According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 60.9 million people in the US binged on alcohol regularly, and 16.3 million reported heavy alcohol use. This type of alcohol abuse and addiction has a detrimental effect on many areas of life for people struggling with these disorders. Not least of these are the short- and long-term physical effects of chronic, heavy drinking or regular binge drinking.
The physical consequences of alcohol abuse range from mild to severe. In fact, some of the conditions that result from long-term alcoholism can lead to brain damage, coma, and death. These risks highlight the importance of obtaining treatment for alcohol abuse before these conditions result.
Short-term Physical Effects
Most people who have consumed alcohol understand its short-term physical effects. Slurred speech, compromised balance, and dulling of fine motor skills are easily recognizable signs that someone has been drinking alcohol. These effects are due to alcohol’s action on the central nervous system, which slows the rate at which the brain delivers messages to the rest of the body.
These basic physical effects are seen equally in those who drink light and heavy amounts of alcohol. However, based on a study from Drug and Alcohol Dependence, those who drink more are less likely to recognize the degree to which they are impaired. This can result in a person engaging in risky activities that can cause direct physical harm while intoxicated, such as driving or swimming.
When a person abuses alcohol regularly, the physical impairments and effects can become more pronounced. Information from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that heavy drinking can result in:
- Blackouts and memory lapses
- Heart arrhythmia
- Slowed breathing
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Decrease in brain activity
- Stomach discomfort and troubles with digestion
As alcohol abuse continues or addiction develops, these short-term effects of drinking can lead to more severe problems later on.
Long-term alcohol abuse has major effects, not only on the brain systems that are directly affected by it, but on other organ systems as well. According to NIAAA, these manifest in the following ways, among others.
- Cardiac system: Alcohol affects the heart even in moderate amounts in the short-term. Over the long-term, alcohol abuse can lead to stretching of the heart muscle, known as cardiomyopathy. This also can lead to problems with irregular heartbeat, stroke, and heart attacks. High blood pressure can also be a result of long-term alcohol abuse.
- Digestive system: Alcohol consumption causes the pancreas to secrete toxic substances that can cause damage to the organ, leading to a painful condition called pancreatitis, which can interfere with digestion. Alcohol also disrupts the absorption of certain nutrients through digestion that can cause damage to other organ systems.
- Liver: The liver works to clean toxins from the body, and alcohol adds a great deal to this load. As described by the National Cancer Institute, acetaldehyde and various types of chemicals that result from the fermentation process are toxins that are either ingested or produced through alcohol metabolism. This can result in extensive damage to liver tissue, causing forms of hepatitis, fatty liver, or cirrhosis, which can be life-threatening.
- Brain: Long-term use of alcohol can disrupt the pleasure systems in the brain, resulting in physical damage that can cause mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, to increase. In addition, the disruption of digestion can limit the nutrients provided to the brain, which can cause brain damage and result in severe physical and mental impairment, leading to such conditions as “wet brain.”
Alcohol Abuse and Disease
Long-term alcohol abuse is known to contribute to the development of a wide range of physical diseases, including cancer. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, daily consumption of high levels of alcohol increases cancer risk in various body systems, including the:
- Oral cavity, esophagus, pharynx, and larynx
- Liver (usually following cirrhosis)
- Colorectal region
In some cases, a person’s cancer risk can be increased up to three times by heavy, chronic alcohol use.
Another disease that can result from severe, long-term alcohol abuse is wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
According to studies like one from Psychosomatics, this disease is the result of physical brain damage caused by alcohol’s interference in the ability to absorb enough vitamin B-1 (thiamine) through digestion. This disease results in memory loss, sensory problems, loss of motor abilities, coma, and death.
After a person has been drinking heavily for a very long time, another condition can result if the person tries to stop drinking without medical help. Delirium tremens (DTs) is a severe withdrawal symptom that can occur when someone with many years of heavy, chronic drinking tries to quit cold turkey. This condition causes seizures, hallucinations, fever, and other symptoms that can lead to death.
Mitigating the Effects of Alcohol Abuse
In many cases, the effects of alcohol abuse can be reversed by ceasing binge and heavy drinking. However, as described by NIAAA, if drinking has been long-term or particularly heavy, some of the physical damage may become permanent. For this reason, a person wishing to avoid these health issues who is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism should seek help at an experienced, research-based rehab center. At such a facility, the person can receive a comprehensive treatment plan that can be customized to meet the individual’s specific needs.
Through medical intervention as needed for detox, therapy of various kinds, and social support and motivation, people struggling with alcohol abuse can recover from alcohol use disorders and increase their chances for a healthier future.