Learn about the devastating effects of alcoholism and how to start on the road to recovery.
Alcoholism is a common yet severe substance use disorder that affects millions of Americans. Unfortunately, as with so many other substance use disorders, the effects of alcoholism influence a person’s life in numerous ways. Alcohol abuse affects not only their mental and physical health but also their career and interpersonal relationships.
Alcoholism is considered a long-term or chronic disease, and it tends to progress in stages. For example:
- First, a person may start out as a casual social drinker or maybe an occasional binge drinker
- Next, they usually start drinking more, even when negative outcomes or consequences occur
- Finally, people progress to later stages of alcoholism, where they often find they’ve lost their job, are experiencing financial problems, have broken relationships and have many serious health problems
Physical Effects of Alcoholism
Many people wonder, “What effects does alcoholism have on the body?” What alcoholism does to the body can be quite devastating. While someone may start out simply enjoying the feelings they get from using alcohol, over time, the ways in which alcoholism affects the body will become more apparent and severe.
Alcohol has effects on the body that are evident whenever it is used, whether by someone who struggles with alcoholism or not. These short-term effects of alcohol use include:
- Slow reflexes
- Decreased coordination
- Impaired memory
- Impaired motor function
- Problems with thinking and cognition
These short-term effects of alcohol use will typically wear off as the alcohol is metabolized by the body.
The more long-term effects of alcohol use are more dangerous. Alcohol can cause a more permanent disruption of the brain’s communication pathways and can lead to heart and liver damage. Alcohol also leads to an increased likelihood of many cancers, including cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast. When a person drinks too much alcohol, it can also weaken their immune system, making them more susceptible to illnesses.
What Alcoholism Does to the Brain
Alcohol can have serious impacts on brain health, especially when it is used for a long time. Long-term alcohol use can lead to a slowdown in the activity of nerves and chemicals that are used by the brain to transmit nerve signals. It can also affect the production of new brain cells and may lead to long-term brain problems including seizures, dementia, and prolonged delirium.
Over time, alcohol use also impacts the production of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain. Dopamine is an essential part of the brain’s reward system and helps people feel pleasure. Over time, when a person has artificially increased dopamine from alcohol use, their brain becomes unable to experience pleasure without alcohol.
How Alcoholism Affects the Liver
Another key way in which long-term alcohol misuse damages the body is how it affects the liver.
The liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol. When alcohol is consumed, the liver turns the alcohol into other chemicals, some of which are toxic. These toxic chemicals can lead to injury to the liver and may increase the risk of liver cancer.
When people drink too much alcohol over a prolonged time, fat accumulates in the liver, which can clog the liver and disrupt its normal functions. Most people who are heavy drinkers will develop a fatty liver. Unfortunately, fatty liver may not cause noticeable health problems until it becomes more severe, but it will eventually lead to other more serious liver diseases.
As fat begins to accumulate in the liver and the liver’s normal function is disrupted, the liver will become inflamed. This condition is referred to as alcoholic hepatitis. Unfortunately, alcoholic hepatitis will cause more severe effects on the body, but this inflammation may get better when alcohol use is stopped.
As the liver experiences prolonged inflammation, it starts to develop scar tissue. This scarring of the liver is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is very serious and greatly increases the risk of death. Cirrhosis is not reversible. While someone who stops using alcohol may stop the progression of cirrhosis, the degree of scarring that has already occurred is permanent.
How Alcoholism Affects the Heart
When talking about the effects of alcohol on the heart, many people like to recall that they have heard somewhere that a glass of wine a day helps the heart somehow. While a daily glass of red wine may have some heart health benefits, any benefits are mostly due to the characteristics of the grapes in the wine, not because of the alcohol.
When used in excess, alcohol is almost always bad for the heart. Heart problems are one of the main causes of death in the United States, and alcoholism increases the risk of heart health problems.
While there are several ways by which alcoholism affects the heart, the main potential problem is something called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. With alcoholic cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle becomes stretched and enlarged, affecting its ability to pump blood throughout the body.
When someone drinks a lot of alcohol it will also raise the blood pressure and lipid levels, increasing the risk of several serious health problems, including stroke and heart attack.
Psychological Effects of Alcoholism
Alcoholism can contribute to several types of psychological conditions. Alcoholism greatly complicates existing or developing psychiatric issues.
Alcohol abuse can:
- Stem from psychiatric diseases
- Trigger the development of psychiatric illnesses
- Worsen existing psychiatric conditions
Psychological conditions that are thought to be directly related to alcoholism include:
- Depression and depressive disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Antisocial personality disorder
Some people may have these conditions before using alcohol, and the effects of these disorders may become more apparent once alcohol use is started. Others may use alcohol as an attempt to treat the effects of these psychological conditions. Regular alcohol use may also create these psychological conditions in those who were already at risk for them.
The psychological conditions that are related to alcoholism can lead to disruption of a person’s social life and may increase their risk of suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Relationships
Alcoholism can have a devastating effect on interpersonal relationships. Small to moderate amounts of alcohol use is associated with social activity, such as meeting people in bars or drinking over a business lunch. Heavy alcohol use, however, can harm relationships and worsen a person’s loneliness and isolation.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Significant Others, Partners, and Spouses
According to the World Health Organization, over half of all victims of domestic violence in America believe alcohol use precipitated the attacks.
Using alcohol greatly increases the risk that someone will not be able to control their actions or thought processes and could end up hurting a significant other, either verbally or physically.
In addition to the increased potential for injury, a significant other is likely to experience more financial stress from a partner’s alcohol abuse. Purchasing alcohol is an expense, and using excessive amounts of alcohol decreases the ability to work and create an income.
Regular alcohol use also leads to increased medical expenses, increasing the cost of alcoholism even more. This increased financial stress can make it necessary for a significant other to work more and decreases the amount of time spent with the family.
It can be difficult for spouses and significant others to know how to cope with their partner’s alcohol abuse and when to draw the line.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Children
Alcohol abuse can harm children beginning in the womb. Prenatal alcohol use can contribute to the development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, birth defects, and other consequences.
Growing up in a home with alcoholism can have numerous harmful effects on children. If a parent struggles with alcoholism, their children may be more prone to developing alcohol addiction, too.
Additionally, alcoholism in parents can increase the risk that children will be physically abused or neglected. As one parent increases their use of alcohol, the increased expenses and decreased income may cause the other parent to have to work more. The children may have to spend more time with the parent who is suffering from the intoxicating effects of alcohol and are less likely to be well cared for.
Alcohol abuse can have long-term effects on children, and many children of alcoholics attend support groups and therapy sessions well into their adult years.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Family
While alcoholism may affect someone’s significant other and their children, it can also affect their extended family.
The increased financial stress that accompanies alcoholism may cause the person struggling with alcohol to borrow money from family. It may also create stress on the family as they may have to take a more active role in helping to raise the children and assist in financially supporting the person suffering from alcoholism.
As these effects of alcoholism are extended over time, the decreased contributions of the person with alcoholism may cause a breakdown of the relationships between them and their families. These effects can lead to resentment, decreased communication and eventually to isolation from some or all family members.
Friends and family members may band together and hold interventions with their loved one about their problematic alcohol use.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Friendships
Alcoholism can lead to decreased time spent on building and maintaining friendships. The negative social stigma associated with alcoholism can also greatly affect friendships.
As friendships are affected by alcohol use, the development of new friendships will likely be centered around alcohol use and people who drink together. These new friendships will reinforce alcohol use and make it harder for someone with alcoholism to stop using alcohol.
Concerned friends can speak with the person privately in efforts to help them stop drinking and get professional help for alcohol abuse.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Work
Regular alcohol use will likely lead to decreased productivity at work. As alcoholism disrupts coordination, thinking and motor function, any task will become more difficult and may even become dangerous, depending upon what types of tasks are done.
Alcoholism may also increase the number of absences due to hangovers or alcohol use too close to when work was supposed to be done. The decreased work attendance and decreased quality and safety of work will make it more difficult to obtain and hold a steady job.
The Recovery Village Alcohol Survey Results
We surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). We asked them about their alcohol use, reasons for drinking, alcohol-related outcomes, health and more.
Among those respondents who had tried to stop drinking at some point:
- 53.5% reported alcohol affected their physical health
- 44.5% reported alcohol affected their mental health
- 41.9% reported alcohol affected their relationships with loved ones
- 21.7% reported alcohol affected their abilities as a parent
- 25.3% reported alcohol affected their career or job
- 29.5% reported alcohol affected their hygiene
- 34.0% reported alcohol affected their finances
- 13.2% reported alcohol affected their legal status (incarceration, fines, etc.)
Those who qualified as heavy drinkers consistently reported higher percentages for each of these effects. Compared to other people in our study, heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for a negative impact on their mental health, relationships and careers. They were 96% more likely to have their abilities as parents affected and 66% more likely to experience a legal issue.
When we asked survey participants about health complications directly related to their alcohol use:
- 1 in 3 reported depression (38%)
- 1 in 3 reported high blood pressure (31%)
- 1 in 6 reported liver disease (17%)
- 1 in 10 reported cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) (12%)
- 1 in 10 reported cardiovascular disease (11%)
- 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system (15%)
- 1 in 10 reported nerve damage (11%)
- 1 in 12 reported pancreatitis (8.4%)
- 1 in 11 reported seizures (9%)
- 1 in 13 reported cancer (7.8%)
Consistently, respondents who qualified as heavy alcohol users reported every health complication more often than average and significantly more than other alcohol users. Compared to people who didn’t drink heavily, heavy drinkers in our study had more than doubled their risk for certain health issues. They were:
- 2.12 times more likely to have liver disease
- 2.26 times more likely to have cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
- 2.06 times more likely to have high blood pressure
- 2.26 times more likely to have cardiovascular disease
- 2.77 times more likely to have nerve damage
- 2.18 times more likely to have pancreatitis
They were also at higher risk for other common health complications compared to other moderate or light drinkers. Heavy drinkers were:
- 85% more likely to be depressed
- 61% more likely to have a weakened immune system
- 73% more likely to have seizures
- 48% more likely to have cancer
Key Points: What Alcoholism Does to You
Alcoholism can affect a person’s body, mind, relationships, and career. Alcoholism can create many negative effects and any combination of these effects can be devastating.
The negative effects that alcohol can cause include:
- Heart problems
- Liver damage
- Brain damage
- Increased risk of psychological conditions
- Increased risk of suicide
- A disrupted relationship with a significant other
- Physical and psychological stress on children
- Social isolation
- Decreased ability to hold a steady job
- Increased risk of death
If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol addiction, recovery can be possible. The Recovery Village has a strong track record of helping those with alcohol addiction to overcome their addiction and recover from the negative effects that alcohol can create. Reach out to one of our understanding and caring team members today to learn how your road to recovery can start now.
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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” Oct. 2004. Accessed May 7, 2019.
Orfanidis, Nicholas T. “Alcoholic Liver Disease.” Merck Manuals, 2017. Accessed May 7, 2019.
American Heart Association. “Alcohol and Heart Health.” Aug. 15, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2019.
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Shivani, Ramesh; Goldsmith, Jeffrey; & Anthenelli, Robert M. “Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2002. Accessed May 7, 2019.
World Health Organization. “Intimate Partner Violence and Alcohol.” 2006. Accessed May 7, 2019.
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.