In moderation, drinking alcohol is often used as a way for friends to spend time together and enjoy celebrations. However, when an individual becomes dependent on alcohol and indulges in frequent heavy binges or regular heavy drinking, alcohol can become a danger. Not only is there a risk of developing alcoholism, but alcohol can also wreak havoc on the body, causing various different types of damage that can lead to future physical and mental disease and even become life-threatening.
Alcohol contains toxins that interact with various organs, including the brain, to create its effects. With long-term, heavy use of alcohol, these toxins can result in damage to those organs and body systems, resulting in disease. This damage touches on various organ systems and includes:
1. Heart and Circulatory System Damage
Much has been made of certain studies showing that mild to moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial to the heart and circulatory system – that is, about two drinks per day for men and one for women. However, this is a dangerous excuse for drinking because studies have also shown that extensive alcohol consumption can result in a type of heart damage called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This damage, as described in a study from Current Atherosclerosis Reports, affects the left ventricle of the heart, which is the main pump that delivers oxygenated blood throughout the body. Cardiomyopathy results in changes to the left ventricle, including:
- Dilation of the ventricle
- Increased ventricular mass
- Decreased ventricular wall thickness
- Decreased ability for the heart to contract
These issues, in turn, can lead to heart failure. A number of studies have demonstrated that people suffering from alcoholism who have experienced heart failure symptoms have been drinking heavily for 10 years or more. The Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine also indicates that 3-40 percent of people diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy have engaged in excessive alcohol intake.
Patterns of drinking are important in these studies. Individuals who spread their drinking out over a week were less likely to have heart problems, while those who engaged in binge drinking – that is, three or more drinks within one or two hours – were more likely to have issues with heart failure and lose the benefits of moderate drinking.
Drinking can also result in high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), and possibly stroke.
2. Liver and Kidney Damage
There are multiple ways in which alcohol consumption can damage the liver, the organ that works to clear toxins from the body. According to the American Liver Foundation, alcoholic liver damage includes:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease: An early stage of alcoholic liver disease, this results from fat being deposited in the liver. Usually, there are no symptoms, though there may be a slight feeling of discomfort in the upper right abdomen, along with weakness or fatigue. This can be reversed if drinking is stopped before it progresses.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: When fat has built up in the liver, it can result in inflammation and mild scarring. The person may experience nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite from this stage of liver disease, and liver function shows abnormality. Fever and jaundice may occur. Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, which can be mild and reversed with abstinence, or severe, which can lead to severe complications, including death.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: This late-stage liver disease caused by alcohol consumption is characterized by heavy scarring of the liver and disruption of liver structure and function. Once cirrhosis has developed, it cannot be reversed. However, stopping drinking at this point can prevent future damage. Some people who drink heavily may develop cirrhosis before developing alcoholic hepatitis.
The kidneys, on the other hand, which also filter toxins from the blood and excrete them in urine, can also be damaged through drinking. According to the National Kidney Foundation, people who drink heavily make their kidneys work harder, which can result in dehydration. The high blood pressure that can result from alcohol consumption also affects the kidneys, and individuals with the liver damage described above can also increase the load on their kidneys, increasing the chance of kidney dysfunction and toxicity.
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3. Respiration Damage
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in a study, explains the connection between alcohol consumption and lung disease. Alcohol consumption presents an increased risk for developing pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening illness, as the sixth most common cause of death in the US.
The same study indicates that heavy alcohol consumption can also cause depletion of certain chemicals in the body that can lead to acute lung injury or acute respiratory distress syndrome, also known as ARDS. ARDS can result from many potential issues; however, 43 percent of those who struggle with alcohol abuse are likely to develop it after experiencing one of those issues, compared with only 22 percent of those who are not alcoholic.
4. Various Types of Organ Cancer
A number of different types of cancer are positively related to heavy alcohol consumption, according to the American Cancer Society, including:
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, or voice box
- Esophageal cancer
- Liver cancer
- Colon cancer or cancer of the rectum
- Breast cancer
In addition, the National Cancer Institute indicates that studies have found connections between alcohol and cancer of the pancreas, ovaries and uterus, prostate, stomach, and bladder. There are several reasons that this may occur. First of all, alcohol is metabolized by the body into toxic chemicals like acetaldehyde, which are potential carcinogens. Alcohol can also result in the body being less able to absorb important nutrients, including antioxidants that can help prevent carcinogens from causing damage. Alcohol consumption can also increase the body’s production of estrogen, potentially contributing to breast cancer risk.
5. Brain Damage
Obvious physical disease is not the only damage the individual can suffer due to heavy drinking. Alcohol causes disruptions in certain areas of brain chemistry and structure, which can result in brain damage. According to NIAAA, this can lead to degrees of brain damage ranging from memory lapses to a severe disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a combination of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis, both resulting from a deficiency in thiamine that can be caused by alcohol consumption.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes a disconnect between the nerves and the brain that can result in a person being confused and struggling with muscle coordination. About 80-90 percent of people who develop this disorder also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, resulting in severe damage to memory and learning abilities, resulting in further loss of coordination, which can be debilitating.
Drinking alcohol in pregnancy can also result in damage to the brain of a developing fetus, resulting in permanent learning disabilities. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a severe condition of drinking during pregnancy, which can result in extreme physical and mental challenges for the child after birth.
6. Mental Health Disorders
The brain damage caused by heavy drinking can result in certain mental health disorders. Drinking can also contribute to other mental health disorders, such as:
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Antisocial personality disorder
As explained by NIAAA, these disorders may worsen while the person is also struggling with alcohol abuse, or the symptoms may be a result of abusing alcohol. Professionals in alcohol abuse treatment can usually work with the person to determine which is the case. If the individual’s symptoms are a result of abusing alcohol, abstinence may reverse them in most cases. However, if the mental health disorder occurred first, heavy drinking can make the symptoms worse and harder to treat. This damage requires expert treatment to gain control over and recover from both the alcohol abuse and the mental health disorder.
The damage caused to the body and brain by excessive alcohol consumption can lead to permanent illness, disease, or disability. However, with expert help from alcohol abuse treatment professionals using research-based treatments, alcohol abuse can be halted before the worst of the damage occurs.