Though moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages has been shown to have some beneficial health effects, long term heavy use is detrimental. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and is one of a few substances to easily pass through the blood brain barrier which protects the brain from toxins. Alcohol attaches to gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors and loosens the inhibitory system. It also blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors. These receptors support memory, which is why many people who drink a lot of alcohol often do not remember how much they drank and what they did while they were drinking. Alcohol stimulates the body to release serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin heightens the mood and brings relaxation, while dopamine strengthens the reward pathways. These reward pathways are what put people at risk for alcohol abuse and dependence.
Long Term Effects of Alcohol
Even the short term effects of alcohol on the body can be severe. Accidents occur when an inebriated person tries to drive a car or operate heavy machinery. Interactions with other drugs such as opiates can be fatal, and the dehydration that alcohol causes leads to the headache and other miseries of a hangover. Even too much alcohol taken at one time can lead to a fatal overdose. Long term effects are no less severe and can affect nearly every system in the body. They include damage to:
The liver is the organ that tries to flush alcohol’s toxins, including acetaldehyde and acetic acid out of the body. Long term alcohol use can be devastating to the heath of the liver and can result in:
- Fatty liver, which happens when the normal liver cells start to be replaced by fat. Mild cases of fatty liver are asymptomatic and benign, but fatty liver can progress to a condition called fibrosis. Fibrosis is when scar tissue appears in the liver though the liver can still function. If fibrosis progresses, the liver becomes cirrhotic. This means it is so full of scar tissue that it begins to fail. Cirrhosis is incurable and puts the person at risk of liver cancer.
- Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that comes from long term, heavy alcohol abuse. It can lead to fibrosis and cirrhosis.
When a person drinks, their pancreas secretes toxins and secretes enzymes in an abnormal way. Eventually, the toxins and accumulated enzymes can result in an inflammation of the organ called pancreatitis. Because the pancreas is responsible for producing the insulin that breaks down blood sugar, the person can suffer from both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Hypoglycemia means there is too little glucose in the blood, and hyperglycemia means there is too much. Hyperglycemia is especially dangerous in people with diabetes.
The Immune System
Long term alcohol abuse damages the immune system, which protects the body from pathogens. People who drink heavily are more likely to come down with illnesses such as pneumonia. When a person is inebriated, they may also indulge in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, that also lays them open to disease.
The Cardiovascular System
Long term alcohol abuse can result in:
• Cardiomyopathy, which is when the muscle of the heart becomes thick, enlarged or rigid. Sometimes, the muscle is scarred. This does not make the heart stronger but weaker. It has trouble pumping the blood and maintaining a normal cardiac rhythm. This can eventually lead to an irregular heartbeat or heart failure. Sometimes cardiomyopathy is asymptomatic, and the person doesn’t need treatment. Other people need intensive treatment to save their health or their life.
• Stroke happens when the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off. The lack of blood and therefore oxygen causes brain damage. There are two basic types of stroke. In the ischemic stroke, the blood is blocked by a clot. In a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel in the brain ruptures.
• Long term alcohol abuse can also lead to high blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Another of the long term effects of alcohol on the body is an increase in the risk of various cancers. They include oral cancers, esophageal cancer and cancers of the throat, breast and liver.
The Digestive System
The damage that long term alcohol use causes to the digestive system may not be apparent until the damage is fairly severe. Alcohol can injure the tissues of the GI tract and make it harder for the intestines to absorb nutrients. The person may be malnourished even though they eat normally. Heavy alcohol use puts people at higher risk for hemorrhoids and ulcers. The ulcers are due to the dehydration that is caused by alcohol, and the hemorrhoids come from straining at stool because of constipation.
Alcoholics often suffer from vitamin deficiencies. A deficiency of vitamin B1 can lead to a brain disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. With this disease patients complain of double vision and drooping eyelids and odd eye movements. They are clumsy, mentally confused and forgetful. In latter stages of the disease they can hallucinate, lie and be unable to understand what is said to them.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
This affects the unborn baby of a woman who drinks heavily during her pregnancy. Some medical experts claim that women should abstain from alcohol consumption altogether when they are pregnant. Fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS is a constellation of abnormalities that cannot be reversed as of 2016. They include:
- Small head, brain and eyes and short stature
- Irritability, insomnia or problems with sleep
- Signs of withdrawal from alcohol
- Cleft palate
- Later, the child will show signs of both physical and mental retardation. They may have difficulty in social situations and may be aggressive or withdrawn.