Excessive Alcohol Consumption and How it Affects the Body

Many people enjoy a glass of beer or like to share a bottle of wine over a meal. In moderation, alcohol is an accepted part of our social fabric and the odd glass or two now and again does little harm to the individual.

Excessive alcohol consumption, however, can have major effects on the body, causing damage to the brain and increasing the risk of serious health conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Here we look at the health costs that come from consuming too much alcohol and the kinds of diseases and conditions that it is commonly associated with.

Alcohol's Effects on the Body

The minute an individual takes a sip of alcohol it begins to affect their body. Alcohol does not pass through the digestive system but is quickly absorbed into the blood supply and from their finds its way to every organ in the body, including the brain.

In the short-term, too much alcohol can lead to a feeling of drunkenness, slurred speech and loss of inhibitions. If someone drinks regularly over several years, they are likely to have more serious long-term health issues including liver damage, shrinkage of the brain and thinning of the bones.

What is Moderate and Excessive Drinking?

In the USA, moderate drinking is normally classed as one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men.

Excessive drinking can take several forms. The individual might not be able to get through the day without a few drinks. Other people might binge drink over the weekend when they go out on the town but otherwise stay off alcohol for the rest of the week.

  • Someone is said to binge drink if they have four or five drinks on a single occasion.
  • Heavy drinking is defined in the US as having more than 8 drinks a week for women and 15 for men.

Drinking excessively does not mean that an individual is an alcoholic, just that they are consuming enough to cause serious damage to their body.

Short and Long-term Health Risks

The short-term health risks of alcohol include loss of inhibition which means an individual is more likely to make a bad decision, for example, by indulging in risky sexual behavior or getting into a fight. Slurred speech and poor coordination are signs of having had too much to drink.

Excessive alcohol is likely to raise blood pressure and overindulging can lead to alcohol poisoning which could make someone extremely ill to the point they require hospital treatment.

In the long-term and with regular, excessive alcohol consumption, different organs of the body, most notably the liver will be damaged. Affected individuals will generally have a weaker immune system, which means they are more likely to catch viruses. Some cancers are also more likely to develop if alcohol is consumed regularly and in excess.

In addition to this, a heavy drinker may become dependent on alcohol and this can lead to social and family problems.

Diseases and Medical Conditions Associated with Heavy Drinking

There are a range of different health conditions that are associated with long-term persistent over drinking.

Liver Disease

Most people associate heavy drinking with liver disease. The liver is an organ that exists in part to rid toxins from the body. Alcohol is essentially a poison and excessive drinking can put huge pressure on this organ causing fat to develop and scarring of the tissue.

Between 2015 and 2017, there were more than 129,000 deaths in the USA through cirrhosis with more than half of these attributed to excessive alcohol.

Cancer

Recent research has shown a clearer relationship between alcohol and certain types of cancer. People who drink a lot are more prone to mouth and throat cancer, breast cancer, cancer of the liver and colon.

Research in the USA has found that more than 19,000 deaths a year from cancer can be attributed to alcohol and just 3.5 drinks a day can double the risk of developing head and neck cancers.

Pancreatitis

The pancreas is on the opposite side of the body to the liver and is also adversely affected by regular alcohol consumption. Pancreatitis causes inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels and is extremely painful, often requiring hospital treatment.

Ulcers and Gastrointestinal Problems

Alcohol is abrasive and causes harm to the delicate lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Long term misuse can lead to ulcers and problems with digestion such as bloating and gas. People who abuse alcohol often suffer from conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Immune System Dysfunction

Our immune systems depend on a delicate balance in the body to ensure that we can fight off disease. Drinking excessively makes us feel run down and compromises the immune systems ability to do its job properly.

Brain Damage

Alcohol also has a major impact on the brain, shrinking areas like the frontal lobes and potentially cause behavioral changes. It can interfere with memory and cause blackouts where individuals can’t remember what they did the night before.

Osteoporosis

Especially if drinking begins in early adulthood or childhood, it can increase the risk of developing a condition such as osteoporosis. People who drink heavily are more likely to fracture a bone than someone who doesn’t drink at all.

Heart disease and Cardiovascular Health

Drinking too much raises the blood pressure and over time this can lead to heart disease and poor cardiovascular health. Stroke is a particular risk for those who binge drink. Alcohol presents an even higher risk for poor heart health the individual also also smokes tobacco, which is in itself an extremely unhealthy habit.

Recommended Guidelines

The CDC advises that men should limit their drinking to one or two alcoholic beverages a day while women should only have one. Women who are pregnant or think they might be pregnant should not drink at all.