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How Does Drinking Alcohol Affect Your Body?

We all know that alcohol consumption can reduce the communication between your brain and your body.  This, of course, makes coordination more complex, you may have a hard time balancing yourself, and your reaction time is slowed.  This is why drinking and driving are not a good combination.  But do you ever wonder what is happening in your body when you have a drink? What are the long-term effects that we don’t think of right away?

Thirty seconds after your first sip, alcohol races into your brain. It slows down the chemicals and pathways that your brain cells use to send messages. That alters your mood, slows your reflexes, and throws off your balance. You also can’t think straight, which you may not recall later, because you’ll struggle to store things in long-term memory.

Your Brain Shrinks

If you drink heavily for a long time, alcohol can affect how your brain looks and works. Its cells start to change and even get smaller. Too much alcohol can shrink your brain. And that’ll have significant effects on your ability to think, learn, and remember things. It can also make it harder to keep a steady body temperature and control your movements. 

It Does Not Help Sleep

Contrary to what you may think, alcohol’s slow-down effect on your brain can make you tired so that you may doze off more easily. But you won’t sleep well. Your body processes alcohol throughout the night. Once the effects wear off, it leaves you tossing and turning. You don’t get that good REM sleep. Your body needs to feel restored. And you’re more likely to have nightmares and vivid dreams. You’ll also probably wake up more often for trips to the bathroom.

What’s In A Hang-Over?

That cotton-mouthed, bleary-eyed morning-after is no accident. Alcohol makes you dehydrated and causes blood vessels in your body and brain to expand. That gives you your headache. Your stomach wants to eliminate the toxins and acid that booze churns up, which provides you with nausea and vomiting. And because your liver was so busy processing alcohol, it didn’t release enough sugar into your blood, bringing on weakness and the shakes.

Increase Acid Production

Alcohol irritates the lining of your stomach and makes your digestive juices flow. When enough acid and alcohol build up, you get nauseated, and you may throw up. Years of heavy drinking can cause painful sores called ulcers in your stomach. And high levels of stomach juices mean you won’t feel hungry. That’s one reason long-term drinkers often don’t get all the nutrients they need.

Other GI Effects

Your small intestine and colon get irritated, too. Alcohol throws off the average speed that food moves through them. That’s why hard drinking can lead to diarrhea, which can turn into a long-term problem. It also makes heartburn more likely – it relaxes the muscle that keeps acid out of your esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth and stomach.

I Have To Go!

Your brain gives off a hormone that keeps your kidneys from making too much urine. But when alcohol swings into action, it tells your brain to hold off. That means you have to go more often, which can leave you dehydrated. When you drink heavily for years, that extra workload and the toxic effects of alcohol can wear your kidneys down.

Think You Have A Strong Liver?

Your liver breaks down almost all the alcohol you drink. In the process, it handles a lot of toxins. Over time, heavy drinking makes the organ fatty and lets thicker, fibrous tissue build up. That limits blood flow, so liver cells don’t get what they need to survive. This is an alcohol related liver disease (ARLD); it is common and preventable. With continued drinking, ARLD can proceed to liver inflammation (i.e., steatohepatitis), fibrosis, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer. 

Alcoholic cirrhosis is the most severe type of alcohol-related liver disease.  Cirrhosis results when the functional cells of the liver die and are replaced with scar tissue. Sources suggest that between 10%-20% of chronic heavy drinkers may develop alcoholic cirrhosis. The condition often takes years to build, but there is no going back once you develop it, and a liver transplant may be the only option for you.

Pancreas Damage and Diabetes

Usually, this organ makes insulin and other chemicals that help your intestines break down food. But alcohol throws the process off. The chemicals stay inside the pancreas. Along with toxins from drink, it was causing inflammation to the pancreas, leading to severe damage. If this continues over the years, it is very likely you won’t be able to make the insulin you need, leading to diabetes. It also makes you more likely to get pancreatic cancer.

An Offbeat Heart

One night of binge drinking can jumble the electrical signals that keep your heart’s rhythm steady. If you do it for years, you can make those changes permanent. And alcohol can literally wear your heart out. Over time, it causes heart muscles to droop and stretch like an old rubber band. It can’t pump blood as well, and that impacts every part of your body.

A Change in Body Temperature

Alcohol widens your blood vessels, making more blood flow to your skin. That makes you blush and feel warm and toasty. But not for long. The heat from that extra blood passes right out of your body, causing your temperature to drop. On the other hand, long-term, heavy drinking boosts your blood pressure. It makes your body release stress hormones that narrow blood vessels, so your heart has to pump harder to push blood through.

A Weaker Immune System

You might not link a cold with a night of drinking, but there might be a connection. Alcohol puts the brakes on your immune system. Your body can’t make the numbers of white blood cells it needs to fight germs. So for 24 hours after drinking, you’re more likely to get sick.  Long-term, heavy drinkers are much more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.  And no, it does not act as an antiseptic once it enters your body.

Hormone Havoc

These powerful chemicals manage everything from your sex drive to how fast you digest food. To keep it all going smoothly, you need them in the right balance. But alcohol throws them out of whack. In women, that can knock your periods off cycle and cause problems getting pregnant. In men, it can mean trouble getting an erection, a lower sperm count, shrinking testicles, and breast growth.

Thins Your Bones and Muscle Loss

Heavy drinking can throw off your calcium levels.  Add this to the hormone changes triggered by alcohol, which can affect your body's ability to make bone.  Over time your bones get thinner and more fragile, a condition known as osteoporosis.  By limiting blood flow to your muscles, you are restricting the proteins that make muscle, and over time you will have lower muscle mass and less strength.

Hearing Loss

Alcohol impacts your hearing, but no one’s sure exactly how. It could be that it messes with the part of your brain that processes sound. Or it might damage the nerves and tiny hairs in your inner ear that help you hear. However it happens, drinking means you need a sound to be louder so you can hear it. And that can become permanent. Long-term drinkers often have hearing loss.

In addition to the negative physical effects of alcohol, there are many emotional and psychological effects not covered here.   Yes, enjoy that glass of wine when you are cooking or that beer at the game but being a little bit more aware of the actual effects of alcohol on your body can make everyone a more responsible consumer of alcohol.

Moderation is the key, and while everyone has their version of what “moderation” means, there is a general rule. Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.  Yes, there are some “weekly” numbers out there, but unfortunately, you can’t choose a weekly count over a daily one.  You can’t “save” your drinks, not drinking anything for five days so that you can have six on Saturday.

And in case you are thinking it, nobody is immune to alcohol hence, diabetes.

For more information on liver health visit https://www.liver.ca


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