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Home / Journal / How Alcohol Affects the Body

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Studies suggest that alcohol, when consumed at low to moderate levels, may have some health benefits. It can also produce feel-good effects, which is why many of us turn to alcoholic beverages in social situations or during stressful times. But research is also clear about something else. When a person partakes in excessive alcohol consumption, it can have damaging effects on the body - both short-term and long-term. In the short term, it can cause a hangover and leave you feeling sluggish.

For the occasional night out or party, there are things you can do to help prevent a hangover, to help reduce the impacts of alcohol on your body. Regardless of how often you drink, it's important to understand how alcohol affects your body. 

#1. Weight Gain

Alcoholic drinks generally contain a high number of calories, which can impact your weight. Fat, especially on men, tends to go to the belly. Belly fat is more dangerous than other fats. It can squeeze your organs, and release harmful chemicals into your blood, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes [1] [2].

Furthermore, when it comes to alcohol and weight gain, there is an indirect way that alcohol can make you gain weight. It’s an appetite stimulant. So, if you’re drinking, you may be more likely to eat a larger amount than usual. Not only are you likely to feel more hungry if you’re drinking excessively, but your inhibitions will be lowered, which may cause you to ignore healthy food choices.

#2. The Brain

Wondering what alcohol does to the brain? From anxiety to stress, alcohol can have negative effects on your mental health. Too much alcohol consumption can change your brain's ability to stay balanced and run smoothly [3]. The more you drink, the more your brain is affected. It can also stop you from sleeping properly, leaving you sluggish and irritable.

#3. The Heart

There’s some evidence that drinking the occasional glass of red wine may be good for your heart, either by preventing heart disease or lowering your risk of heart disease [2]. However, it’s not necessarily a good idea to start drinking alcohol in an effort to lower your risk of heart disease.

While alcohol in moderation can be fine for most people, it’s important to be aware you can fall victim to holiday heart syndrome if you overdo it. This is when overeating and overindulging in alcohol leads to an irregular heartbeat.

Holiday Heart can happen if you don’t typically consume alcohol, but then have a few at a holiday party, or you binge-drink and then develop an irregular heartbeat. This is called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men.

#4. The Liver

The liver is the one organ that is most intimately involved with the detoxification of the body after excessive alcohol intake, and it is, therefore, the organ that often suffers the most damage.

Your liver detoxifies and removes alcohol from the blood through a process known as oxidation. Once the liver finishes the process, alcohol becomes water and carbon dioxide. If alcohol accumulates in the system, it can destroy cells and, eventually, organs. Oxidative metabolism prevents this.[10]

But when you’ve ingested too much alcohol for your liver to process in a timely manner, the toxic substance begins to take its toll on your body, starting with your liver, leading to a condition known as fatty liver [5].

Fatty liver, also considered early stage alcoholic liver disease, develops in about 90 percent of people who drink more than one and a half to two ounces of alcohol per day. So, if you drink that much or more on most days of the week, you may have fatty liver. Continued alcohol use leads to liver fibrosis and, finally, cirrhosis [6].

The good news is that fatty liver is usually completely reversible in about four to six weeks if you completely abstain from drinking alcohol. Cirrhosis, on the other hand, is irreversible and likely to lead to liver failure despite abstinence from alcohol consumption.

#5. Intimacy

Alcohol is a depressant, and using it heavily can dampen the mood, decrease sexual desire, and make it difficult for a man to achieve erections or reach an orgasm while under the influence. In fact, overdoing it on booze is a common cause of erectile dysfunction.

More specifically, alcohol slows and prevents the release of sex hormones affecting blood flow to the penis - and this can make it harder to get and sustain an erection. Moreover, alcohol can damage the testicles over time which can also lower testosterone levels, and harm fertility. [8][9]

#6. Stomach

So, how does alcohol affect the stomach? It can cause the stomach acid that's meant to break down your food to attack the lining of the stomach and the muscles that surround it. Alcohol is high in calories and carbs, which puts your stomach under a lot of strain during the digestion process. That's why you can feel bloated after drinking alcohol, as your intestines try to cope. Regularly drinking too much alcohol can make you experience more severe effects like nausea, vomiting, and ulcers.

Drink in moderation

70% of Americans drink alcohol [7]. And though nights spent with a beer, a glass of your favorite vino, or a mixed drink might seem like harmless fun, do you really know how it’s affecting your body?

Bottom line is, like all things, alcohol intake is meant to be enjoyed in moderation. Drinking too much, on a single occasion or over time, can still take a serious toll on your health for the long term. To minimize the impacts of a celebration or event you where you know you'll be drinking, try taking a hangover supplement in advance. It's not a reason to throw all inhibition to the wind, but can help you feel better the next day.

 

Sources:

[1] The perils of portliness: causes and consequences of visceral adiposity.

[2] Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart?

[3] Cross-cultural patterns of the association between varying levels of alcohol consumption and the common mental disorders of depression and anxiety: Secondary analysis of the WHO Collaborative Study on Psychological Problems in General Health Care.

[4] Alcohol intake and blood pressure: a systematic review implementing a Mendelian randomization approach Chen, L., et al. (2008)

[5] Alcohol Consumption and Alcoholic Liver Disease: Evidence of a Threshold Level of Effects of Ethanol

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health: FAQ 2010.

[7] Overview of Alcohol Consumption

[8] The effect of chronic alcohol abuse on sexual function

[9] Prevalence of sexual dysfunction in male subjects with alcohol dependence

[10] Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body? 

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