Alcohol is one of the most common substances in America, with almost 55% of American adults drinking in any given month. As such, it is important to be aware of the impact alcohol has on the body and brain. This impact involves both short and long-term effects, which can vary. The short-term effects of even casual drinking often set in quickly. The long-term effects of heavy drinking can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health.
Table of Contents
Immediate Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol can quickly cause various effects in the body as it is absorbed into your bloodstream and broken down by your liver. The amount of alcohol that it can take to be buzzed or drunk can vary based on different factors. These include:
- Sex: Women can reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08% after four drinks within two hours, while it can take a man five drinks to reach the same blood alcohol level in the same timeframe.
- Weight: A heavier person may take longer to feel the effects of alcohol than a smaller person.
- Age: A younger person may be less sensitive to alcohol than an older adult.
- Underlying health conditions: Your overall health and medical conditions, especially involving your liver, can impact how long it takes your body to break down alcohol.
- Alcohol tolerance: A person whose liver has adapted to drinking has increased the rate at which alcohol is broken down in the body. They may be able to drink more than a person who is not used to drinking.
Some people may have other, rarer reactions to alcohol. For example, some people have a genetic condition in which they suffer from acute alcohol sensitivity, often getting a stuffy nose and flushed skin soon after drinking. This rare genetic condition is most likely to affect those of Asian descent.
Immediate Effects on the Body
Drinking can have a variety of immediate effects on the body. These effects vary depending on the level of intoxication. Though side effects from small amounts are often not dangerous, the more you drink, the more likely it is for dangerous effects to occur.
Low amounts of alcohol can cause physical effects like:
- Impaired reflexes
- Slowed reaction time
- Problems with coordination
A moderate amount of alcohol can intensify physical effects, causing:
- Slurred speech
- Changes in vision
- Increased urination
- Flushed skin or skin reactions like rashes, redness or itching
Heavy amounts of alcohol can have the most dramatic — and dangerous — physical impact. The effects of high quantities of alcohol include:
- Problems controlling your bowels and bladder
- Breathing problems
- Passing out
Heavy drinking can easily lead to an alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning. Poisoning typically occurs at a BAC of 0.45 or higher.
Unfortunately, deaths from alcohol poisoning are common in heavy drinkers, so it’s important you look for these overdose symptoms in yourself or a loved one:
- Slow or irregular breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute, or ten seconds or more between breaths)
- Slow heart rate
- Dulled response to stimuli
- Low body temperature
- Blue skin color, especially in the lips or face
- Clammy skin
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
Immediate Psychological Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol impacts not only the body but also the brain, causing multiple psychological effects. Many of alcohol’s psychological side effects are because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. In other words, alcohol slows down the brain and its function. This can lead to psychological effects like:
- Lowered inhibitions
- Problems concentrating
- Changes in mood
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Long-term alcohol use can have a serious impact on the brain and body. This is especially true with heavy drinking habits. In general, the more heavily a person drinks over the long term, the greater the risk to their overall health. For this reason, experts recommend limiting yourself to two drinks per day if you are a man and to one drink a day if you are a woman.
Over the long-term, heavy drinking can cause serious physical complications like:
- Damage to brain cells, lowering brain mass
- Liver damage
- Stomach and intestinal ulcers
- High blood pressure
- Decrease in male sperm production
- Low levels of vitamins and minerals like iron and vitamin B
- A higher risk of alcoholism
- A higher risk of some cancers
In fact, a recent study by The Recovery Village found heavy drinkers were 48% more likely to report having cancer than those who didn’t drink heavily. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can also cause serious psychological issues like alcohol psychosis.
Alcohol and Liver Damage
The liver is the organ that metabolizes alcohol. Once a person consumes alcohol, the liver begins working to process it. It converts ethanol to the toxin acetaldehyde, which breaks down into acetate and further breaks down into water and carbon dioxide. The liver can lower your blood alcohol level by about 0.015 per hour, leaving the remaining amount in the bloodstream. Checking a person’s blood alcohol level is a common way to measure how drunk a person is.
Long-term, heavy drinking (defined as binge drinking for five or more days in the past month) can damage the liver and cause liver disease. The more alcohol the liver has to process, the more bloated its cells become. The resulting swelling and inflammation are known as alcoholic hepatitis or alcoholic steatohepatitis. As heavy drinking continues, these conditions can cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) to develop. In a recent study by The Recovery Village, heavy drinkers were found to be 2.12 times more likely to have liver disease and 2.26 times more likely to have cirrhosis.
These liver diseases can eventually lead to liver failure and possible death. Not only do these conditions have severe consequences, but a poorly functioning liver also affects the rest of the body. Specifically, liver dysfunction from alcohol consumption can cause a brain disorder called hepatic encephalopathy. The disorder causes changes in basic behavior, like sleep patterns and mood, but it also has more serious effects, including personality changes, confusion, anxiety, depression, and problems with physical coordination. The more serious cases can be fatal.
Alcohol and Brain Damage
Alcohol’s direct effect on the brain can be extreme. In the short term, alcohol can slow functioning and make the person misusing alcohol feel as though the world is moving slower. Long-term abuse can cause even more damage. For example, studies of men and women with alcoholism have shown greater brain shrinkage (an indicator of brain damage) than their counterparts. Heavy drinkers are also 2.77 times more likely to have nerve damage than other people.
Additionally, alcoholism often leads to a deficiency in thiamine, or Vitamin B1. This deficiency causes neurological conditions known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Together, they’re referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This syndrome causes a severe state of mental confusion and muscle incoordination, as well as trouble learning and remembering new information.
Alcohol and Cardiovascular Damage
Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the heart and cardiovascular system in multiple ways. The damages include increasing your risk of heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, and hemorrhagic stroke. It can also raise triglyceride levels, which puts significant strain on the heart. Heavy drinkers are also two times more likely to have high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease than others. While it is true that drinking in moderation can promote heart health, excessive drinking can weaken the heart itself by causing it to enlarge — a condition called cardiomyopathy — and cause premature death.
Alcohol and Endocrine System Damage
The endocrine system’s role is to help organs communicate using hormones to maintain a stable environment in the body. Alcohol can disrupt this process, interfering with hormone production and the endocrine system’s function. Parts of the endocrine system that are especially susceptible to drinking include the stress axis.
Also known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and HPA axis, the stress axis controls the body’s response to psychological and physical stress. Drinking can stimulate the stress axis, leading to an increase in cortisol levels. This makes the body have a stronger reaction to stress than it normally would.
Drinking can also harm the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid, or HPT, axis, which controls thyroid function. Abnormal thyroid hormone levels can result from drinking’s effects on this system, leading to symptoms like weight gain and mood changes.
The endocrine system is also involved in managing circadian rhythm and sleep, another system that can be harmed by excessive drinking.
Alcohol and the Immune System
The same HPA axis involved in endocrine system function is also tightly linked to the immune system. Drinking can reduce the level of immune system cells involved in fighting off infections, like monocytes, neutrophils and natural killer cells. By interfering with these cells’ activity, drinking can make you more susceptible to infections and illness. In a recent study by The Recovery Village, heavy drinkers were 61% more likely than others to have a weakened immune system.
Alcohol and Inflammation
Excessive, long-term drinking is linked to chronic inflammation throughout the body. Alcohol increases the presence of chemicals called cytokines that cause inflammation. Drinking also increases the body’s cortisol levels, a stress hormone that is linked to inflammation. Because the inflammation can take place throughout the entire body, experts think that every organ in the body can be impacted by alcohol-related inflammation.
Alcohol and Sexual/Reproductive Health
Drinking can have a profound impact on sexual and reproductive health. In part, this is due to drinking’s effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal, or HPG, axis. This hormonal system is needed for proper reproductive system function. Alcohol’s damage to the HPG axis includes negative effects on:
- Libido: People who struggle with alcohol can have less of a sex drive than others.
- Fertility: Excessive drinking can lead to abnormalities in reproductive hormones like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, needed for fertility. Since many of the hormones needed for fertility are also used in other bodily systems, a decrease in fertility can also be linked to mood changes, poor memory, bone loss and muscle atrophy.
Alcohol and the Musculoskeletal System
Alcohol can exacerbate problems with the musculoskeletal system, such as osteoporosis, a condition characterized by bone loss that can put you at risk of fracture. Drinking can interfere with the body’s levels of calcium and vitamin D. Both are needed for strong and healthy bones. Hormonal changes in testosterone and estrogen due to drinking can further worsen bone loss.
Social Side Effects of Alcohol
As alcohol takes on an increasingly important role in a person’s life, they may be quick to let go of other activities or hobbies they once enjoyed. Someone who used to love spending their free time playing music or hanging out with friends may now be at a bar instead.
School and Work
Similar problems may appear at school or work. Alcohol can inhibit a person’s memory, motor skills and cognitive abilities, which can easily lead to tardiness and low performance on academic or work assignments. Most people experience attitude changes while they’re drunk, as well as becoming more boisterous, silly or argumentative. This attitude shift may cause a problem in an educational or professional setting. The more heavily you use alcohol, the bigger the impact: 33% of heavy drinkers said their alcohol use negatively impacted their careers or jobs, compared to only 18% of light or moderate drinkers.
Abilities as Parents
More than 10% of children live with a parent struggling with alcohol. These children are at an increased risk of suffering from abuse and neglect. Further, over the long term, these children have a higher risk of suffering from alcohol abuse in the future, as well as mental health problems like depression and anxiety. In The Recovery Village’s comprehensive alcohol survey, heavy drinkers were 96% more likely than their peers to report a negative impact on their abilities as parents due to alcohol.
Excessive drinking can have a large financial impact on the person who drinks and their loved ones. Besides the cost of the alcohol itself, drinkers often must contend with paying for health problems due to alcohol, as well as legal fees and motor vehicle crashes from alcohol. These costs can add up to more than $5000 per year.
Impact on Hygiene
An addiction to a substance like alcohol can have a dramatic impact on personal hygiene. The person may smell like alcohol and may not change their clothes or bathe as often as they normally would. Further, excessive drinking may cause problems with oral hygiene, including their teeth and the overall health of the mouth.
Heavy drinking can lead to a variety of legal problems. These include arrests, fines and possible jail time for driving under the influence of alcohol. A judge can revoke or restrict a driver’s license after a conviction for driving under the influence. In turn, these legal consequences can put a person’s job at risk and may even impact their ability to have custody of their children. In a recent study, 16.3% of heavy drinkers reported having an alcohol-related legal issue; they had increased their risk for a legal issue by 66%, compared to non-heavy drinkers.
Alcohol Addiction Intervention
If you or a loved one live with alcoholism or are struggling to quit using alcohol, consider seeking professional help. The Recovery Village specializes in treating alcohol addiction and helping people recover from alcoholism. Contact one of our caring representatives to learn how The Recovery Village can help you or a loved one start on the path to a healthier future.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.