Today, an estimated 28.3 million Americans, or 10.2% of the adult population, are addicted to alcohol. With an estimated 69% of the population drinking regularly and nearly 26% of the population binge drinking regularly, that’s not a surprise. Alcohol is a potent intoxicant, yet it’s incredibly socially accepted and even encouraged. Yet, it has significant impacts on the brain, body, and mood – even short-term.
Understanding the effects of alcohol on the body is important whether you drink casually, socially, get black out drunk every weekend, or use alcohol to self-medicate to reduce stress or emotional turbulence.
In fact, the servings for alcohol are recommended at 2 or less per day for men and 1 or less per day for women, which equates to about half a glass of wine or half of a beer. If you drink more than that, you likely already see negative side effects.
Alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, is a psychoactive drug. It’s normally consumed orally where it’s absorbed through the lining of the stomach, with the time between absorption and reaching the brain ranging between 30 seconds and about 20 minutes depending on metabolism, weight, and how much is already in the stomach.
Once ethanol reaches the brain, it starts to interact with the gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA receptors in the brain and central nervous system. Here, alcohol functions by inhibiting your body’s ability to absorb GABA. Because GABA is used by the body to regulate processes and functions, what you get is deregulation. That includes dopamine and serotonin production, balance, respiration (breathing), muscle control and motor controls, inhibition, risk-taking, excitement, and emotional control.
Normally, light intoxication results in a reduction in inhibitions, light euphoria resulting in an improved mood, feelings of being powerful or invincible, slightly reduced motor controls or coordination, reduced balance, inability to concentrate or inability to stay focused, and reduced judgement. Most will also experience reduced self-consciousness, increased talkativeness, and decreased shyness.
Stronger intoxication can result in mood swings, reduced or lowered body temperature combined with feeling warmer, increased blood pressure, lethargy, reduced sensitivity in muscles and nerves (feeling pain less), reduced vision, blurred or shaking vision, and vomiting.
While people who do drink heavily often get very tired when drinking, they normally don’t sleep very well. Instead, alcohol actually prevents people from falling into dreamless sleep– which is the deep sleep you need to feel fully rested.
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Nearly anyone who drinks can tell you what it’s like to drink so much you throw up. Alcohol is extremely toxic in large doses. Today, over 2,000 people die of alcohol poisoning in the U.S. every year. While most binge drinkers never get that far – overdosing or experiencing alcohol poisoning is relatively common. People lose self-control and inhibition as they drink, they get more drunk, and then drink too much.
An alcohol overdose is triggered by having 4-8 servings of alcohol in the course of an hour, or enough drinks over a longer period that your blood alcohol percentage goes up over about 4.5 BAC. Although most people will be vomiting and even asleep before their BAC goes over 3.5. The faster you drink, the less your body is able to metabolize the alcohol before you drink more.
Eventually, you reach a critical level where your body starts to shut down. Here, most people experience vomiting, choking, hyperthermia or very low body temperature, seizures, difficulty breathing, and an irregular or reduced pulse.
If someone is very drunk, they may be unable to control their bladder. The low body temperature will also result in clammy skin or fever. In addition, the combination of alcohol and vomiting can result in severe dehydration, so it’s important to ensure that very drunk people have water to prevent that from becoming dangerous. And, if someone is having significant difficulty breathing, their fingers and lips will start to turn blue. If this happens, you should immediately call an ambulance.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell when someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning and needs medical attention. Instead, these people very often just go to sleep or pass out. That puts them in danger of choking on vomit, of dehydrating, and of having seizures, all of which can be extremely dangerous without help.
Anyone who drinks regularly is exposing themselves to long-term effects. Most of us are aware that alcohol contributes to liver disease. Many are even familiar with cirrhosis, or liver scarring, which often results from consuming too much alcohol.
However, if you frequently abuse alcohol, you’re also likely to see other symptoms. For example, alcohol causes inflammation in the intestinal lining. The intestinal lining is less capable of absorbing nutrition when inflamed. If you drink enough to cause inflammation every day, you’ll eventually begin to experience nutritional deficiencies, which can have severe impacts on your mental and physical health.
In addition, long-term alcohol abuse can cause increased production of stomach acid, resulting in heartburn and acid reflux. Unfortunately, once enough damage has been done, this problem is irreversible.
Alcohol abuse also impacts the pancreas, which can affect insulin production, thereby increasing the chance of diabetes.
Finally, alcohol abuse impacts the reproductive system, which can impact fertility, result in erectile dysfunction, and result in reduced libido. While these affects are unlikely to be permanent after you stop drinking, they can take years to heal.
Anyone who drinks enough alcohol often enough will experience chemical dependence. This often eventually leads to mental reliance and addiction. However, behavioral addiction to alcohol can happen even from occasional drinking, if you rely on alcohol to regulate mood, emotions, or stress. Alcohol use disorders are a combination of mental and physical reliance. And, while you can withdraw from physical symptoms and lose the dependence in about 2 weeks, getting over behavioral dependence can take significantly longer.
Here, it’s extremely important to seek out a medical detox program rather than quitting alcohol cold turkey. For example, it’s dangerous to withdraw from alcohol because it can result in seizures, choking, and delirium tremens – a complication effecting about 5% of all persons withdrawing from alcohol and which has a 37% mortality rate if not treated.
Most importantly, once you do detox, it’s crucial to follow up with therapy to ensure that you don’t relapse. Modern alcohol addiction treatment uses evidence-based therapy like CBT to tackle the underlying issues behind alcohol abuse, to help you learn and build coping mechanisms, and to help you build a life that you don’t have to cope with. Most importantly, getting treatment is crucial because once you detox, your tolerance lowers, putting you at a higher risk of overdose if you do relapse.
Alcohol isn’t necessarily extremely bad for you. In small doses, alcohol doesn’t do a significant amount of harm. But, if you are drinking more than the recommended dose per day or drinking every day, it’s probably causing some harm. If you can’t stop, binge drink, or use alcohol to self-medicate – you probably want to look into getting treatment and help.