03 Nov Alcoholism and the Effects it Has on Your Body
References to alcohol consumption and addiction can be found littered throughout the historical records of nearly every human society on earth. Now, with the rise of advertisement and mass production, alcohol’s impact on culture is even more prevalent in the world. Enter the kitchen of an average American, odds are, a quick survey of the fridge would reveal beer and white wine. In the cabinet, you might find an array of red wines as well as a variety of liquors; not only different types such as tequila, whiskey, vodka, gin and rum, but also of qualities, ranging from top shelf to well. Charles Bukowski once wrote: “That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” Alcohol plays an integral role in social or home settings, from parties, to sporting events, or business meetings and it is not limited to economic rungs of society. It has been used to mark occasions, quench a thirst or compliment a meal. The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s failed utterly, which only highlighted mankind’s propensity for addiction. This phenomenon spilled out to the many years ahead.
While alcoholism poses a massive issue in the United States, the rates of addiction pale in comparison to other places in the world, especially Eastern Europe. The World Health Organization approximates that there are over two hundred and ten million people who suffer from alcoholism, the world across. This means that roughly four and a half percent of the world’s population aged fifteen and up battles alcohol addiction. The highest rate of alcoholism can be found in the Eastern block of European countries namely, Russia, Moldova and Czech republic. Hungry holds the ignominious title of heavy weight drinking champion of the world with over eighteen percent of its adult population suffering from alcoholism. Further, alcoholism is responsible for three million and three hundred thousand deaths annually worldwide, which is approximately six percent of all deaths worldwide being due to alcohol. Studies have shown that repeated heavy alcohol use reduces the life expectancy of an adult by nearly a decade and it is estimated that alcohol abuse healthcare costs the country $27 billion per year with an estimated $250 billion lost due to decreases in work productivity and increases in crime.
Most medical professionals refer to alcoholism as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The reason for this preferred nomenclature is the rather vague standards for alcoholism, which refers to any pattern of consumption of alcohol that leads to either physical or mental health problems. The medical definition of alcoholism occurs when at least two of the following ailments occur: a person who has a trouble cutting down their alcohol consumption, a person who imbibes a copious amount of alcohol over a long period of time, a person who has strong desires for alcohol, a person who’s drinking prevents them from accomplishing personal obligations, a person whose usage affects their health or causes social issues or a person who feels withdrawal symptoms after a hiatus. An alcoholic may also make poor decisions, such as drunk driving, unprotected sex and a whole host of other social faux pas.
The question then becomes: with so many abusers worldwide, what is it doing to their bodies?
In the United States, sixty-six percent of citizens consume just over four alcoholic beverages per week, on average. In both sales and surveys, beer is the most popular drink, with wine coming in as a close second and liquor in third. Although we have become accustomed or numbed to the constant bombardment and inundation with advertisements, billboards, commercials or popular media that shows drinking to be cool or socially acceptable. While moderate drinking does not pose a serious health issue for a large swath of the population, however, for some members of society, moderate drinking can lead to heavy drinking to alcohol addiction and dependence and all of the various negative effects that come part and parcel with alcoholism.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that in the United States, approximately 18-20 million American adults suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder, so about seven percent of the population deals with it daily. Further, nearly a million teenagers also battle addiction. Twenty-seven percent of the adults reported that they had been binge drinking (four or more drinks) at least one time in the past month, with those average numbers heavily skewing towards the male population. Behind tobacco and unhealthy diet, alcohol is the third most cause of preventable death in America, with an estimated 90,000 American citizens dying from alcohol-related causes annually. An additional 10,000 drunk driving fatalities occur annually making it responsible for thirty percent of all motor fatalities. Alcohol was the primary drug of abuse in almost half of the cases of American citizens seeking treatment of addiction. This number grows even larger when viewed as the secondary drug of the abuser as seen in cases for cocaine and marijuana treatment.
There are secondary issues that go hand in hand with alcohol abuse and alcoholism that do not get mentioned when discussing fatalities. Alcoholism has been shown to increase the chance of a variety of diseases such as, liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. Heavy drinking has also lead to concurrent increases in sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, sexual assaults and a host of other things. While many of these consequences seem to only affect the alcoholic, there are unintended impacts on friends and families as well as communities because of the problems that arise from prolonged use.
Our point: aside from the rate of death that alcoholism begets, alcohol as a substance—particularly when used for an extended period of time—is detrimental to the body.
Alcohol in the Body
The vast majority of us have imbibed an alcoholic drink at one time or another in our lives. You know how it feels, the way you react to being drunk, the cravings, or lack of inhibitions. It affects people differently, with some taking to the intoxication with grace and glee, and others amplifying the suppressed and poorer parts of their being. Some handle being drunk well, others… not so much. But despite how one seems to act under the influence of alcohol, the effect is has on the body can be scientifically explained.
Alcohol is composed of ethanol, and is any compound with an alcohol structured grouping, meaning an OH attached to a carbon atom. When an alcoholic drink is imbibed, approximately 20% is directly absorbed from your stomach into your bloodstream. Alcohol has a numbing or slackening effect in the brain, binding to nerve receptors and hindering their ability to receive neurotransmitter action impulses. Basically, it encourages the brain and body to move and react at a slower pace. It begins in the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain responsible for cognitive thinking, voluntary muscle movements and behavior. Due to the slow down, the brain processes information that it receives at a slower pace (this is also why alcohol helps calm nerves, as it slows the brain’s response to them). As a result, the body is less sensitive to pain or feel because pain receptors are not processed as quickly. Further, your brain’s natural inhibitions that are built up over years in order to protect a person are let down, leading to a diminishing ability to make smart decisions or act appropriately in social settings.
Alcohol also affects your fine motor skill abilities, breaking the synchronization required for muscles to perform their tasks. It also affects the limbic system- the emotional core, which is why emotions are magnified when drunk. Lastly, alcohol interferes with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland by stopping the creation of Anti-Diuretic Hormones (ADH) which is how your kidneys control and conserve water.
Essentially, alcohol numbs the mind, slows the body down and even helps with pain relief, but at the end of the day it inhibits many facets of the body’s functionality.
For alcoholics, this repeated process builds up the body’s tolerance to alcohol’s effects and thusly, requires more of the substance to achieve the same feeling. Like most drugs, alcohol stimulates the production of dopamine, chemical pleasure messengers that stimulate the reward center of the brain. Studies have shown that dopamine response is significantly lower in the case of alcoholics, resulting in a hypodopaminergic state, which means they need to drink more in order to get that buzz. Genetics and environmental factors are attributed as fairly equal factors in risk of alcoholism. Alcoholism, in many ways, is familial and gets passed down from generation to generation with studies showing a person is three times more likely to become an addict if they have a direct family member who suffers from alcoholism. That said, environmental factors have also been shown to play a large role, those environmental factors being, social, behavioral and cultural influences. Increased stress levels or anxiety coupled with readily accessible and cheap alcohol have also been shown to increase risks of addiction.
Negative Effects of Alcoholism
Drinking is known to cause both short-term and long-term health consequences in the body. While alcoholism is often the most obvious manifestation, there are is an array of health issues that may form. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, below are some of the conditions that alcohol dependency can be directly responsible for some of the following.
- Liver disease – alcoholism significantly increases the risk of developing liver disease and causing permanent damage to the liver. Alcohol-related liver diseases are responsible for thirty-seven percent of liver disease deaths. The liver helps break down and remove harmful substances from the body, including alcohol. Alcoholism restricts the liver’s ability to function correctly. It is also responsible for liver inflammation. The scarring this inflammation causes, known as cirrhosis, devastates the liver thereby diminishing the liver’s ability to clear out toxins and waste until it reaches a life-threatening point and the liver eventually shuts off.
- Heart and Lung Damage – Chronic drinkers develop higher risk of heart-related issues. Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease and can lead to sudden death from a heart attack. It’s instigated by the measured build-up of fatty buildups on the walls of the arteries in your heart on which blood clots may form. Alcohol causes the buildup to increase and causes the artery to narrow decreasing the oxygen supply to the heart muscle while also decreasing the nutrients it receives. These deposits cause the artery to narrow, and make it harder for it to supply your heart muscle with the oxygen and nutrients which it needs to function normally. Alcoholism is responsible for a variety of circulatory system problems including: heart attack, heart disease, heart failure, stroke, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and difficulty pumping blood through the body.
- Sugar levels and Pancreatitis– The pancreas aids the body in the regulation of insulin and its reaction to glucose. Alcohol causes irregular activation of digestive enzymes formed in the pancreas. Build up of said enzymes can lead to inflammation, known as Pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be a long-term issue with serious side effects. Alcoholism damages the pancreas’ utility leading to irregular blood sugar regulation, which in turn increased the risk of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia and diabetes. Pancreatitis can further evolve into Pancreatic cancer.
- Digestive System – Alcoholism damages the tissues of the digestive tract, hindering the intestines digestion of food and diminishing the utility of nutrient and vitamin absorption. This leads to malnutrition, bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, ulcers, hemorrhoids and internal bleeding. Ulcers can be fatal if untreated. As a result of this breakdown of the digestive system, alcoholics are more likely to develop cancer in the throat, colon, liver, esophagus, threat and mouth.
- Brain Disease – Alcoholism damage to the central nervous system can lead to numbness and tingling. It can also hinder the brain’s ability to create long-term memories. It also decreases ability to rationalize and make good decisions. Alcohol abuse results in long term damage to the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory, emotional control and judgment. Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to permanent brain damage.
- Dependency – It goes without saying that heavy drinkers may find themselves physically or emotionally dependent on alcohol. Withdrawals are extremely difficult to combat and can even be fatal. Therefore, most alcoholics seek medical help when going on an alcohol detox towards sobriety. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include: anxiety, nervousness, nausea, tremors, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heavy sweating, seizures, hallucinations, and delirium.
In conclusion, alcohol pervades in our society. As a result, alcoholism remains an ever prescient issue facing Americans. Alcoholism not only has various negative effects on the body leading all the way to death, but it also has marked impacts on relationships, work lives, families and communities. If you find yourself struggling with an unhealthy propensity towards alcohol abuse, speak to loved ones about it honestly and get help from a medically assisted alcohol detox center.
“The Truth about What Alcohol Does to Your Body.” Quit Alcohol. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.quitalcohol.com/the-truth-about-what-alcohol-does-to-your-body.html
Luo, Elaine. “The Effects of Alcohol on Your Body.” Health Line. 9 June. 2017. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol/effects-on-body#1
“The Physical & Psychological Effects of Alcohol.” Alcohol.org. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.alcohol.org/effects/