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From Alcoholic Hepatitis to Depression: 5 Conditions Linked to Alcoholism

By Neha Kashyap, Manjari Bansal
Alcoholism can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems. That's why it's important to get help before it's too late.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease characterized by an uncontrollable craving for alcohol that negatively impacts important aspects of your life.

If this serious disorder goes untreated for too long, it can take a profound toll on your body. Here are some conditions linked to alcoholism, and why getting help as early as possible is in your best interest.

1. Dementia

The Alzheimer's Society reports that alcohol-related dementia is one form of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). Symptoms can include: 

  • Struggling with day-to-day activities
  • Memory loss
  • Cognitive processing difficulties
  • Distractibilty
  • Issues with problem-solving, planning, and organizing
  • Lack of motivation to do essential taks such as eating
  • Irritability

The symptoms of this condition vary widely. However, a brain scan will typically reveal alcohol-related shrinkage in specific brain regions of these patients, and alcohol is known to specifically impact the brain's frontal lobes.  

“What people may not realize is that it is possible that these types of cognitive declines to be misattributed to other factors, such as aging or other medical conditions,” Benson Munyan, a clinical psychologist in Orlando, Florida, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “In the case of those seeking mental health services for conditions that are not related to substance use, alcohol abuse or dependence can make it remarkably difficult to accurately attribute the cause of cognitive problems.”

Indeed, the Alzheimer's Society notes that some physicians will insist that a patient stop drinking for several weeks before administering memory assessments. Others believe that patients can be evaluated for alcohol-related dementia while they are still engaged in heavy drinking--as long as they are not intoxicated during evaluations. 

Alcohol, Aging, and Cognitive Decline

Alcohol has a damaging effect on the brain. “As we age, our brains begin to show signs of cognitive decline and the use of alcohol can accelerate this process,” Colleen Wenner, LMHC, LPC, MCAP, Founder & Clinical Director of New Heights Counseling & Consulting, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain’s ability to function properly. It slows down your thinking processes, impairs memory, lowers inhibitions, and increases anxiety.”

But is it possible to know whether your alcohol use will have long-term cognitive effects? “Regular alcohol consumption can have a significant effect on aging, and will depend on the severity and duration of alcohol use,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

According to the National Institute on Aging, as we get older, alcohol consumption may worsen existing health issues. With advancing age, you are usually advised to reduce or stop drinking due to various health conditions which are common in old age, such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, and memory loss. However, if you continue drinking, these conditions may worsen at a faster rate.

2. Depression

Alcohol can exacerbate mood disorders, like depression. Some people struggling with alcoholism begin drinking to find relief from depressive symptoms, which eventually creates a vicious cycle.

“Due to alcohol being a depressant, it gives the illusion of relief – which is only temporary,” Princess Drake, M.S., Psy.D, a mental health practitioner at Hazelden Betty Ford in Center City, Minnesota, says. “The maladaptive pattern that develops between depression and alcoholism produces the constant need for the next sign of relief.”

Sample Treatment Plan for Co-Occurring Alcohol Use and Depression

“Individuals with both alcohol use and depression require an integrated treatment plan that addresses both issues concurrently,” Sternlicht says. “Once an individual has safely detoxed from alcohol, a treatment plan would entail a blend of behavior therapies and psychopharmacology.”

Wenner tells WebMD Connect to Care, that “a well-rounded treatment plan for alcohol use and depression would include but not be limited to the following factors:

  • Seeking counseling. Counseling enables you to learn how to cope with stress and find alternative coping mechanisms instead of using alcohol. You'll find that learning coping skills helps you deal with stressful situations more effectively.
  • Seeking medical guidance. Depression is a serious condition that can be life-threatening if not treated properly. Be sure to follow the doctor's instructions regarding taking prescribed medications.
  • Developing healthy habits. If you have been abusing alcohol and experiencing depression, developing new habits may seem difficult at first. However, once you get started, you'll feel better and begin to notice improvements in your life.
  • Developing a support system. A support system is a key component in helping you cope with depression and alcoholism. Having people who care about you and understand what you're going through can be very helpful.
  • Staying active and productive. Physical activity has proven benefits for people dealing with depression. It improves mood and reduces symptoms of anxiety and stress. Exercise also increases energy levels and provides an outlet for negative emotions.” 

3. Bone Deficiencies

Alcohol can decrease your bone density and increase the chance of osteoporosis.

“Osteoblasts are specific bone cells responsible for building new bone, and…when excess alcohol consumption inhibits osteoblast activity, bone breaks down at a faster rate than it is being formed, leaving bone brittle, weak, and at increased risk for fractures,” Dr. Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, a New Jersey-based physical therapist, says.

Alcohol and Bone Marrow

“The effect of alcohol on bone marrow is important to know,” Wenner says. “As our body ages, the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing red blood cells. When we consume alcohol, the bone marrow has to work even harder to produce more red blood cells.”

Prolonged alcohol consumption may interfere with biochemical, physiological, and metabolic processes of blood cells that may affect various organs in our body, according to a 2020 study published in the journal International Archives of Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation. Chronic, heavy alcohol use may lead to toxicity in bone marrow, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. In turn, this may result in fewer or non-functional mature blood cells.  

“Without enough red blood cells, the body cannot carry oxygen throughout the body. This leads to low energy levels, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and shortness of breath. In addition, the bone marrow also makes white blood cells that fight infections. But when we consume alcohol, the white blood cell count goes down abnormally, which can increase the risk of infection,” Wenner explains.

4. Liver Damage

Alcoholism can damage your liver in several ways. This includes alcohol-related fatty liver disease (ALD), or when the liver accumulates fats. ALD can be painful and lead to other conditions like alcoholic cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.

Alcoholic cirrhosis is when scar tissue accumulates in the liver. This condition can be caused by an array of diseases, including hepatitis and chronic AUD. It can lead to fluid buildup in the body, the accumulation of toxins in the brain, an enlarged spleen, and liver failure.

Additionally, alcoholic hepatitis, the inflammation of the liver most likely to appear in those who have consumed alcohol heavily for years, can present with fever, nausea, vomiting, and jaundice.

What are the First Signs of Liver Damage from Alcohol?

The degree of Liver damage caused by excess alcohol intakedepends on how much and how long you have been drinking alcohol, notes Johns Hopkins University. Research suggests that there might be a genetic link related to an individual’s predisposition to develop liver disease.  

“Some of the first signs of liver damage from alcohol may include but are not limited to weight loss, fatigue, swelling of the abdomen, dry mouth, yellowing of the skin or eyes, recurring fever, recurring upset stomach, vomiting, and redness or numbness in hands or feet,” Sternlicht says.   

5. High Blood Pressure

According to the CDC, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke are some of the major long-term health risks related to excessive alcohol drinking. Additionally, research has found that binge drinking can also significantly increase the likelihood of stroke for both men and women. Studies have found that binge drinking can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure that ranges from 4-7 mmHG for systolic blood pressure and 4-6 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure.

Can Alcohol-Induced Hypertension be Reversed?

Consuming excess alcohol can increase your blood pressure to unhealthy levels. However, “the good news is that studies show that elevations in blood pressure caused by alcohol are usually reversible with decreased intake or abstinence altogether,” Alexia Copenhaver, MD, Director of Psychiatric Services at Symetria Recovery, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Even better news is that those with higher intake benefit more from cutting down or stopping drinking. Attention to diet, weight loss, and physical exercise are also immensely helpful to lower blood pressure.”
 

6. Alcoholic Neuropathy

According to the National Library of Medicine, chronic  alcohol intake can have detrimental effects on both the central and peripheral nervous systems. One of the most common side effects caused by chronic alcoholism is alcohol neuropathy, or damage to the nerves.

“[This] can be caused by chronic drinking or acute intoxication, and it may occur at any age,” Wenner says. “Alcohol has toxic effects on the nerves, which disrupt the normal electrical impulses throughout the nervous system.”

How do you Know if you Have Alcoholic Neuropathy?

“The most common symptom of alcoholic neuropathy is numbness in the hands and feet, which can be accompanied by tingling or burning sensations,” Wenner says. “Other symptoms include weakness, loss of coordination, and poor balance.’

“If you notice any of the described signs and symptoms of neuropathy, it’s best to seek a professional diagnosis. A reduction in drinking has been shown to improve sensory and motor issues, also over months and years. Your care team might recommend vitamin supplementation and may be able to prescribe medications to help manage symptoms.” Wenner adds. 

Getting Help

The good news is that many of these conditions are preventable with early treatment and sobriety. To avoid the potentially irreversible long-term effects of alcoholism, speak to your loved ones about your problem and consider getting professional help in the form of treatment right away.

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