Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 04, 2021
Everything in Moderation
Alcohol can affect your body in different ways, depending on how much you drink. In general, experts say it’s OK to have up to one drink a day if you’re a woman or two if you’re a man. Overdo it, and you raise your odds for short-term risks like falls and car crashes. Drink too much over the long run, and you could get serious health problems like heart disease or liver damage. That’s why your best bet is to enjoy alcohol in moderation.
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 actually shrink your brain. And that’ll have big 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. Heavy drinking means eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more for men.
Does It Help You Sleep?
Alcohol’s slow-down effect on your brain can make you drowsy, so 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.
More Stomach Acid
Alcohol irritates the lining of your stomach and makes your digestive juices flow. If enough acid and alcohol build up, you get nauseated and you may throw up. Years of heavy drinking can cause painful sores called ulcers. It can also lead to irritation of the lining of the stomach, called gastritis.
Diarrhea and Heartburn
our small intestine and colon get irritated, too. Alcohol throws off the normal 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 because it relaxes the muscle that keeps acid out of your esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth and stomach.
Why You Have to Pee … Again
Your brain helps your body stay well-hydrated by producing a hormone that keeps your kidneys from making too much urine. But when alcohol swings into action, it tells your brain to hold off on making that hormone. 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.
The Steps to Liver Disease
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. As they die off, the liver gets scars and stops working as well, a disease called cirrhosis.
Pancreas Damage and Diabetes
Normally, this organ makes insulin and other chemicals that help your intestines break down food. But drinking too much alcohol jams that process up. The chemicals stay inside the pancreas. Along with toxins from alcohol, they can cause inflammation in the organ over time, which can lead to serious damage. After years, that means you won’t be able to make the insulin you need, which can lead to diabetes. It also makes you more likely to get pancreatic cancer.
What’s a Hangover?
That cotton-mouthed, bleary-eyed morning-after is no accident. Alcohol makes you dehydrated and makes blood vessels in your body and brain expand. That gives you your headache. Your stomach wants to get rid of the toxins and acid that alcohol churns up, which gives you nausea and vomiting. And because your liver was so busy processing your drinks, it didn’t release enough sugar into your blood, bringing on weakness and the shakes.
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 heart rhythm changes permanent and cause what's called arrhythmia. And alcohol can wear your heart out. Over time, it causes heart muscles to droop and stretch, like an old rubber band. Your heart 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 to a night of drinking, but there might be a connection. Alcohol puts the brakes on your body’s defenses, or immune system. Your body can’t make the numbers of white blood cells it needs to fight germs. So for 24 hours after drinking too much, you’re more likely to get sick. Long-term heavy drinkers are much more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Impact on Hormones
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 drinking alcohol may have an impact. For example, some studies suggest that moderate alcohol drinking can affect fertility for some women. Research also shows that heavy drinking by men may lower testosterone levels and affect the making of sperm.
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. Drinking heavily for a long time has been linked to hearing loss.
Thin Bones, Less Muscle
Heavy drinking can throw off your calcium levels. Along with the hormone changes that alcohol triggers, that can keep your body from building new bone. Your bones get thinner and more fragile, a condition called osteoporosis. Alcohol also limits blood flow to your muscles and gets in the way of the proteins that build them up. Over time, you’ll have lower muscle mass and less strength.
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