Woman with alcohol and shot glass holding her head in hands

Cheers to your health: How alcohol affects your body

May 6, 2015

Summer is just around the corner, which means parties, vacations and holidays. With these fun, relaxing events, it’s not uncommon to unwind and celebrate with a drink in hand. Moderation is key in most things, but is especially important when it comes to consuming alcoholic beverages. A couple of drinks can leave you feeling in a comfortable place, but have you ever wondered what effects overindulging in alcohol can have on your body immediately, or even a few years down the line?

To answer some of the questions you may never have thought to ask, Joshua Cabrera, M.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, shines some light on some of the lesser-known effects of alcohol.

Chilled mixed drink topped with cherries and an orange peal, sitting on a bar.

Drinking is a normal part of our social culture, but when heavy consumption of alcohol becomes a habit, severe health complication can arise.

The more you drink, the less you think

The most common part of our body that is affected almost immediately by alcohol is the brain. “After a few drinks, our brains’ processing speeds begin to slow down, which translates into slower reaction times,” Cabrera said. “But how much you’re affected depends on your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).”

Mild to moderate consumption of alcohol interferes with decision-making abilities and lowers inhibitions. Even mild alcohol consumption can lead to a longer glare recovery time, which is the time necessary to readjust our eyes after they are exposed to bright lights. Additionally, moderate to heavy drinking will lead to some of the more commonly known physiological effects: slurred speech, slower reflexes and lethargy.

“The more drinks a person has had, and the higher their BAC is, the higher the risk that the person will injure themselves or others, especially in high-risk situations that require more coordination and reflexes, such as driving,” Cabrera explained. “Whenever alcohol is involved, accidents are more likely to occur, but once the legal limit (0.08 percent BAC) is surpassed, that risk increases at greatly.”

Cabrera warns that although one to two drinks won’t have many long-term health effects on the body, binge drinking (or a pattern of drinking that brings BAC levels to 0.08 percent or higher) is dangerous. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), low-risk drinking is defined at no more than three drinks in a day and seven during the week for women, and four drinks a day (not to exceed 14 drinks per week) for men.

Wasting away in Margaritaville

Drinking is a normal part of social culture for many, and it’s not necessary to swear it off completely, unless you have a personal reason for doing so. However, when the occasional drink turns into four or more on most days, serious long-term health complications may arise.

“While there are a number of factors, both genetic and environmental, that can contribute to alcoholism, a largely overlooked component is simply the frequency and degree of consumption. The more often someone drinks heavily, the more likely it is they’ll develop a dependency,” Cabrera stated.

While most people are familiar with the more immediate effects drinking can have on the body, over the course of time, an alcohol addiction can lead to severe health conditions even beyond the commonly known impacts on the kidneys and liver.

In the short-run, high doses of alcohol can make it difficult to recall certain events that occur during the time of consumption and a period after. However, the effects on the brain and memory don’t stop there; after years of heavy consumption of alcohol, drinking can lead to irreversible damage to the structure and function of the brain.

Those who drink heavily are at risk for developing alcoholic cardiomyopathy or arrhythmias. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy causes the heart muscle to weaken and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively, which can lead to severe damage to organs and tissues. Alcohol-induced arrhythmias are irregular or rapid heartbeats that occur when alcohol interferes with the body’s internal pacemaker. Arrhythmias can cause blood clots to form, increasing individuals’ risk for a stroke or heart attack.

A chaser of good news

You don’t have to completely refrain from alcoholic beverages in order to avoid these frightening, long-term complications, though. Regular, low-risk drinking won’t doom you won’t lead to cirrhosis of the liver or any of these serious conditions; in fact, in low doses, it’s been proven that some forms of drinking may improve your health. Recently, it was discovered that a component in grapes and red wine might help guard against memory loss.  Even the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet allows for that evening glass of wine. The NIAAA reports that people who drink a moderate amount have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease than their non-drinking counterparts. This is because moderate drinking can inhibit and reduce the accumulation of fat in the arteries.

While the long-term, negative effects of alcohol are usually brought on by consistent and heavy drinking patterns, it is always important to practice safe habits. Cabrera suggests limiting intake to one drink per hour and remembering to eat before consuming any alcohol. Always be sure to have a designated driver or another sober method of transportation to take you home if you plan to drink at an event or party.

For more information on safe practices and how alcohol can affect your body, visit the NIAAA website.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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