People drink for a variety of reasons, including recreation, socializing, celebration, relaxation and as a coping mechanism. While a little alcohol from time to time should have no lasting effects on the body, alcohol consumption can become a serious problem when it is in excess. Heavy drinking is defined as the consumption of eight or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more for men.
Alcohol consumption is known to affect vital organs in several ways. While most of these effects are short-term and will return to normal if alcohol is consumed in moderation, some more severe health issues may eventually become permanent, especially in heavy drinkers.
Perhaps the most well-known organ that can be affected by alcohol is the liver. Heavy drinking can cause a number of complications in the liver, including steatosis or fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Liver problems are one of the most common issues heavy drinkers face, because the liver is responsible for filtering out any toxins the body consumes, including alcohol. In fact, over one third of fatalities from liver problems were linked to alcohol abuse. Issues with the liver can begin early on and remain unnoticeable until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage.
In a healthy individual, the liver is able to remove alcohol from the body as long as the alcohol is consumed in moderation. If the person drinks too often, too much or too quickly, there is too much alcohol at once for the liver to successfully remove, and these toxins will accumulate, potentially causing liver damage and disease.
Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it causes a person to release more water from their body than usual through urination. When large amounts of water leave the body, the liver cells are less able to function at their optimum level, and thus the liver is less effective at removing the alcohol from the body.
If alcohol is taken in sudden large quantities, it could potentially cause scarring and inflammation to the liver, which can be extremely detrimental to a person’s health over time. This is because when a person engages in heavy drinking, toxins from gut bacteria get into their liver. Also, alcohol is broken down by a chemical reaction that results in oxidation, which can damage the cells over time.
People who consume alcohol in large quantities or over a long period of time can also experience damage to the heart, namely heart palpitations, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, an elevated heart rate and heart attacks.
Although alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and as such can lower the heart rate if present in the bloodstream, it actually causes the heart rate to increase in people who drink heavily. In some cases, the resting heart rate can even go up to more than a hundred beats per minute. People affected by this rapid heart rate may experience fainting spells, and less often loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest.
Alcohol also tends to increase the blood pressure. While this increase is only short-term for occasional binge drinkers, it can become permanent in heavy drinkers. This occurs due to the release of natural stress hormones in the blood vessels when alcohol passes through the bloodstream. Additionally, alcohol also activates the muscles in the walls of the blood vessels, thus narrowing the vessels and resulting in higher blood pressure.
Another health risk of alcohol is an increased risk of heart attack, due to high blood pressure, obesity and high concentration of triglyceride, a fat transported through the bloodstream. In people who are already at risk for heart problems, consuming even a little bit of alcohol can put them at drastically greater risk.
Consumption of alcohol can cause damage to the brain cells over time. Alcohol slows down the activity of neurons and neurotransmitters in the brain, reducing brain activity. If present in large enough amounts, this reduction in brain activity presents itself in the form of intoxication. For someone who drinks a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, they could potentially suffer from alcohol poisoning.
Furthermore, a fetus can develop fetal alcohol syndrome if its mother drinks heavily during the pregnancy. When alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, it could cross the placenta and accumulate in the baby’s blood due to the fetus’ inability to process alcohol as quickly as an adult. As a result, some of the organs could be permanently damaged during development and the child could be born with one of several fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-related congenital disabilities, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. These conditions can range in severity and may result in permanent physical or mental disabilities. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in ten pregnant women reported drinking, one in 33 women stated that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and the average number of binge drinking episodes among pregnant women in the past month was 4.6. Unfortunately, most cases of fetal alcohol syndrome occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, when the mother may not realize she is pregnant and the developing baby is most susceptible to organ damage from alcohol.
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is officially classified as a mental illness because it affects a person psychologically. Drinking can also put people at risk of developing other mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders, to name a few.
As noted earlier, when alcohol enters the bloodstream, it causes the brain activity to slow down. This leads to several short-term mental changes while the person is intoxicated, including impaired memory and judgment, loss of self-control, decreased inhibitions, restlessness, anxiety, confusion and disorientation. If a person is extremely intoxicated, they may experience loss of consciousness.
Over time, prolonged use of alcohol may cause certain parts of the brain to shrink. These include the cerebellum, responsible for emotional control, the limbic system, used in mood regulation, and the cerebral cortex, in charge of impulse control, logical thinking and decision-making.
The presence of alcohol in the brain stimulates the production of dopamine, the “happiness hormone”. A sudden intake of alcohol results in a sharp spike and elevated levels of dopamine, causing a person to feel happier, braver, bolder, excited or more outgoing, commonly thought of as the adrenaline rush. If the person is exposed to this dopamine spike too often, their brain can eventually get used to the increased dopamine levels and subsequent drinks will feel less powerful to them. Along with dopamine, alcohol also alters the levels of glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid and serotonin. If these changes occur often enough, the brain could get used to its new chemical environment, thus setting the precedent for alcohol dependence and addiction.
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