How does alcohol affect your mental and physical health?

Health, Lifestyle
saying no to alcohol

Alcohol has the power to make  us feel good. It also has the power to make us feel bad, very very bad. Let’s look at the long term effects of heavy drinking. How can alcohol affect the body and the mind.

What are the long term effects of heavy drinking?

The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says:

“Drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can take a serious toll on your health.  Here’s how alcohol can affect your body.”

It goes on to say that it can affect:

Your brain: “Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination. ”

Your heart: “Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems.”

Your liver:Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations.”

Your pancreas: “Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.”

Your immune system: Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease.  Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.  Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.”

This is a list of things you don’t want to happen to you. The last one, the effect on your immune system, is particularly alarming at this time, with the possibility of increased frequency of pandemics.

If this isn’t enough, consider your increased risks of getting cancer:

Alcohol and cancer

The US National Cancer Institute says:

“Based on extensive reviews of research studies, there is a strong scientific consensus of an association between alcohol drinking and several types of cancer. In its Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. The research evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer.”

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, esophagal cancer (the gullet or food pipe), liver cancer and breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund says:

“There is strong evidence that consuming:

alcoholic drinks INCREASES the risk of

  • mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers
  • oesophageal cancer (squamous cell carcinoma)
  • breast cancer (pre and postmenopause)

two or more alcoholic drinks a day (30 grams or more) INCREASES the risk of

  • colorectal cancer

three or more alcoholic drinks a day (45 grams or more) INCREASES the risk of

  • stomach cancer
  • liver cancer

For sake of completeness they add that drinking up to two alcoholic drinks a day (up to 30 grams) DECREASES the risk of kidney cancer. While this may be true, you’d be foolish to focus on this and ignore all the other potential damage.

A study from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), published in the journal Lancet Oncology, has found an association between alcohol and a substantially higher risk of several forms of cancer, including breast, colon, and oral cancers. Increased risk was evident even among light to moderate drinkers (up to two drinks a day), who represented 1 in 7 of all new cancers in 2020 and more than 100,000 cases worldwide.

Can alcohol affect my heart?

Alcohol in moderation may help to protect the heart, but this is not true if you drink heavily.

John Hopkins Medicine  says:

Heavy drinking … is linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including heart conditions. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or stroke. Excessive drinking can also contribute to cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects the heart muscle.

The takeaway, cardiologist McEvoy says, is what you probably already knew: If you choose to drink alcohol, stick to moderate levels of drinking, and don’t overdo it.

“We’re not talking about going out and drinking yourself merry and then expecting good heart outcomes”

But exactly how much is heavy drinking? The European Society of Cardiology recommend

restricting alcohol intake to a maximum of 100 g per week (a standard drink contains 8 to 14 g)

A study from the European Society of Cardiology found that:

Drinking alcohol during adolescence to young adulthood is associated with accelerated arterial stiffening, a precursor to cardiovascular disease.

How does alcohol affect your mind?

The UK Mental Health Foundation recognises the effect on mental health. The website says:

“We often drink alcohol to change our mood. Some people drink to deal with fear or loneliness, but the effect is only temporary.

“When the drink wears off, you feel worse because of the way alcohol withdrawal symptoms affect your brain and the rest of your body. Drinking is not a good way to manage difficult feelings.

“Apart from the damage too much alcohol can do to your body, you would need more and more alcohol each time to feel the same short-term boost. There are healthier ways of coping with tough times.”

Alcohol Change UK says:

“Depression is one of the most common mental health problems, with around one in ten people suffering in the UK in any year. Depression and heavy drinking have a mutually reinforcing relationship – meaning that either condition increases a person’s chances of experiencing the other.

“For that reason, managing your alcohol intake is one way of reducing your risk of developing depression. If you do experience depression, reducing the amount you drink may help to manage symptoms.”

Alcol can also affetc your decison-making.  As many as a half of all drinkers underestimated how drunk they were, judging themselves still safe to drive despite having exceeded the legal driving limit. Road traffic injuries have become the leading killer of people aged five to 29 years,. The World Health Organization has said that alcohol-related traffic accidents are one of the major causes.

Dr Kai Hensel from Witten/Herdecke University and the University of Cambridge says:

“In countries with legal alcohol limits, it’s usually the driver who makes a judgement about how much they’ve drunk and how fit they are to drive. But as we’ve shown, we are not always good at making this judgement. As many as one in two people in our study underestimated how drunk they were — and this can have devastating consequences.”

Is a small amount of alcohol OK when pregnant?

According to a study by Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers each week a woman consumes alcohol during the first five to 10 weeks of pregnancy is associated with an incremental 8% increase in risk of miscarriage.

And it’s not just miscarriages. The NHS website says:

” if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink, the greater the risk.”

Some studies have suggested that a small amount of alcohol while pregnant is safe for the baby, but many women find it easier to stop drinking altogether than to drink just a small amount.

How does alcohol affect your loved ones?

Sadly you are not just affecting yourself when you drink excessively. Each year, one in five U.S. adults — an estimated 53 million people — experience harm because of someone else’s drinking, according to research in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

According to the study — an analysis of U.S. national survey data — some 21% of women and 23% of men, an estimated 53 million adults, experienced harm because of someone else’s drinking in the last 12 months. These harms could be threats or harassment, ruined property or vandalism, physical aggression, harms related to driving, or financial or family problems. The most common harm was threats or harassment, reported by 16% of survey respondents.

Alcohol Change UK says:

“If you come to rely on alcohol to manage your mental health issues, that reliance can itself become a problem. You may well find that your drinking starts to get in the way of other activities and puts a strain on your relationships – both things that can undermine your mental wellbeing. “

If you need help, there are many offline and online ways to get help. It may not be easy, but it will be so worthwhile. Saying “no” to alcohol could be one of the best things you do for yourself and for those you love. If you routinely use alcohol as a reward, this can be a slippery slope to serious alcohol problems.

Check out my blog post on rewarding yourself without using alcohol.