Today, more than 85% of the U.S. population drinks, and more than 50% of us drink regularly. Yet, few of us know how alcohol affects us, other than intoxication. That’s important, considering 25.8% of the U.S. population, or almost half of all regular drinkers, binge drink. And 5.6% of us have an alcohol use disorder, meaning that 1 in 10 regular drinkers have a substance use disorder.
Understanding alcohol and its impact on the body can help you to make better choices for yourself and for your loved ones.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is an organic compound, containing the active ingredient ethanol. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug, which causes intoxication, mood lift, euphoria, sedation, decreased anxiety, and reduced inhibition. While ethanol, the only alcohol consumed for recreational purposes, is less toxic than isopropyl or other common alcohols, it still causes dehydration, nausea, dizziness, and loss of coordination.
Taking a Drink of Alcohol – What Happens to your Body?
It takes just 30 seconds from your first drink of alcohol for the substance to absorb through the lining of your stomach and go straight to your brain. Alcohol begins to affect the neural pathways, primarily impactingGABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) receptors in the brain and central nervous system. GABA is the primary neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for inhibition and is heavily linked to the central nervous system, motor control, and excitement in the nervous system. At the first drink, this has little effect, but, as you keep drinking, you start to see more symptoms.
In fact, the average person can drink a single unit of alcohol and process it over an hour. If you drink more than that, or drink too quickly for your body to process the alcohol, you’ll start to see side effects:
Feelings of euphoria or lifted mood
Feelings of powerfulness or invincibility
Reduced ability to concentrate
Reduction in critical judgement
Blurry or reduced vision
Lowered body temperature, although the drinker will feel warmer
Increased blood pressure
Nausea and possibly vomiting
Reduced muscle and nerve sensitivity
The Effects of Alcohol with Heavy Usage
In larger doses, alcohol causes more severe side effects. Here, “large” dose can refer to large quantities at once (binge drinking) or having more alcohol spread out over more days. In this case, symptoms are very likely to build up over time and slowly worsen as alcohol use continues.
Gastrointestinal – Most heavy drinkers notice stomach problems early on. In fact, many people experience diarrhea or stomach upset after a night of heavy drinking. This happens because alcohol absorbs through the lining of the stomach, causing inflammation. This reduces nutrient absorption while increasing your risk of stomach ulcers, cancer, dehydration, and nutritional deficiency.
Acid Reflux – Alcohol increases the production of stomach acid, contributing to irritation in the stomach. It also contributes to acid reflux, heartburn, and other discomfiting symptoms.
Stress on the Liver and Kidneys – Alcohol puts significant stress on the liver and kidneys by forcing the body to “filter” more substances including water. This can result in significant damage and reduction in function over time.
Pancreatic Damage – Few people are aware that long-term alcohol use inhibits the pancreas from producing insulin. Over time, significant alcohol use can damage the pancreas and result in diabetes.
Reproductive Health – Long-term alcohol abuse reduces hormone production which can result in reproductive issues ranging from hormone-related mood swings to infertility or erectile dysfunction.
Eventually, long-term alcohol use impacts every aspect of your body, from the immune system to temperature regulation, hormone production, and nutrition. This can result in massive changes to your overall health. For example, reduced nutritional intake, especially coupled with poorer eating decisions while inebriated, can result in depression-like symptoms of vitamin A deficiency, in thinner and weaker bones, and in significant psychological changes. Additionally, vitamin deficiencies can cause problems with the central nervous system, eyesight, and much more.
At large doses, alcohol can also cause the drinker to pass out or black out, in which case they have no memory of the events that happen. Some symptoms can also be dangerous, for example, a very intoxicated person with reduced nerve sensitivity is more likely to harm themselves. This also extends to vomiting, where reduced sensitivity of the gag reflex can lead to someone choking on vomit.
Blue tinging, especially around the lips or under fingernails
While alcohol makes most people feel good in small doses, it’s effectively depressing communication in the brain. It also reduces the ability of your central nervous system to regulate itself and your muscles, which leads to relaxation.
Chemical Dependence and Tolerance
Most drinkers are very aware of tolerance. The first few times you had a beer or wine you were drunk with half a glass. Now? You can likely drink significantly more without even feeling it. That effect is known as tolerance. This happens when you drink enough for your body to adjust to the substance, creating increased neuron and neurotransmitter activity to account for the depression caused by alcohol. For many of us, tolerance increases to a certain point. We drink enough to maintain that, but not enough to push it further.
For others, that isn’t the case. Over time, your body can become so adjusted to levels of alcohol in the blood that it permanently shifts to producing increased GABA and other neurotransmitters to offset alcohol. When you stop drinking alcohol, you experience withdrawal. This stage is known as chemical dependence.
While chemical dependence is normally the first stage of alcoholism, it isn’t alcoholism. Here, you are physically dependent on a drug but not behaviorally dependent. Because alcohol use disorder is primarily a behavioral disorder, more needs to happen for it to become alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), commonly known as alcoholism, is a state of being mentally and physically dependent on a substance The DSM 5, a standard for diagnosing mental illness, defines AUD as:
Alcohol use interferes with responsibilities at home, work, or school
Alcohol use has contributed to situations resulting in bodily harm to yourself or to another
Alcohol use has contributed to trouble with friends or family
The drinker has had to consistently drink more to get the effect desired
The drinker experiences withdrawal (sometimes interpreted as a very bad hangover or cold and flu) when ceasing drinking
The drinker reduced social activities, eating, or hobbies in order to drink more
The drinker sometimes or often drink more or for longer than intended
The drinker has tried to cut down or quit drinking and failed
The drinker spends a significant portion of time drinking or being sick from drinking
The drinker continued to drink after noticing negative mental or physical health effects of drinking
The drinker exhibits seeking behavior and sometimes goes to extremes to acquire or use alcohol.
Essentially, alcohol use disorder causes major physical and behavioral problems and yet the user continues drinking anyway. This can have negative impact on moods, emotional control, relationships, job, income, and life stability.
Alcohol is common, normalized, and heavily used in social situations in the United States. But, it’s not always healthy or safe. If you or a loved one is having problems, it’s important to see a specialist and get help. Programs that treat alcohol abuse entail medically supervised detox, behavioral therapy, and personalized therapy designed to help the individual build coping mechanisms and the skills to resolve the underlying issues behind alcohol abuse so they can build a new, healthy life for themselves.