In one year alone, almost 15 million Americans over age 12 met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Only 7.2% of those received any type of alcohol addiction treatment.
When you’re addicted to alcohol, it can be difficult to care about the long-term effects of alcohol on the body and brain. You may not be able to see past your next drink, let alone several years from now. The fact is, one day alcohol’s impact will likely catch up with you, and the damage can be irreversible.
Excessive alcohol consumption puts you at increased risk for physical and mental effects on the body. Because it’s a progressive disease, the effects of alcohol abuse worsens as you need increasing amounts of alcohol to get the desired result or even just prevent symptoms. The more alcohol that enters your body, the more your body struggles to metabolize it. This puts you at risk for harmful conditions and disorders. Alcohol also changes the way your brain functions, which can cause psychological symptoms among other issues.
Effects of Alcohol on Your Brain
Over time, heavy drinking can interfere with the neural pathways of the brain. This may affect your cognitive functioning, mood, and behavior. Some people affected by severe alcohol use disorders may have difficulty with everyday activities such as tying their shoelaces and remembering where things are. You may experience mood swings or changes in personality. Your physical mobility may be impaired as well. You are at increased risk of developing tremors and stutters.
These chemical imbalances may put you at risk for:
- Mental health conditions or symptoms that mimic them
- Learning problems
- Spatial recognition
- Memory loss and dementia
Another one of alcohol’s effects can be a lack of thiamine in the diet. This has been linked to Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). This disease consists of two separate syndromes. First, a short-lived, severe condition known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Then, a long-lasting, debilitating condition called Korsakoff’s psychosis, which can result in permanent brain damage.
Effects of Alcohol on Your Digestive System
Signs of alcoholism often show up in the digestive system, particularly in the liver. One of the liver’s functions is to break down alcohol into byproducts and eliminate them from the body. So, the risk of harmful effects on your liver increases with frequent heavy drinking or binge drinking.
Alcohol-related liver diseases include:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Alcoholic cirrhosis
If detected early, abstinence can help liver disease, although the liver may never fully recover. However, if alcohol abuse continues, the disease can progress until the liver is no longer able to function. At this point, a liver transplant is necessary. During liver failure, the kidneys may also fail. This increases your risk for hepatic encephalopathy (a brain disorder).
Over time, drinking too much alcohol can also affect your pancreas. Your pancreas plays a role in digestion by metabolizing alcohol into byproducts that are toxic. With continuous alcohol abuse, the pancreas may begin to secrete toxic byproducts internally instead of moving them to the small intestines for removal. This can lead to acute pancreatitis, which may develop into chronic pancreatitis if not treated.
Alcohol abuse also affects other areas of the digestive system like your stomach, esophagus, and small intestines. Alcohol can damage esophagus cells as it goes down your throat over time. It can also lead to acid reflux, which further damages cells. The acid that alcohol kicks up in your stomach can also contribute to damaged cells and reflux issues. Alcohol can eat away at the cells in your stomach that protect you from acid and certain enzymes, leading to lesions and inflammation. Alcohol can also damage your intestines in a way that increases your risk for colon cancer.
Effects of Alcohol on Your Heart
Drinking alcohol excessively can have serious effects on the heart. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a condition that occurs when the heart can’t contract properly anymore. The heart is unable to pump blood to your body’s organs and tissues and is forced to work harder to supply the body with enough oxygen. Some of the effects on the heart can include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Blood clots in the heart
- Complete heart failure
- Blood vessel damage
Alcoholism affects the nutrients your body absorbs through blood. Excessive alcohol use decreases the circulatory system’s ability to carry nutrients to your body, which can lead to malnutrition and a number of other issues.
Effects of Alcohol on Your Endocrine System
One of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse is its impact on the endocrine system. Over time, alcohol can begin inhibiting communication between the endocrine, immune, and central nervous system. This can cause dysregulated hormones, which puts you at risk for:
- Thyroid issues
- Reproductive deficits like loss of testosterone
- Body growth repression
- Immune dysfunction
- Stress abnormalities
- Bone disease
Effects of Alcohol on Your Lungs
Even your respiratory system can suffer from the long-term effects of alcohol consumption. Research shows that long-term alcohol use can put you at increased risk for:
- Respiratory virus infections
- Acute respiratory distress
Scientists attribute this to the impaired immune systems in people with alcoholism. Alcoholism affects important cells responsible for fighting pulmonary infections and conditions.
Alcohol withdrawal can be hard on your body and brain. When you develop a tolerance to alcohol, you may start drinking more to get the short-term effects that you desire. However, it’s a slippery slope between tolerance and dependence. Your brain begins to rely on alcohol to produce a normal level of brain chemicals responsible for important body functions. At this point, you go into withdrawal if you go without alcohol for a period of time.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to deadly, and may include:
- Rapid heart rate
How Do You Treat Alcoholism?
Alcohol treatment should start with alcohol detox in a medical setting. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, and you need medical professionals monitoring you around the clock. They can attend to discomfort and medical emergencies. They can also prescribe medicines to help with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol detox should be followed by a structured addiction treatment program. These will include several types of alcohol treatment proven to help people with substance use disorders. Treatment may include:
One-on-one counseling helps you build a trusting relationship with a therapist. You’ll feel safe sharing about personal issues that may have led to substance abuse. A counselor can help you process and begin healing from emotional pain. They’ll also teach you new ways of thinking, relating to others, and handling challenging situations.
Group therapy helps you feel less alone in your problems. You’ll discuss addiction and recovery topics among peers also struggling with substance abuse. A counselor will lead discussions and make sure communication is productive and respectful.
Alcoholism affects the alcoholic and their loved ones. Alcoholism can also be a sign that there are challenges in your family that should be addressed. Family therapy provides a safe space for loved ones to share about difficult topics. You’ll learn how to communicate better and support each other in recovery.
Peer-based groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery provide accountability and support in recovery. These groups can help you navigate triggers and help prevent relapses.
Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
Mental health issues can contribute to alcohol abuse. Managing mental health symptoms with medication and therapy can help you maintain recovery. When you’re experiencing less psychiatric symptoms, you may feel less of a need to self-medicate with alcohol.
Looking for Help?
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use, don’t wait to get help. The long-term effects of alcohol abuse are very real, and they can be prevented. Call us today for a free confidential consultation. Recovery is possible, and better than you can imagine.