What are the effects of alcohol on our physical and mental health?
Published 5 Jan 2022 • By Claudia Lima
Drinking alcohol is regarded as a cultural norm in many countries. Its consumption may be occasional (for example, on holidays), regular or excessive. The effects of alcohol misuse are a major reason for mortality and morbidity around the world.
What are the risks of drinking alcohol on our mental and physical health? What are the short-term consequences? And what about in the long-term?
We explain it all in our article!
Alcohol contains ethanol, an active ingredient obtained by a biochemical reaction that breaks down the sugar in fruit or plants, which makes it possible to produce liquid. This chemical influences the psyche and the mood.
All drinks containing alcohol can lead to intoxication and are dangerous to health.
Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death in the UK. In 2020, almost 9,000 deaths were from alcohol-specific causes. Its consumption is more common in men than in women, daily alcohol consumption is more common in the elderly, however intoxication is mostly seen in young people.
What is the impact of alcohol on our body?
When a person drinks a glass of alcohol, it quickly passes from the mouth to the stomach and then to the intestine. Some of it is directly absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the digestive tract. It then passes through the liver where it is metabolised and from there it spreads to other organs, including the brain, within minutes.
Alcohol influences the brain, it changes consciousness and perception. Consumed in low doses, it provides the feeling of relaxation and euphoria. It is a disinhibitor, it frees the speech, allows the person to let go of their stress and emotions, but it also decreases reflexes.
But when the quantities consumed become too significant, it is called intoxication. The movements become less coordinated, the speech - disturbed, reflexes and alertness - sharply reduced, and the person starts feeling drowsy.
What are the short-term health risks of alcohol consumption?
Drunkenness quickly alters the faculties and the behavior of the person who consumes alcohol: they are no longer able to drive, their mood becomes unstable. In the event of a problem, they are more vulnerable because of their reduced ability to defend themselves or to react.
The following day, the person experiences headache, fatigue and dehydration, symptoms known as the "hangover".
The most dangerous consequences of drinking too much alcohol are impaired memory, blackouts, and, in the worst scenario, alcoholic coma which can lead to death.
Alcohol disturbs our senses and leads us to underestimate the dangers on the road, no wonder the risk of being responsible for an accident increases tenfold if we get behind the wheel while being drunk. Also, a drunk person focuses on the irritation felt and can become more aggressive, without thinking about the consequences of his or her actions. The effects on sexual performance are also well-known: alcohol provokes desire but has a negative impact on performance, as erection is disturbed in men and pleasure decreased in women. Another consequence associated with excessive alcohol consumption is weight gain, due to the fact that it whets the appetite and because it is rich in calories.
What are the long-term health consequences of alcohol consumption?
Daily consumption of alcohol may be the cause of such symptoms as fatigue, trouble sleeping and concentrating, and impaired memory. Also, alcohol can have an impact on the development of numerous conditions even if it is consumed in small quantities. Its misuse can generate a process of general deterioration of the body, as well as of the psyche.
This chronic and irreversible liver disease is due to alcohol dependence, it affects regular consumers of large amounts of alcohol.
The misuse of alcohol damages the brain, and is responsible for such disorders as impaired memory, attention and decision making, among others. These disorders can lead to a serious complication, called Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is characterised by a significant memory loss (of recent events), caused by severe vitamin B1 deficiency, the absorption of which is prevented by excessive alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with mental disorders. Sometimes alcohol is the cause, as it can trigger depression, and sometimes it is the consequence: an anxious or depressed person will want to drink in order to relax. Indeed, alcohol can bring a momentary feeling of well-being, however it does not solve problems, only accentuates them.
In pregnant women, alcohol interferes with the development of a child's brain and causes multiple complications. It is not possible today to determine the level of consumption that would be safe for the unborn child, so pregnant women are recommended not to drink at all, as a precaution. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is the leading cause of non-genetic learning disability in the USA.
What is alcohol addiction?
Alcohol is considered by WHO to be a product with significant addictive potential, just like illicit drugs. It causes psychic and physical dependence in the event of prolonged consumption.
Drinking even a little alcohol on a regular basis can become a problem and lead to alcohol dependence. Alcohol addiction is defined by a need to drink, at first in order to regain the euphoric effects associated with it, and then addiction sets in. Functional tolerance also develops: the addicted person drinks increasingly large amounts to feel the desired effects and to not suffer from the physical symptoms of withdrawal, such as sweating, tremors and dizziness.
Seeing a psychiatrist or an addictologist is strongly recommended for addicted people, and sometimes drug treatment can also be necessary (eg: Baclofen®), as well as taking part in special meetings (for example, Alcoholics Anonymous).
How to prevent risky behavior?
The misuse of alcohol is a public health issue, and many actions have been taken to prevent the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. The aim is to identify risky behaviours as well as factors affecting alcohol consumption at an early stage. Information campaigns are launched regularly by health institutions and organisations. For example, you can test yourself to see if you need to change your drinking habits (the test is available on the NHS website).
What happens to our body when we stop drinking alcohol?
Stopping alcohol consumption when it has become regular or addictive is not easy. There are changes that happen to the body and to the psyche as well. This period of withdrawal makes the feeling of euphoria felt during consumption turn into depression. It is recommended to take up other activities to compensate (for example, sport).
Stopping alcohol leads to improvements in the person’s health: according to a study from the University of Sussex in England, a month is enough to see the benefits:
- Regeneration of the liver, except in cases of cirrhosis,
- Belly deflating,
- Weight loss,
- Decrease in fatigue,
- Absence of tremors and dizziness,
- Fresh and more beautiful skin,
- Better hydration,
- Improved sleep and therefore more energy,
- Positive influence on the mind,
For several years now, the month of January has been associated with “Dry January”, a challenge, launched in the UK in 2013. It encourages people not to drink a drop of alcohol during the first month of the year. This alcohol-free month has many benefits related to abstinence.
Alcohol consumption, regardless of the quantities, must be controlled by everyone, as we have just seen, there are many short-term and long-term risks associated with alcohol misuse. Health organisations remind you that you can drink a maximum of 2 drinks per day, and not every day!
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