Alcoholism is a serious disease that has wide-ranging, and often long-lasting, effects on the person and everything in his or her life. Although many people deny they have an alcohol problem, the consequences of chronic alcohol use will inevitably take a toll on both the body and the mind of the user. A look at some of the most current information about the effects of alcohol shows the extent of the damage.
How the Body Absorbs Alcohol
When an alcoholic drink is consumed, it enters the bloodstream through the digestive system and is carried throughout the body. Depending on the size, weight and gender of the drinker, the alcohol can remain in the bloodstream for two hours or more. Alcohol that is not excreted through the liver is delivered throughout the body, including the brain. A small amount may make the person feel relaxed. More than a small amount can cause difficulty walking and speaking, memory problems and poor judgment. Over time, the constant effects of alcohol can cause damage to a number of body organs. Women have less water in their bodies, so alcohol is more concentrated in their bloodstreams. Women also break down alcohol in their bodies more slowly, so the effects can be much more damaging.
Increased Risk for Heart Disease
Drinking alcohol can increase blood pressure, which in turn causes damage to the heart. When blood pressure is high, the heart must work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Over time, high blood pressure in the body can lead to strokes. Long-term alcohol consumption can also cause cardiomyopathy, a stretching of the heart muscles, as well as heart arrhythmias.
Increased Risk for Liver Disease
Everything humans consume is filtered through the liver. Long-term alcohol consumption causes the liver to work harder to remove the high concentration from the bloodstream. This constant stress can lead to a number of liver diseases. Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when scars develop in the liver that replace normal tissue. Other liver diseases can also occur, including fibrosis, fatty liver and alcohol-related hepatitis.
Increased Risk For Cancer
A review of the studies on alcohol and cancer by the Imperial College of London found significant evidence that the use of alcohol raises the risk of a number of cancers. These include breast cancer, colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer. Heavy use of alcohol appears to cause changes in the cellular mechanisms that favor irregular cell division. Heavy use of alcohol is defined as significantly more than the allowed two drinks per day for males and one drink per day for females.
Alcohol and the Brain
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that alcohol begins to affect the brain negatively after only two drinks. Blurred vision, poor coordination, slow reaction times and memory problems are well-documented effects. However, chronic alcoholism can also have lasting effects on cognitive function, including increasing the chemical dependence on the substance. These effects occur from the direct effect of alcohol on the brain, as well as from poor nutrition that often results from chronic alcohol use and from the effects of liver impairment. Recent studies show that alcohol use inhibits the growth of new brain cells. Generally, improvement in cognitive function improves after a year of abstinence from alcohol. However, return to normal brain function can take much longer in some people. Genetic differences appear to affect this ability to recover from long-term alcohol use.
The journey from addiction to alcohol to recovery can be difficult, but understanding the physical and mental effects of the substance can help individuals in their efforts.