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Alcohol Side Effects

There are numerous alcohol side effects ranging from mild to severe. Since alcohol so easily permeates every cell and organ of the body, the physical effects of chronic alcohol abuse are wide-ranging and complex. Large doses of alcohol invade the body's fluids and interfere with metabolism in every cell. Alcohol damages the liver, the central nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the heart. Alcoholics who do not quit drinking decrease life expectancy by 10 to 15 years.

Alcohol side effects also impair vision, impair sexual function, slow circulation, cause malnutrition, cause water retention (resulting in weight gain and bloating), lead to pancreatitis and skin disorders (such as middle-age acne), dilate blood vessels near the skin causing "brandy nose," weaken the bones and muscles, and decrease immunity.

Persons suffering with alcohol abuse finally grow obsessed with alcohol to the exclusion of almost everything else. They drink despite the pleading of family and the stern advice of doctors. They may begin round-the-clock drinking despite an inability to keep down the first drinks in the morning. Although relationships with family and work may become completely severed, nothing, not even severe health problems, is enough to deter drinking.

The late-stage alcoholic suffers a host of alcohol side effects, including fear of crowds and public places. Constant remorse and guilt is alleviated with more drinking. On top of mental disturbances, debts, legal problems, and homelessness may complicate his or her life. Late stage addiction is characterized by cirrhosis and severe withdrawal symptoms if alcohol is withheld (shakes, delirium tremens, and convulsions). Without hospitalization or residency in a therapeutic community, late-stage alcoholics usually succumb to insanity and death.

People suffering alcoholism do not have to "hit bottom" and reach the extreme late stages of alcoholism to decide to get help. Many men and women have recognized their alcohol problems before they lost their jobs or families, or began drinking in the morning, suffered DTs, or had to be hospitalized. For them, the labels "early stage," late stage," "problem drinker," or "alcoholic" were less important than the fact that their growing powerlessness over alcohol was causing them pain.

The liver breaks down alcohol in the body and is therefore the chief site of alcohol side effects. Liver damage may occur in three irreversible stages.

  • Fatty Liver. Liver cells are infiltrated with abnormal fatty tissue, enlarging the liver.
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis. Liver cells swell, become inflamed, and die, causing blockage. (Causes between 10 and 30 percent mortality rate.)
  • Cirrhosis. Fibrous scar tissue forms in place of healthy cells, obstructing the flow of blood through the liver. Various functions of the liver deteriorate with often fatal results. (Found in 10 percent of alcoholics.)

  A diseased liver:

  • Cannot convert stored glycogen into glucose, thus lowering blood sugar and producing hypoglycemia.
  • Inefficiently detoxifies the bloodstream and inadequately eliminates drugs, alcohol, and dead red blood cells.
  • Cannot manufacture bile (for fat digestion), prothrombin (for blood clotting and bruise prevention), and albumin (for maintaining healthy cells).

Alcohol in the liver also alters the production of digestive enzymes, preventing the absorption of fats and proteins and decreasing the absorption of the vitamins A, D, E, and K. The decreased production of enzymes also causes diarrhea.

ALCOHOL SIDE EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN AND CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM

Alcohol profoundly disturbs the structure and function of the central nervous system, disrupting the ability to retrieve and consolidate information. Even moderate alcohol consumption affects cognitive abilities, while larger amounts interfere with the oxygen supply to the brain, a possible cause of blackout or temporary amnesia during drunkenness. Alcohol abuse destroys brain cells, producing brain deterioration and atrophy, and whether the organic brain damage and neuropsychological impairment linked to alcohol can be reversed is unknown. Alcohol also alters the brain's production of RNA (a genetic "messenger"), and serotonin, endorphins, and natural opiates whose function may be linked to the addictive process.
A neurological disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome results from vitamin B deficiencies produced by alcoholism and the direct action of alcohol on the brain. Symptoms of this condition include amnesia, loss of short-term memory, disorientation, hallucinations, emotional disturbances, double vision, and loss of muscle control. Other effects include mental disorders such as increased aggression, antisocial behavior, depression, and anxiety.

ALCOHOL SIDE EFFECTS ON THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM

Large amounts of alcohol may inflame the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, possibly causing cancer in these locations, especially in drinkers who smoke. Alcohol increases the stomach's digestive enzymes, which can irritate the stomach wall, producing heartburn, nausea, gastritis, and ulcers. The stomach of a chronic drinker loses the ability to adequately move food and expel it into the duodenum, leaving some food always in the stomach, causing sluggish digestion and vomiting. Alcohol may also inflame the small and large intestines.

ALCOHOL SIDE EFFECTS ON THE HEART

Moderate daily drinking may be good for the heart, but for many the risks outweigh the benefits. Even one binge may produce irregular heartbeats, and alcohol abusers experience increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart arrhythmia, and heart disease. Alcohol may cause cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle). Cessation of drinking aids recovery from this condition.

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