Effects of Alcohol on the Body and the Brain

Learn about the effects of alcohol on both the brain and body, and how to seek treatment for alcohol addiction.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol disorder, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol addiction, is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that affects an estimated 14.5 million people in the United States alone. AUD is characterized by uncontrollable use and preoccupation with alcohol despite its negative consequences.1

What Is Considered a Standard Drink?

The U.S. government defines a "standard drink" as 14 grams of pure alcohol, the amount an average adult can fully process in one hour. In other words, it takes about a glass of beer, a shot of liquor, or half a glass of wine to consume a standard drink of alcohol.2
Excessive drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as more than four drinks per day for men or more than three drinks per day for women. Moderate drinking is considered up to two drinks per day for men and up to one drink per day for women.3
Effects of Alcohol

Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed substances in the world. The side effects of alcohol on the body and brain can be hazardous, even deadly. 

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol works as a depressant in the central nervous system, meaning it can slow down brain activity. Behavioral impairment sets in after one or two drinks, but the after-effects of alcohol depend on the person’s size, weight, and tolerance level. Impaired thinking can lead to poor decision-making, heightened aggression, and boldness. Alcohol also impairs physical abilities, especially motor skills and coordination. 

Short-term effects of alcohol include the following.

  • Feelings of relaxation or drowsiness
  • A sense of euphoria or giddiness
  • Changes in mood
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Slowed or slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

The adverse effects of alcohol on the body can be devastating. Alcohol, when broken down, can act as a toxin that interferes with the normal function of the body’s system. The short-term effects of alcohol on the brain are well known, but few people realize the after-effects of alcohol on the brain's long-term health. 

The long-term adverse effects of alcoholism on the brain include:

  • Persistent changes in mood, including anxiety and irritability
  • Insomnia and other sleep concerns
  • A weakened immune system, meaning the body is more susceptible to illness and disease
  • Changes in libido and sexual function
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Problems with memory and concentration

Alcohol's Physical Effects on the Body

There are numerous physical side effects of alcoholism on certain parts of the body. The most common physical effects are listed below.

Central Nervous System

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows down and can even stop the signals sent between the brain and the body. This is why one of the health effects of alcohol involves feelings of relaxation or sleepiness while drinking. This also means that overdrinking can affect the heart rate, breathing rate, coordination, and body temperature.

Circulatory System

Overdrinking alcohol continually or sporadically can increase blood pressure and worsen existing health problems. Over time, it can also contribute to strokes and heart disease. It raises cholesterol levels (a fatty substance that clogs arteries), increasing heart disease risk. In addition, alcohol increases triglycerides (another type of fat found in the blood).

 
Long-term heavy alcohol use causes severe damage to the liver and pancreas, which help control blood sugar levels. Lastly, this substance can cause diabetes by damaging these organs over time.

Digestive System

Excessive alcohol intake irritates the lining of the stomach and intestines, which is why individuals may experience a stomach upset after too many drinks. It also causes the muscles in the digestive tract to relax, which can lead to diarrhea or vomiting. Alcohol can cause damage to the liver and cause long-term problems if consumed too much and for too long.

Endocrine Glands

Alcohol intake affects hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism.

Immune System

Alcohol depresses the immune system and makes it harder for the body to fight off infections, viruses, and other illnesses. Thus, excessive alcohol consumption may cause more frequent colds, flu, and other infectious diseases like tuberculosis or pneumonia. Additionally, people with liver disease are more likely to get infections because alcohol affects their ability to fight off bacteria.

Inflammatory Damage

Alcohol causes oxidative stress, which damages the cells and causes inflammation throughout the body.  

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Alcohol dependence can affect sexual and reproductive health in several ways:

  • Irregulates the hormones that impact puberty
  • Causes erectile dysfunction in males
  • Irregulates menstrual cycles, making it harder for women to conceive
  • Leads to risky sexual behaviors because alcohol lowers inhibitions and heightens confidence, initiating activities that wouldn't be done while sober (like having unprotected sex)

Sugar Levels

Alcohol dependence can elevate blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Psychological Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder

In addition to physical side effects, alcohol abuse can lead to numerous negative mental and psychological effects.

Memory and Concentration

While under the influence of alcohol, focusing on certain tasks or proper recollection of information may be quite difficult. This state of worsened memory and concentration can worsen the longer alcohol abuse treatment is withheld.  

Impulse Control

Being able to act appropriately is another aspect of life that can be affected by an alcohol abuse disorder. People with this disorder may have trouble controlling their actions and making thoughtful decisions.

Emotions, Mood, and Personality

Individuals with alcohol use disorder may have negative feelings about themselves or other people. These feelings may grow into bouts of anxiety and may lead to depression. One study found that 63.8% of people with alcohol use disorder also showed prevalent symptoms of depression.4

Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical diagnosis that describes a range of drinking problems. AUD can range from mild to severe and cause various mental, physical, social, and financial problems. Alcohol addiction affects people of different demographics, and some factors can increase the likelihood of developing a drinking problem or alcohol dependence. These risk factors include the following:

Heavy Use of Alcohol

If more than three drinks are consumed daily or seven or more in a week, there may be a risk of developing AUD.

Binge Drinking

Consuming more than four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks in two hours for men puts an individual at a higher risk of developing AUD. For some, binge drinking is one of the most recognizable phases of alcohol use disorder. 

Ongoing Stress, Anxiety, Depression, or Other Mental Health Conditions

If these conditions are not treated properly, they can cause people to have unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their emotions. This leads to an increased chance of self-medicating with alcohol and possibly becoming dependent on it. Studies have shown that AUD and anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to co-occur than on their own.5

Having Peers or Family Members Who Excessively Drink Alcohol 

The environment plays a significant role in an individual's likelihood of developing AUD.

Having Genes That Affect Your Sensitivity to Alcohol

Some people develop physical alcohol dependence quickly, while others need to drink more before becoming dependent. This is due to their genetic makeup of having a lower tolerance for alcohol. This can make alcohol intake unpleasant for them and reduce the possibility of prolonged alcohol intake and subsequent alcohol use disorder development. 

Having a Close Relative, Especially a Parent With the Condition

In addition to genes causing alcohol sensitivity, genetics does play a role in developing AUD. For example, children whose parents have an alcohol addiction are more likely to struggle with one when they grow up.

Effects of Alcohol

Find Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder at San Diego Detox

If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol use disorder or notices the signs of alcohol dependence, help is always available at San Diego Detox. At San Diego Detox, we offer alcohol abuse treatment programs to help patients through the phases of alcohol use disorder recovery.

Safe and Effective Detox

It might be alarming for people to realize that their substance abuse habit could be deadly. Access to the correct support network can assist in attaining optimal recovery. The first phase of recovery is detoxification, which involves the removal of toxins from the body.

 
Detoxification can lead to withdrawal symptoms which can be debilitating; therefore, it is always advisable to detox under the supervision of professionals. At San Diego Detox, we help manage withdrawal symptoms from alcohol cessation, such as vomiting, seizures, and anxiety.

 
Residents at the San Diego Detox center get access to drug detox and alcohol treatment programs while receiving twenty-four-hour care to ensure that the health effects of alcohol withdrawal do not lead to relapses.


For more information on the effects of alcohol on the body and brain,
reach out to us at San Diego Detox today.

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