks of alcohol far outweigh any benefits.
“But wait!” you say. You don’t abuse alcohol, and you don’t have a drinking problem. You’re a health-conscious person who enjoys a glass of Cabernet or maybe an after-dinner cocktail because alcohol can be pleasurable.
The Low Down on Alcohol Metabolism
Besides, isn’t drinking moderately healthy? The answer is maybe, with more than a few caveats.
Alcohol’s impact begins when you take that first sip. As a depressant, alcohol slows down the central nervous system, impairing things like motor coordination, reaction time, and intellectual performance.
When you drink, getting rid of alcohol becomes your body’s top priority. Everything else, including fat metabolism, takes a backseat because alcohol can be toxic in high enough doses. This promotes the development of fatty liver in heavy drinkers.
Alcohol metabolism involves several pathways. Two enzymes — alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) — contribute to these pathways:
ADH metabolizes alcohol to acetaldehyde, a toxic, carcinogenic substance.ALDH then breaks down acetaldehyde to acetate, which your body converts into water and carbon dioxide to easily eliminate.
Your body can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol every hour depending on many factors, including gender, liver size, overall nutrition, and body mass.
Genetic variations mean you also carry different versions of ADH and ALDH enzymes, which explains why some people break down alcohol more efficiently than others. Your ethnic background also influences your alcohol metabolism (for instance, some Asian people have difficulty metabolizing alcohol), what you eat (or if you eat), and your family history.
Men and women also metabolize alcohol differently. Women: if you wonder why those two Moscow Mules hit you harder than your male friend, you can attribute that to hormones, lower amounts of liver enzymes that break down alcohol, and less body water to dilute alcohol.
As a general rule of thumb, your liver can process one ounce of liquor or one standard drink per hour. Again, that amount will vary among individuals. More than that can accumulate in your blood and body tissues — hence the term “high blood alcohol concentrations” or intoxication — until the liver can metabolize it.
Long-Term Effects of Drinking Too Much Alcohol
When someone drinks too much, they might slur their speech. Their coordination could become impaired, behavior becomes more passive or aggressive than their usual personality, and they might blurt out something inappropriate.
The long-term effects of alcohol aren’t always so obvious. Your liver takes the biggest hit eventually leading to chronic liver inflammation and liver disease that impairs its ability to detoxify.
But drinking too much impacts nearly every organ, including your digestive system, heart, pancreas, and immune system. That impairs those vital organs’ ability to do critical things like digest food and regulate blood sugar levels.
Alcohol also shrinks your brain, and even one to two servings of alcohol daily can impact cognition and memory. You’re less likely to maintain long-term memories or make rational choices.
Over time, you can become more dependent on alcohol. You might find yourself reaching for a few glasses of wine regularly to take the edge off a stressful workday or habitually having a few beers with friends.
You might find you also need more alcohol to get the same effects. If you decide drinking has become a problem, you might resolve to quit, but eventually relapse. Alcohol can become addictive, and withdrawal can create its own symptoms and become life-threatening.
Worth repeating: If you struggle with alcohol use problems, please seek professional help. Breaking free from alcohol’s grip can be challenging, but there are people who can help you do it.
How Alcohol Impacts Health
Drinking impacts nearly everything, from how clearly you think, to your relationship, to how efficiently you work. Physiologically, alcohol impacts nearly every organ.
But again, you’re a health-focused person who enjoys that occasional glass of wine. How does that play a role in a healthy diet and lifestyle? Let’s look at five health factors and how alcohol impacts them.
Nutrition. How alcohol impacts your overall health depends on numerous factors including how healthy your diet is, how much you drink, and how you handle alcohol. For one person, a glass of pinot noir could replace dessert after a healthy meal. For another, one glass becomes three and they subsequently nose-dive into second helpings of chocolate mousse. For some people, alcohol can trigger overeating. Other people might opt for a few drinks instead of food. In other words: Know how you handle a drink or two. Alcohol contains very little or no nutrients and inhibits your body from optimally absorbing and using vital nutrients including thiamin, vitamin B12, folate, and zinc.
Sleep. If you’ve had a 10 p.m. nightcap and woke up wide awake in the middle of the night, here’s why. “Alcohol usually winds up disrupting your sleep cycles. Badly,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., in The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Your Energy. “Alcohol is, after all, a depressant, so although a drink before bed may help you fall asleep, a few hours later, it has the opposite effect, and part of your brain thinks it’s party time.” If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, skip that glass of red wine and consider a sleep supplement.
Stress. Stressed-out people drink more and that number is higher among men than women. While a few glasses of wine can take the edge off of a long day, alcohol’s cumulative impact only compounds the effects of stress. Long-term heavy drinking can alter your brain’s chemistry, shifting your hormonal balance to impact how your body responds to stress and anxiety. A heavy drinker might feel more anxiety confronted with a stressful situation, for instance, than a non-drinker or moderate drinker.
Hormonal balance. Alcohol’s impact on hormones is complex, interrelated, dose-dependent, and varies among individuals. Take estrogen as one example: Chronic alcohol intake increases this hormone in men and women. “Alcohol increases your estrogen, which is why men with beer bellies grow breasts and lose their body hair,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?. For women, drinking alcohol can increase risk for breast cancer. Estrogen imbalances can also raise your stress hormone, cortisol. Alcohol can likewise decrease testosterone levels, although this impact seems to be dose-dependent.
Exercise. “[T]he association between alcohol and sports in the U.S. has also been attributed, at least in part, to the idea that working hard, especially physically intensive effort, goes hand in hand with drinking,” researchers note. “The implicit notion is that working hard, especially physically, earns the right to consume alcohol or engage in other indulging activities.” Among its detrimental consequences, alcohol can increase dehydration, impair your liver’s ability to produce glucose as energy during a workout, trigger blood sugar imbalances that leave you feeling lethargic and impair muscle recovery. Alcohol can also impact balance and coordination when you’re, say, lifting heavy. Plus, let’s be honest, exercising with a hangover feels absolutely miserable.
Everyone handles alcohol differently. If you drink, consider how alcohol impacts you. Are you more likely to reach for dessert, say something you’ll later regret, blow off a workout, or struggle with a good night’s sleep after a few glasses of wine?