Long Term Effects of Alcohol On The Body

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.

Effects of Alcohol on the Heart and Circulatory System

alcohol treatment and therapy session for long term alcohol abuse

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.

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Liver and Kidney Damage from Alcohol

The liver is an important organ that processes toxins out of the body, cleans the blood, and produces nutrients that body cells need from digested food. It is responsible for breaking down saturated fats into cholesterol, storing glucose in the form of glycogen, and storing excess nutrients for slower release into the body. At three pounds, the liver is the largest solid organ.

Scarring of the liver, called fibrosis, can lead to long-term damage to the liver’s functionality. This condition is called cirrhosis, and there are many diseases that can cause this type of damage. One of them is alcohol use disorder. Long-term abuse of alcohol causes scarring in the liver, as the organ is not able to keep up with the ingestion of the intoxicating substance. Women are more likely than men to develop cirrhosis when they struggle with alcohol use disorder, and people who have hepatitis B or C are more likely to develop cirrhosis due to problem drinking.

While many people in the United States drink socially or to relax, drinking more than two drinks per day for women, and more than three drinks per day for men, over the course of a decade can lead to enough liver damage for the individual to develop cirrhosis. The American Liver Foundation notes that between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis.

There are three basic stages of alcohol-related cirrhosis. Although not all people go through these when they develop cirrhosis, most people follow this course.

Stage 1: Fatty Liver Disease

liver damage from alcoholismFor many people, this first stage of cirrhosis does not have noticeable symptoms. Even if a person has some symptoms that lead them to seek medical help, liver function tests typically show normal liver activity, although enzymes may be elevated. However, fat begins to build up in liver cells, which die and decompose, accumulating in the organ. The buildup of fat in the liver is called steatosis. The liver becomes inflamed, so immune cells cause some destruction of liver tissue, which appears to have an infection. The organ may also produce abnormal connective tissue – usually near the large hepatic artery, vein, and bile duct – which can later get in the way of normal liver function. The condition can be reversed at this point if the person stops drinking.

Symptoms of liver damage from alcohol abuse that may occur during the development of fatty liver disease include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Discomfort in the upper abdomen

Stage 2: Alcoholic Hepatitis

As damage to the liver becomes worse, more noticeable symptoms appear. These include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Early stages of jaundice

Fibrosis, or the replacement of normal liver tissue with scar tissue, gets worse, and the organ’s function begins to decrease. As abnormal tissue begins to replace normal liver tissue, the organ cannot filter toxins very well, which leads to a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, known as jaundice. Sometimes, toxins in the blood can affect brain function, and the individual may become confused or disoriented. Blood pressure increases due to abnormal blood flow into and out of the liver; this is called hepatic hypertension.

About 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, and up to 70 percent of people who develop alcoholic hepatitis ultimately develop cirrhosis. However, people who quit drinking and seek help may be able to overcome the worst symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis and avoid cirrhosis.

Stage 3: Alcoholic Cirrhosis

About 55 percent of people who develop alcoholic hepatitis already have cirrhosis, and most of those who do not will go on to develop cirrhosis. This condition is the most advanced form of liver disease, and it cannot be overcome, although the symptoms can be moderated.

Scar tissue “bridges,” called bridging fibrosis, outnumber healthy or normal liver tissue, and liver function is irreversibly impaired. The fibroids are hard, and they can be very uncomfortable, tender, or painful. Symptoms of liver cirrhosis from alcohol include:

  • Jaundice
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Edema, or fluid retention in the body
  • Unexplained and intense itching on the skin
  • Bleeding into the digestive tract

Stage 4: End-Stage Cirrhosis

Permanent damage to the liver is not reversible with abstinence, although overcoming alcohol use disorder can moderate symptoms and extend life. As the liver is no longer able to clean toxins out of the blood and release vital nutrients into the body, symptoms get worse and other organ systems begin to fail. Symptoms of end-of-life cirrhosis include:

  • Fluid Imbalance: Also called ascites, the buildup of fluid in all parts of the body can make breathing difficult. Pressure on the blood vessels in the abdomen can lead to high blood pressure and bleeding problems. Edema in the legs can make walking difficult.
  • Bleeding: The ability of the blood to form clots relies on the liver’s ability to remove toxins. When that is compromised, the body can no longer form clots, so bleeding doesn’t stop. People in end-stage cirrhosis often vomit blood and have black stool.
  • Kidney failure: Changes in blood pressure due to liver failure result in less blood flowing to the kidneys and more toxins in the blood that do make it to the renal system. The kidneys begin to fail, leading to dark urine, nausea, vomiting, and jerking movements. The person also experiences delirium.
  • Neurologic changes: Chemicals like ammonia begin to build up in the brain, inducing hepatic encephalopathy. This is indicated by confusion, difficulty concentrating, and forgetfulness. The person’s personality may change, they may experience agitation, and they will have difficulty speaking. Encephalopathy can lead to coma and death.
  • Infection: Since the blood is not being filtered by the liver, the body’s immune system is not able to respond well to infections. Fever, chills, and joint pain could be caused by an opportunistic infection.

Long Term Effects of Alcohol on The Lungs

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.

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Alcohol and Cancer Risks

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.
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Long Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

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.

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Alcohol and 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:

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.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

treatment for long term alcoholismAnyone who struggles with alcohol use disorder should get help before long-term physical damage takes hold. Consuming large quantities of alcohol, whether due to chronic alcohol use disorder or binge drinking, is very damaging to the body and can lead to death.

Fortunately, it is possible to become sober, overcome long term alcohol use disorder, and live a healthy life. Working with medical professionals to detox safely from alcohol dependence, then entering a rehabilitation program, is the best course of action for most people. Rehabilitation programs, both inpatient and outpatient, offer individual, group, and family therapy to help the person understand their addiction, and work on better coping mechanisms for stress or triggers that may have led to the illness. Therapy helps the person rebuild relationships that may have been hurt by the disease and form new social structures to support sobriety.