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Surprising Ways Alcohol Affects the Body

In 2018, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 70% of people age 18 and older drank alcohol within the previous year. For many, casual drinking is a cultural and societal norm. But when abused, it can cause serious health problems. Here are some of the surprising ways alcohol can negatively affect one’s mental and physical well-being.

  • Compromised Immune System: Research has found that alcohol can suppress and weaken the immune system. It can disrupt pathways limiting the body’s ability to fight diseases and inflammation. This makes a person susceptible to a host of chronic conditions and infections.
  • Develop Pancreatitis: Alcohol abuse can have a negative effect on the pancreas. Located behind the stomach, it produces enzymes necessary to break down carbs and fat. When those enzymes aren’t transported, the organ becomes swollen and sore. In severe cases, individuals can also develop cysts, organ damage or pancreatic cancer.
  • Diminished Cognitive Function: Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down essential functions within the body—especially the brain. Alcohol can cause the brain’s hippocampus to shrink, leading to memory loss and impaired reasoning. It can also negatively affect the cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and vision.
  • High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is linked to multiple genetic and lifestyle factors, including alcohol consumption. Just one drink causes a sharp rise in pressure that can take at least two hours to subside. The ongoing use of alcohol has a sustained effect, which increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Increased Cancer Risk: Alcohol is a common risk factor for multiple forms of cancer including mouth, liver, breast, colorectal, esophageal and throat. Research has found that long-term alcohol use may impair the body’s ability to absorb nutrients while boosting harmful chemicals like tobacco smoke. It can also increase blood estrogen production and irritate cells, blocking tissue repair.
  • Onset of Cardiomyopathy: Alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy is a disease that enlarges and weakens the heart muscle. The heart can become covered with thick, rigid scar tissue, hindering its ability to adequately pump blood. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular pulse and decreased appetite.
  • Poor Mental Health: Individuals with mental or emotional issues may use alcohol as a short-term coping mechanism. While it can temporarily suppress negative feelings, it’s neither healthy nor viable. This leads to mood swings such as extreme happiness followed by deep sadness. It can also amplify anxiety and depression symptoms that are already present.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Over time, heavy drinking creates a mental and a physical dependency. When a person suddenly stops, it can lead to a condition called alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). This can occur hours (at least six to eight) or a few days after the last drink. Mild withdrawal symptoms are headache, insomnia, anxiety and a slight tremor. Individuals with moderate symptoms may have high blood pressure as well as rapid and shallow breathing. Those with more severe symptoms can experience seizures and hallucinations.

Long-Term Treatment

Anyone seeking help for alcohol dependency should start with their primary care physician. They will provide a professional diagnosis as well as a treatment plan based on individual need. Depending on the severity of symptoms, a physician may recommend a combination of therapy and medication.

About the Author: Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. 

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Photo credit: Moyo Studio

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