The health risks of drinking alcohol

Most of us are familiar with the pleasant glow that follows a couple of drinks. But carry on drinking and the less pleasant effects of alcohol rear their ugly head. If you regularly drink too much, you might be putting your health at serious risk. Here, we run through just some of the effects alcohol can have on your mind and body

A group of friends clink their drinks over a dinner table

What happens when you drink?

Within minutes of taking your first sip, alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach wall and is circulated to every part of your body. This includes your heart, liver and brain, as well as your nervous system.

If you have one or two drinks, you may find you become more talkative and feel more cheerful and relaxed. But drink a couple more and you'll take longer to react, may misjudge situations and start slurring your words. You might also have difficulty walking and find it tricky to coordinate your movements.

So what’s happening to your mind and body? Read below to find out more.

The effects of alcohol on your mind

Alcohol is a depressant. Drink too much and your brain will have difficulty processing information. This means you may have trouble with:

  • judgement and self-control
  • vision and hearing
  • talking and walking
  • remembering things

Alcohol can make you act differently to how you normally would. You might not make the best decisions and take risks, such as having unprotected sex.

Drinking heavily over a long time can severely affect your mental health. Alcohol alters the chemistry in your brain and can increase your risk of getting anxiety and depression, and feeling suicidal.

If you’re a heavy drinker, stopping suddenly can lead to hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that don’t exist). In some people who drink very heavily for many years, a mental health condition called alcoholic psychosis can develop. This is where the person can become paranoid and experience hallucinations.

Drinking too much alcohol also increases your risk of developing dementia in later life.

If you drink regularly, it can become addictive and you might find that you’re experiencing cravings and find it difficult to go without a drink. For more information see our article on alcohol dependence.

The hangover

In the short term, you'll feel the effects of alcohol on your body in the form of a hangover. The morning after an evening of heavy drinking, chances are you can expect to have one. It's nature’s way of telling you that you've overindulged.

Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol – a toxic chemical. It takes time for your body to turn the ethanol into a less toxic substance in your body. Symptoms of a hangover are caused by the combined effects of alcohol and its breakdown products on your body and mind. Typical symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • feeling thirsty
  • feeling or being sick
  • feeling sensitive to bright lights
  • indigestion and diarrhoea
  • feeling exhausted

Worse still, you might not even be able to remember all of the night before because alcohol can cause memory loss.

Alcohol and your liver

While alcohol affects virtually all of your body systems, your liver is most affected. Your liver filters and cleans your blood and it takes about an hour to clear one unit of alcohol from your bloodstream. This is the most your liver can handle at one time, so if you're drinking quickly, your liver has to work harder.

Over time, alcohol damages your liver. If you regularly drink too much, you're at risk of developing a range of alcoholic liver diseases. These include:

The process is silent so you won't be aware of the damage, but if you develop liver disease, the symptoms can come on suddenly. And it can be life-threatening.

The good news is if you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may well recover. But if you continue to drink it may completely fail.

Did you know?

  • About nine in 10 people who regularly drink get a fatty liver and most aren't aware of the damage done.
  • In 2013, 64 percent of all alcohol-related deaths in England were caused by alcoholic liver disease.
  • Women who regularly drink are more at risk of developing liver disease than men because their bodies aren't able to process alcohol as well.

Alcohol and your heart and circulation

Alcohol makes your heart beat faster, which affects how well it pumps blood around your body. If you regularly drink too much alcohol – particularly if you 'binge drink' – it can raise your blood pressure too.

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage your heart and increase your risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. It can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Did you know?

  • Men who regularly drink more than eight units of alcohol a day nearly double their risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Women who regularly drink more than six units of alcohol a day are slightly more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
  • There's evidence that alcohol may reduce the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases. But before you pour another drink, these effects are limited to certain groups of people (men over 40 and postmenopausal women) who only drink a small amount of alcohol.

Alcohol and cancer

If you drink just three units of alcohol a day, you increase your risk of developing many types of cancer, including cancers of the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • oesophagus
  • stomach
  • liver
  • breast
  • bowel
  • lung

For more information about alcohol and your risk of cancer see our article, Cut the booze to slash your cancer risk.

Did you know?

  • Alcohol is linked to around 37,000 hospital admissions for cancer in the UK each year.
  • All types of alcoholic drink increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it’s in.

Other long-term effects of alcohol on your body

Digestive system

Alcohol irritates your stomach. It increases the amount of acid your stomach produces, which can cause inflammation of its lining. You may get indigestion and heartburn, be sick, have a stomach ache and diarrhoea.

Alcohol can also damage your pancreas. If you drink too much, it can lead to acute (short-lasting) or chronic (long-lasting) pancreatitis.

Did you know?

  • Chronic pancreatitis is 40 to 50-times more common in people who are heavy drinkers and drink long term.
  • The most common cause of acute pancreatitis worldwide is alcohol.

Nervous system

Alcohol acts on nerve cells throughout your body. It slows down the speed at which your nerves can send messages to each other. If you regularly drink a lot of alcohol, it can lead to nerve and brain damage, resulting in memory problems, dementia and damage to small nerve endings.

Did you know?

  • Regular, heavy alcohol use can cause a lack of vitamin B1. If you don't get treatment, it can lead to permanent memory loss.
  • Research now shows that even a couple of days of binge drinking can start to kill off your brain cells. Previously it was thought you'd have to drink continuously for long periods of time to get this type of damage.

Sex life

Drinking moderate levels of alcohol can increase your sexual desire. But drink too much and its effects on the nervous system can make it difficult for men to achieve or maintain an erection (often called ‘brewer’s droop’).

Regularly drinking more than the daily recommended amount is known to affect fertility in both men and women.

Did you know?

  • In women, alcohol can disrupt ovulation which makes it harder to conceive. In men, alcohol can reduce sperm production.

Are you drinking too much?

It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines recommend that, over a week, nobody should drink more than 14 units of alcohol.

It’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week to help you stay under this limit.

This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. If you drink too much in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can become dangerously high. This can lead to alcohol poisoning and you may need hospital admission.

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink. For more information about how to cut down on drinking see our article, Cutting back or quitting drinking.

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