Alcohol use is part of the American lifestyle for many adults. Images of college-aged students drinking at football games appear in advertisements, TV shows, and movies. Many adults routinely meet up for social hour after work to unwind and socialize.

In the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.3 percent of Americans ages 18 or older stated drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Despite the largely accepted use of alcohol by adults in the United States, there is still a debate on whether alcohol in small doses is good for you or not.

Most studies focus on the negative impact of heavy or problematic drinking on a person’s health. Heavy drinking can damage a person’s liver, heart, brain, and increase the chance of some cancers. Heavy drinking while pregnant puts the unborn baby at risk for health problems. People can also develop nutrition deficits that can contribute to alcohol-related cognitive changes and even dementia.

If you know someone or have a family member struggling with alcohol addiction, call the Rehab Helpline for Drugs and Alcohol for immediate assistance.

At present, there is less evidence about the potential risks and benefits of moderate alcohol use. Yet, even one glass of wine or beer can impact a person. People often report feeling “relaxed” and noticing changes in their coordination or concentration. So, how does alcohol affect the body?

Short-Term Impact of Alcohol on the Body

From your first sip, alcohol starts to slow down your central nervous system, which consists of your brain and the spinal cord. This system is like the control station for your body. It’s essential for relaying and processing sensory and motor information.

During that first drink, you can notice less coordination and balance, which worsens the more you drink. You may think slower. Messages to and from your brain are transmitted slower. Your reflexes slow.

As you drink more during a session, your speech becomes slurred. It becomes harder to make good choices and decisions, leading to people making choices and engaging in behaviors they usually wouldn’t do.

The more you drink during a drinking session, the more likely your memory will become impacted, leaving some people to struggle to remember what occurred when they were drinking.

During a drinking session, if a person drinks more than their liver can keep up with, they will develop alcohol poisoning or overdose, which impedes the brain’s ability to sustain basic functions like heart rate and body temperature. Alcohol poisoning, which can occur with binge drinking, can also cause vomiting, fainting, seizures, and a struggle to stay awake because of the impact on the central nervous system.

Long-Term Impact of Alcohol on the Body

People who drink heavily when they drink or who drink frequently are at greater risk for long-term health consequences due to alcohol use. While some health effects might be reversible if caught early, some damage can be permanent.

1. Negative impact of alcohol on the brain and central nervous system

Frequent and heavy drinking can cause lasting damage to the brain and central nervous system.

Over time, alcohol can damage brain cells, impede neurotransmitters’ ability to relay messages in the brain effectively, and can even shrink brain tissue. This can result in impaired decision making, poor judgment, reduced organizational skills, and poor balance.

Long-term use can increase the risk of damage to both short-term and long-term memory. People report experiencing blackouts—where they wake up with no memory of what they did while drinking. With continued heavy use, memory difficulties and periods of confusion can occur even when they’re not drinking.

Chronic alcohol use combined with thiamine deficiency (commonly seen with long-term use), can result in severe neurological disorders, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome or alcohol-related dementia.

2. Long-term impact on the digestive system

Your digestive system involves organs such as the liver, pancreas, stomach, and gallbladder, and the intestines. Heavy and frequent drinking can disrupt your body’s ability to breakdown and absorb nutrients, which can lead to nutrition deficiencies like thiamine. Some conditions alcohol can cause include:

  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Liver damage
  • Diarrhea and stomach pain due to intestinal damage
  • Ulcers, gas, and bloating due to damage to the stomach

Chronic pancreatitis results in permanent damage to the pancreas and leads to serious health conditions, such as malnutrition and diabetes. Alcohol use is associated with 70 percent of chronic pancreatitis cases.

Liver damage prevents your body’s ability to remove toxic substances and break them down, including alcohol. Long-term chronic alcohol use can result in inflammation of the liver and permanent damage and scarring known as cirrhosis. Liver disease is life-threatening.

Ulcers, if left untreated or undiagnosed, can lead to internal bleeding and be fatal.

3. Negative effects on the circulatory system

Chronic alcohol use can result in an increased risk of permanent heart and lung-related issues as well as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased risk of blood clots
  • Stroke
  • Enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy), makes it harder to pump blood
  • Heart attack
  • Anemia

4. Impact on muscle and skeletal system

Chronic alcohol use can cause osteoporosis or thinning of your bones. This condition occurs due to a calcium imbalance and disruption to vitamin D. This condition makes people more likely to fracture or break their bones. This is even more problematic for heavy drinkers, since they are at increased risk of falling while intoxicated.

Chronic use can also cause muscle cramping and weakness, largely due to malnutrition.

5. Increased risk of chronic illnesses

In addition to the chronic illness discussed above, long-term heavy drinking increases the risk of some types of cancer, diabetes, and conditions like pneumonia and tuberculosis, due to a weakened immune system.

Growing evidence suggests that chronic alcohol use is linked to several cancers, including:

  • Oral cancers
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

6. Physical and emotional dependency

Chronic use of alcohol can lead to physical and emotional dependency on alcohol for some people that can make it challenging—and potentially dangerous—to stop drinking on their own.

People who have used alcohol heavily for years should consider seeking professional help to stop using alcohol. They are at increased risk for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as anxiety, tremors, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and nausea.

Some people may also experience more severe symptoms of withdrawal called delirium tremens. These individuals experience severe agitation, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.

Alcohol Misuse Can Negatively Impact Your Body and Health

An occasional alcoholic drink may not impact your overall, long term health. However, drinking too much at one time or drinking frequently over time can lead to serious health problems, chronic conditions, and permanent organ damage.

Social alcohol use can slip into problematic drinking, sometimes without a person even realizing it. If you have a friend or loved one struggling with alcohol addiction, call the Rehab Helpline for Drugs and Alcohol for immediate assistance.  

If you are currently living with someone struggling with an alcohol addiction, check out our recent blog post to get informed about what alcoholism is, what you may experience, and how you can help.