Many of us enjoy a glass of beer or wine from time to time or throwing a few back with our friends after work. Drinking is so common that, according to the 2015 National Survey of people ages 18 or older on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):
- 86.4% reported that they drank alcohol at least once in their lifetime,
- 70.1 % reported that they drank in the past year,
- 56.0% reported that they drank in the past month,
- And 6.2% had an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Few of us understand the full scope of alcohol’s effects on the body. Some you’re probably familiar with, but others may come as a surprise. The next time you enjoy a drink, remember all the ways alcohol can affect your health and lifestyle:
Effects on the Brain
When you drink, one of the first changes to occur takes place in the brain.
- Trouble with coordination
Walking, driving, or simply navigating your surroundings can be a challenge when you use alcohol. Drinking affects your cerebellum, which can throw off your sense of movement and center of balance.
- Difficulty communicating
You may have trouble thinking clearly, problem solving, speaking, or carrying on a conversation when you use alcohol. Alcohol depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers in the cerebral cortex, slowing down your ability to process information from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth while delaying thought processes. This can put a strain on your ability to get things done. It’s no wonder excessive drinking cost the U.S. economy $249 billion in 2010.
- Changes in mood or behavior
Alcohol also affects our mental health. It can relieve feelings of anxiety and depression in the moment, which is why some people use alcohol as a way of coping with a mental illness. Over the long term, however, alcohol can make mental health problems worse, and is considered a contributing factor of depression and other mental health concerns.
On a more social level, drinking reduces inhibition. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, which can cause your mood to fluctuate. It can make you numb to your emotions, which is why some people use alcohol as a way of avoiding painful or difficult issues in their lives. Alcohol increases the effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces energy and slows everything down. Using alcohol also decreases serotonin levels in the brain, which can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
But at the same time, alcohol can also act as a stimulant. It increases the release of dopamine in your brain, which can bring on feelings of pleasure or excitement. You may continue drinking to increase the release of dopamine, yet the other effects of alcohol will still be at work, which can increase feelings of depression.
Alcohol can also reveal or intensify emotions you didn’t know you had. It can evoke memories and past trauma, which can change your mood or behavior.
Drinking also affects the medulla, which regulates automatic functions like breathing, consciousness and body temperature. Alcohol can lower your body temperature, reduce consciousness, and slow your breathing, which is why you may feel sleepy or tired when you use alcohol.
If you don’t feel like yourself, alcohol may be the root cause.
Effects on the Heart
Drinking too much or over a long period of time can damage your heart and cardiovascular system. Regular consumption increases your risk of cardiomyopathy, or the stretching and drooping of the heart muscle, stroke, arrhythmias, or an irregular heartbeat, along with high blood pressure. These risks increase substantially if you use alcohol and tobacco products.
Effects on the Liver
Alcohol gets filtered through the liver, which can lead to a range of health complications, including steatosis, or fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. If you drink regularly, make sure your healthcare provider keeps an eye on your liver.
Effects on the Pancreas
When alcohol gets into your system, your pancreas produces toxic substances that can cause pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas and swelling of the blood vessels, which can lead to digestion problems.
Effects on the Stomach
Speaking of digestion, alcohol consumption can lead to bloating, gas, and even stomach ulcers, which isn’t exactly the best way to spend a night out on the town.
Effects on the Reproductive System
Alcohol can also affect your ability to have sex and the overall reproductive system. For men, alcohol can decrease testosterone, reduce sexual arousal and pleasure, and lead to erectile dysfunction. It can affect the production and mobility of sperm, making it more difficult to conceive.
For women, alcohol can alter the menstrual cycle or even lead to a condition known as amenorrhea, or the absence of a menstrual period. It can also reduce fertility, impact sexual performance, desire and pleasure, and lead to decreased vaginal lubrication.
For both men and women, alcohol can lead to risky sexual behavior that can cause STDs or various forms of cancer that affect the reproductive system.
Effects on the Immune System
Drinking too much can also eat away at your body’s immune system, increasing your chances of contracting certain viruses and diseases such as influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. If you get sick, your body may need more time to fight off the infection than it would without alcohol.
Increasing Your Risk of Cancer
Using alcohol on a regular basis or drinking in excess increases your risk of various forms of cancer, including cancers of the throat, mouth, lips, voice box, and the esophagus. It can also lead to breast cancer, liver cancer, and colorectal cancer.
Taking a break from alcohol, even a short break, can dramatically improve your health. You’ll have more energy, lose weight, think more clearly, and feel better about your body. If you’re going to drink, enjoy alcohol in moderation to reduce its effects on your body, and don’t forget to remind your patients and colleagues about the effects of alcohol. Have fun and stay safe!