What are the Physical Effects of Alcohol?
You won’t necessarily feel the physical effects of alcohol, but it starts from the moment you take your first sip. If you drink, you’ve probably had some experience with the physical effects of alcohol, from the warm buzz that kicks in quickly to the not-so-pleasant wine headache, or the hangover that shows up the next morning. Since those effects don’t last long, you might not worry much about them, especially if you don’t drink often.
Many people assume the occasional beer or glass of wine at mealtimes or special occasions doesn’t pose much cause for concern. But drinking any amount of alcohol can potentially lead to unwanted health consequences. People who binge drink or drink heavily may notice more health effects sooner, but alcohol also poses some risks for people who drink in moderation.
Alcohol use can begin to take a toll on anyone’s physical and mental well-being over time. These effects may be more serious and more noticeable if you drink regularly and tend to have more than 1 or 2 drinks when you do.
Short-term physical effects of alcohol
Temporary physical effects of alcohol you might notice while drinking (or shortly after) include:
- Feelings of relaxation or drowsiness
- A sense of euphoria or giddiness
- Changes in mood
- Lowered inhibitions
- Impulsive behavior
- Slowed or slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Head pain
- Changes in hearing, vision, and perception
- Loss of coordination
- Trouble focusing or making decisions
- Loss of consciousness or gaps in memory (often called a blackout)
Some of these physical effects of alcohol, like a relaxed mood or lowered inhibitions, might show up quickly, after just one drink. Others, like loss of consciousness or slurred speech, may develop after a few drinks. Dehydration-related effects, like nausea, headache, and dizziness, might not appear for a few hours, and they can also depend on what you drink, how much, and if you also drink water.
These effects might not last very long, but that doesn’t make them insignificant. Impulsiveness, loss of coordination, and mood changes can affect your judgment and behavior and contribute to more far-reaching effects, including accidents, injuries, and decisions you later regret.
Long-term physical effects of alcohol
Alcohol use can also lead to more lasting concerns that extend beyond your mood and health. Some long-term physical effects of alcohol frequently drinking include:
- Persistent changes in mood, including anxiety and irritability
- Insomnia and other sleep concerns
- A weakened immune system, meaning you might get sick more often
- Changes in libido and sexual function
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Difficulty focusing on tasks
- Increased tension and conflict in romantic and family relationships
Physical effects of alcohol on the body
Here’s a breakdown of the physical effects of alcohol on your internal organs and body processes.
Digestive and endocrine glands
Drinking too much alcohol may cause inflammation of the pancreas, resulting in a condition called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can activate the release of pancreatic digestive enzymes and cause abdominal pain. Pancreatitis can become a long-term condition and cause serious complications.
Your liver helps break down and remove toxins and harmful substances (including alcohol) from your body. Long-term alcohol use interferes with this process. It also increases your risk for alcohol-related liver disease and chronic liver inflammation:
- Alcohol-related liver disease is a potentially life-threatening condition that leads to toxins and waste buildup in your body.
- Chronic liver inflammation can cause scarring or alcoholic cirrhosis. When scar tissue forms, it may permanently damage your liver.
The pancreas helps regulate how your body uses insulin and responds to glucose. If your pancreas and liver don’t function properly due to pancreatitis or liver disease, you could experience low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. A damaged pancreas can also prevent your body from producing enough insulin to use sugar. This can lead to hyperglycemia or too much sugar in the blood.
If your body can’t manage and balance your blood sugar levels, you may experience greater complications and side effects related to diabetes. Experts recommend avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Central nervous system
One major way to recognize alcohol’s impact on your body? Understanding how it affects your central nervous system. Slurred speech, a key sign of intoxication, happens because alcohol reduces communication between your brain and body. This makes speech and coordination — think reaction time and balance — more difficult. That’s one major reason why you should never drive after drinking. Over time, alcohol can cause damage to your central nervous system, you might notice numbness and tingling in your feet and hands.
Drinking can also affect your ability to:
- Create long-term memories
- Think clearly
- Make rational choices
Over time, drinking can also damage your frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for vital functions, like impulse control, short-term memory, and judgment. Chronic heavy drinking can also cause permanent brain damage, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder that affects memory.
The connection between alcohol consumption and your digestive system might not seem immediately clear. The side effects often only appear after the damage has happened. Continuing to drink can worsen these symptoms. Drinking can damage the tissues in your digestive tract, preventing your intestines from digesting food and absorbing nutrients and vitamins properly. In time, this damage can cause malnutrition.
Heavy drinking can also lead to:
- A feeling of fullness in your abdomen
- Diarrhea or painful stools
- Ulcers or hemorrhoids (due to dehydration and constipation)
Ulcers can cause dangerous internal bleeding, which can sometimes be fatal without prompt diagnosis and treatment.
Chronic drinking can affect your heart and lungs, raising your risk of developing heart-related health issues. Circulatory system complications include:
- Heart attack
- Heart disease
- Heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty pumping blood through the body
Difficulty absorbing vitamins and minerals from food can cause fatigue and anemia, a condition where you have a low red blood cell count.
Sexual and reproductive health
Drinking alcohol can lower your inhibitions, so you might assume alcohol can ramp up your fun in the bedroom. In reality, though, heavy drinking can:
- Keep you from getting or maintaining an erection
- Make it difficult to achieve orgasm
- Prevent sex hormone production
- Lower your libido
Excessive drinking may affect your menstrual cycle and potentially increase your risk for infertility.
Skeletal and muscle systems
Long-term alcohol use can affect bone density, leading to thinner bones and increasing your risk of fractures if you fall. Weakened bones may also heal slower. Drinking alcohol can also lead to muscle weakness, cramping, and eventually atrophy.
Drinking heavily reduces your body’s natural immune system. A weakened immune system has a harder time protecting you from germs and viruses.
People who drink heavily over a long time are also more likely to develop pneumonia or tuberculosis than the general population. Experts link about 10 percent of all tuberculosis cases worldwide to alcohol consumption.
Drinking alcohol can also factor into your cancer risk:
- Frequent drinking can increase your risk for developing mouth, throat, breast, esophagus, colon, or liver cancer.
- Drinking and using tobacco together can further increase your risk for developing mouth or throat cancer.
Long-term alcohol use can lead to changes in your brain that affect your:
- Memory and concentration
- Impulse control
- Emotions, mood, and personality
Regular drinking can also affect overall mental health and well-being, in part because alcohol may worsen symptoms of certain mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. You might also notice feelings of anxiety with a hangover.
Alcohol-induced mental health conditions
Alcohol use can factor into mental health symptoms that closely resemble those of other mental health conditions. The latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions, includes diagnostic criteria for:
- Alcohol-induced bipolar disorder
- Alcohol-induced psychotic disorder
- Alcohol-induced sleep disorder
- Alcohol-induced depressive disorder
- Alcohol-induced anxiety disorder
With these conditions, you’ll only notice symptoms during alcohol intoxication or withdrawal. These symptoms typically improve quickly when alcohol use stops.
Some people who drink eventually develop a tolerance to alcohol. As a result, they eventually need to drink more to notice the same effects they once did. Drinking alcohol regularly can also lead to dependence, which means your body and brain have grown used to alcohol’s effects. When you stop drinking, you might notice a range of physical, emotional, or mental health symptoms that ease as soon as you have a drink.
Tolerance and dependence can both happen as symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, a mental health condition previously referred to as alcoholism. This condition can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the number of symptoms you have.
Key symptoms may include:
- Drinking more over time
- Having difficulty stopping after one drink
- Inability to stop drinking when you try
- Continuing to drink alcohol even when it has a negative impact on your health or daily life
- Spending a lot of time on activities related to alcohol use
Alcohol withdrawal can be difficult and, in some cases, life-threatening. Depending on how often you drink and how much, you may need support from a healthcare professional if you want to stop drinking. It’s always best to connect with your doctor before quitting alcohol. The “cold turkey” approach might not always be safe.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heavy sweating
Seizures, hallucinations, and delirium may occur in severe cases of withdrawal. Medical detoxification can help you stop drinking safely. Your doctor may recommend treatment at a clinic or at home, depending on your risk for withdrawal symptoms.
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 Alcohol’s effects on the body. (n.d.).