What Happens When We Drink Alcohol?

By January 6, 2023Health Tips

Over the past 20 years, there has been a significant increase in alcohol-related deaths for people between age 25 and 34. You may not drink alcohol yourself but as a parent, you need to let your kids know about the dangers of drinking alcohol. They may not know unless you tell them. Last week, we discussed the idea of Dry January (abstaining from all alcohol intake for the entire month of January). This week, we will focus more on alcohol’s effects on the body. You may want to share this information with your teenage or young adult children.

Everyone knows alcohol causes liver problems. Can alcohol cause adverse effects outside the liver?

What Happens When We Drink Alcohol?
Most people focus on the liver when they think about the harmful effects of alcohol. But alcohol can damage multiple body systems and organs. We will talk about what it can do all over the body. You may be surprised to hear that we need more than one article to get through them all!
What does alcohol do to the brain and nervous system?
Alcohol has both short-term and long-term effects on the entire brain and the nervous system throughout the body. Alcohol interferes with the nervous system’s communication pathways. This affects how the brain and nerves of the body work both while intoxicated and over time.
Short-term effects (while alcohol is in your system) include:
  • Loss of inhibition – Resulting in impulsive and often socially inappropriate behaviors.
  • Loss of judgement – Resulting in poor decision making and risk-taking behavior.
  • Slowed reaction time – Resulting in car crashes, falls, etc.
  • Unsteady walking/poor balance and coordination
  • Sedation – Can lead to loss of consciousness and complete loss of all thought, speech, and muscle control.
  • Loss of memory or inability to convert short-term memories into long-term memory. You might have a black out, with no memory of what happened while you were intoxicated. Or you might remember something the next morning but within 1-2 weeks, that memory will be lost forever, even for really significant events.
  • Respiratory depression – The brainstem has to tell your body to breathe. If there is enough alcohol in the brain, you can just stop breathing!
Long-term effects on the nervous system include increased risk of the following:
  • Stroke
  • Brain hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain)
  • Permanent damage to nerves throughout the body – Can cause loss of sensation, chronic nerve pain, and/or loss of muscle function.
  • Dementia – Progressive loss of brain function.
How does alcohol affect the heart?
Drinking too much (over a long time or even on a single occasion) can damage the heart. This can cause problems that include:
  • Cardiomyopathy – Thinning/overstretching of the heart muscle, which leads to heart failure
  • Arrythmias – Irregular heart rhythm
  • High blood pressure – Increasing the risk of heart attack
How does alcohol affect your bones and muscles?
Alcohol increases the risk of the following musculoskeletal problems:
  • Osteoporosis – Reduced bone density, which increases the risk of fractures
  • Inability or impaired ability to heal fractures
  • Significant loss of muscle mass and strength
  • Muscle inflammation or chronic muscle pain
How does alcohol affect the lungs?
Direct effects on the lungs include increased risk of:
  • Pneumonia
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – This in a potentially deadly inflammatory condition that may happen in response to a minor respiratory infection or chest trauma.
How does alcohol affect the immune system?
Drinking too much on a single occasion or over a long period can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections such as common viral illnesses, bacterial infections, and tuberculosis.
Next week, we will talk more about the effects of alcohol, including in increased risk of cancer and the effects on the liver.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor

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