What does alcohol do to the body?

Article was originally published by Christine Thelander on July 19, 2016.

Grog, liquor, booze, coldie, brew, moonshine, nip, vino – they’re all nicknames for one of the most widely consumed drugs in Australia – alcohol. So what does alcohol do to your body?

Australians appear to be drinking less alcohol now than at any time in the past 50 years, according to figures released in mid-2015 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The ABS found that there were 9.7 litres of pure alcohol available for consumption for every Australian aged 15 years and over in 2013-14 – the equivalent of 2.1 standard drinks per person per day. This was the lowest level of alcohol consumption since the early 1960s.

Sobering stats indeed. But exactly how does alcohol negatively affect the body? Let’s break it down.

The table below features a snapshot of hospital & extras policies on Canstar’s database with links to providers’ websites, sorted by Star Rating (lowest – highest) then by provider name (alphabetically). Please note the results are based on a couple aged under 35 in NSW, with no pregnancy cover.

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Effects of alcohol

Because alcohol is a depressant, it slows the function of the central nervous system and alters a person’s perception, emotion, movement, vision and hearing. Small amounts of alcohol can make a person feel more relaxed or less anxious. Larger amounts lead to intoxication, or drunkenness, by causing greater changes in the brain.  It is these intoxicating and psychoactive effects that lead to accidents, injuries, diseases, and disruptions in the family life of everyday Australians.

What are the effects of alcohol

Alcohol affects everyone differently based on:

  • Size, weight and health
  • Whether the person is used to drinking it
  • Whether other drugs are taken around the same time
  • The amount consumed
  • The strength of the drink

Is there a safe alcohol limit?

Alcohol is a drug and, at the risk of being labelled a wowser, there is no safe level of drug use. The use of any drug, legal or illegal, always carries some risk. Due to the radically different ways that alcohol can affect people, there can be no one-size-fits-all safety rule for everyone. While there will always be some risk to general health and social well-being from consuming alcohol, there are ways to minimise the risks of alcohol-related harms.

Government guidelines recommend healthy men and women drink no more than two standard drinks on any given day to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over a lifetime.  Drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion. More details on the definition of standard drinks and alcohol content can be found here.

Why do we get hangovers?

The most immediate and unpleasant effect from overdoing alcohol consumption is a hangover the next morning. Why do we actually get them, what is it about drinking too much alcohol that makes you feel like you absolutely must devour six kebabs at midnight, then want to crawl into a hole and cry the next morning?

Why do we get hangovers

Many people are familiar with the symptoms of a hangover (a headache, trembling, nausea, fatigue, dehydration, diarrhea, etc), and for many years, dehydration was blamed as the primary cause for hangovers. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes you lose water. This is likely to result in a whopping headache. But there are other factors at work here. As your body attempts to restore fluid levels, your blood vessels narrow, restricting the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, which then tries to compensate by dilating its blood vessels, which can cause swelling. Although the brain itself can’t feel pain, the discomfort may result from pain receptors in the lining that surrounds our brain.

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The negative effects of alcohol

We all know that alcoholism is linked to major health problems like liver disease, but researchers tell us alcohol does all kinds of things in the body and is linked to no less than 60 diseases. The reason alcohol, in general, gets such a bad rap is that it is addictive and, for certain people, relatively easy to slide from social drinking into heavy or binge drinking, dependency, alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

People who abuse alcohol may not have a physical dependence on alcohol but they are more focused on intoxication than on safely enjoying alcoholic beverages. Abuse can affect relationships and lead to failure to meet obligations at home, work, or school. Long-term alcohol abuse may lead to alcoholism. This is a serious medical condition. People with alcoholism can find drinking moderately or being able to stop drinking very difficult. They may struggle to live their lives normally and may face serious health consequences.

Alcohol consumed in moderation and not necessarily on a daily basis, can be enjoyable and relaxing without doing you harm.

Effects of drinking alcohol on a daily basis

Alcohol and the central nervous system

From the very first time you drink alcohol, you probably noticed its effects on your central nervous system. Alcohol is a depressant, which slows down your voluntary and involuntary actions. When you drink, you may have impaired motor coordination, slower reaction times, loss of memory while drinking (blackouts) and difficulty processing information.

Alcohol travels through the body easily. It can quickly reach many parts of your body, including your brain and other parts of your central nervous system. That can make it harder to talk, causing slurred speech. It can also affect coordination, interfering with balance and the ability to walk. Drink too much and your ability to think clearly is in trouble, as are your impulse control and ability to form memories. Over time, you may notice that alcohol has a permanent effect on your cognitive abilities. According to many studies, heavy drinkers show a lower ability to think abstractly than non-drinkers, even when they’re sober.

In the longer term, drinking can actually shrink the frontal lobes of your brain. Acute alcoholic withdrawal can lead to seizures and delirium. And severe alcoholism can progress to permanent brain damage, causing dementia. Damage to your nervous system can result in pain, numbness, or abnormal sensations in your feet and hands. Alcoholism can cause a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, which can result in involuntary rapid eye movements, weakness, or paralysis of the eye muscles.

Alcohol and your liver

Out of all the organs that are damaged by heavy alcohol use, the liver often suffers most, typically through alcoholic hepatitis, which involves swelling, pain and inflammation of the liver.

What’s so important about your liver?

There are many reasons to appreciate and protect this hard-working organ. Your liver plays vital roles in digestion, protein production, detoxification and blood circulation, including:

  • Eliminating toxins from your body
  • Building proteins and making cholesterol
  • Processing sugars and fats
  • Storing vitamins and minerals
  • Regulating blood clotting and blood fluid content

Your liver also metabolises most of the alcohol you drink, and the more alcohol you consume, the more damage your liver incurs. The damage to your liver is progressive and cumulative, meaning that you may not see the results right away. However, over time, heavy drinkers can experience liver-related problems like:

  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Hardening and swelling of the liver
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Malfunctions of the brain
  • Kidney disease

Alcohol and Reproductive Problems

Apart from heavy drinking altering hormone production, excessive drinking can reportedly increase a woman’s risk of miscarriage, premature delivery and stillbirth. Alcohol has a huge effect on fetal development. A range of problems, called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), can occur. FASD symptoms, which include a baby’s physical abnormalities, learning difficulties and emotional problems, can, and often do, last a lifetime. For women, the risk of breast cancer rises with alcohol use also.

The table below features a snapshot of hospital & extras policies on Canstar’s database with pregnancy cover and links to providers’ websites, sorted by provider name (alphabetically). Please note the results are based on a couple aged under 35 in NSW with pregnancy cover.

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What other health issues can be caused by alcohol?

  • Anemia
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Seizures
  • Gout
  • High blood pressure
  • Infectious disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Pancreatitis

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