Alcohol is one of the most abused drugs in the United States. In fact, an estimated 69% of the population drinks. And, with 28.3 million people struggling with an alcohol use disorder in 2020, alcohol clearly has significant and long-term negative effects. But, while most people are aware of alcohol use disorder, also known as addiction, fewer are aware of the significant and long-term effects that regularly drinking, or binge drinking have on the body.
At the same time, millions of us drink socially, casually, and even to enable socializing. Alcohol is popular not just because it’s considered normal and fun, but also because people use it to self-medicate, to function, and to de-stress. That can make stepping back and acknowledging harmful effects significantly difficult, especially for those of us who are relying on it.
If you or a loved one is drinking more than the recommended 2 servings or less in a day for men and 1 serving or less in a day for women, chances are, you are experiencing negative side effects.
Most people know what being drunk is like. Whether that means tipsy, buzzed, raging drunk, or even blacking out tends to depend on the person. But most of us have felt some stage of inebriation, where alcohol reduces inhibitions, makes us feel good, and causes decreased anxiety. But what’s actually going on there? Is alcohol really a “mild poison” as has been popularized on the Internet? The answer is, yes and no. Alcohol, like many other substances, is extremely toxic in large doses. People can and do die when they drink too much. In fact, over 2,000 people die of alcohol poisoning in the U.S. each year.
So, what happens, and why?
Alcohol, or ethanol, is a psychoactive drug which absorbs through the lining of the stomach and goes straight to the brain. The time between when you consume alcohol and when it starts affecting you can be as little as 30 seconds, depending on how much you’ve eaten.
Those effects happen as alcohol affects the gamma-Aminobutryc acid receptors in the brain and central nervous system. These GABA receptors impact emotional regulation, dopamine and serotonin production, balance, and even your respiratory system. The central nervous system also links to motor control, excitement, and other parts of muscle regulation.
Alcohol inhibits your body’s ability to absorb and utilize that chemical. So, as you do, you start to experience early symptoms. When you take a drink, you won’t really notice it. If you’re not accustomed to alcohol at all or haven’t eaten, a single serving of alcohol can leave you feeling tipsy and out of balance.
Those early symptoms usually include what people classify as being tipsy, intoxicated, or buzzed.
As you drink more, that escalates to symptoms like:
And, when you do go to sleep, you’ll normally find that sleep is restless and disturbed. That’s important, even though people often use alcohol as a sleeping aid. It prevents falling into a deep sleep and results in a higher rate of Rapid Eye Movement sleep. REM sleep is where you have dreams and nightmares, which are more likely when drinking.
Most people binge drink. In fact, most people don’t’ even realize they are doing it. But, if you have more than 4 servings of alcohol in a single sitting, within the space of a few hours, you’re binge drinking. Almost 40% of Americans do that on a weekly basis.
If you drink 4-8 servings of alcohol within the course of an hour, your blood alcohol percentage goes up over the limit of safe. The rate you have to drink and the amount you have to drink depend on your body weight, metabolism, and tolerance. But, when you do drink too much, you’ll start to see increasing symptoms of alcohol intoxication. These often include:
People who are suffering from alcohol poison often just go to sleep. That can be extremely dangerous because it makes it more difficult to tell if they need help. Unfortunately, alcohol can cause people to stop breathing while they sleep, to choke on vomit because the gag reflex stops working properly, and to go into seizures. Therefore, if you notice any signs of alcohol poisoning in a loved one, it’s crucial to get them to a hospital and the ER.
Alcohol has significant long-term impacts on the body. For example, most people are aware that alcohol contributes to liver disease and liver damage. Fewer people are aware that long-term alcohol abuse can result in significant gastrointestinal problems, changes in reproductive health, and even permanent heartburn.
In most cases, you won’t see these types of significant impacts to your health unless you drink a significant amount of alcohol. But, if you drink regularly or even daily, you likely will.
That’s without considering the fact that alcohol reduces nutritional intake. For example, if you’re drunk or drinking, you’re less likely to make healthy food choices. Alcohol causes inflammation in the lining of the intestines and the stomach, which can result in failure to properly absorb nutrition. And, many people skip meals to avoid weight gain when binging on alcohol. That can eventually be extremely problematic for your health in other ways.
Alcohol use disorder happens when the body builds up tolerance to alcohol and the brain becomes dependent on it. Here, the body adjusts production of GABA and dopamine to the levels set by alcohol. When you quit drinking, the body often struggles to adapt back. That can result in cold and flu symptoms, nausea, insomnia, vomiting, and seizures as your body adjusts to not having alcohol.
This normally happens as a combination of physical and behavioral dependencies. However, in this case, the behavioral one is more important for addiction. In fact, most people can get over chemical dependency in a few weeks, on their own. While you can, that doesn’t mean you should. Alcohol withdrawal can be significantly impactful to your health. For example, as many as 5% of all people withdrawing from alcohol will experience delirium tremens, an extreme and prolonged form of withdrawal, which can cause life-threatening seizures. And, with a mortality rate of 37% without treatment, it’s important you do get treatment if side effects occur. For this reason, it’s normally recommended to detox from alcohol under medical supervision to ensure dangerous side-effects are not present.
Nearly everyone drinks alcohol. But, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. More importantly, the more you drink, the more dangerous it becomes. And, putting alcohol down isn’t always easy or safe. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, it’s important to get help, to talk to your doctor, and to get behavioral therapy to treat the behavioral disorder, while undoing the harm alcohol has done to your body.