Alcohol and Your Body: The health effects of intoxication

 

 

BY LESLIE RESCHLY, BSN, RN

 

While the legal effects of alcohol intoxication are great, there are health effects to drinking in excess as well. Most people are familiar with the problems associated with long-term over use of alcohol on the body but more science has been conducted to show that binge drinking or heavy regular use can lead to problems with many body systems.

 

Alcohol metabolism (the speed in which it can be removed from the body) depends on body size, gender and overall health. For example, many medications can intensify the effects of alcohol on your body causing toxic situations. People with liver disease have impaired ability to detoxify the substance as well.  Female bodies are known to break down alcohol more slowly; females typically have less water in their bodies so the alcohol is more concentrated and they can become impaired faster. This is why most recommendations for female limits on alcohol are less than our male counterparts.

 

Alcohol, if ingested, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream by the stomach and small intestine which is the first body system that it encounters. It makes sense that foods in your stomach, especially higher fat foods, slow the absorption rate. Your mama was not kidding when she encouraged you to eat before drinking! Small amounts are removed from the body through urine as well as the lungs. This is why alcohol levels can be measured by breathalyzer machines.  Ingesting more alcohol faster than your body can process it causes you to become drunk. This excess alcohol not broken down by the liver goes to the brain affecting areas which control movement, speech, judgement and memory.

 

As a result, short term effects include slurred speech, drowsiness, difficulty walking/balancing with diminished perception and coordination, impulsive behaviors such as driving or risk taking, impaired judgement, impaired vision and hearing. This may rapidly progress to vomiting, diarrhea, headache, blackouts and memory loss, and finally a state of unconsciousness and coma or even death from acute alcohol poisoning.

 

Alcohol impairs many of your body systems. The digestive system is the first to become in contact with alcohol. As a result, it can irritate the tissues causing soreness of your mouth, tongue and gums, stomach lining inflammation (gastritis), ulcers and possible internal bleeding. Long term, alcohol induced inflammation of the digestive tract makes it more difficult for nutrients to be absorbed resulting in malnutrition. Also associated are mouth, throat and esophageal cancer especially if you are a smoker. Further down the digestive tract, the pancreas may become swollen as it goes into high gear producing digestive enzymes. The liver will also become inflamed, develop fat deposits and finally become hard with scarred tissue which is known as cirrhosis, as well as liver failure and cancer.  If your pancreas and liver do not function, unbalanced sugar levels begin to destroy your system.

 

The central nervous system is probably the easiest system to see an impact from the outside as alcohol interferes with the brain and its paths of communication. Along with the changes in speech, balance, memory and thought processing, the ability of the brain to form memories is impacted over time causing the frontal lobe of the brain to shrink.   Impacting the neurotransmitter receptor sites, dependence occurs and withdrawal becomes miserable. Lack of alcohol in this state causes extreme nausea, anxiety, nervousness, tremors, confusion, hallucinations and even seizures – known as DTs or delirium tremors, this can be fatal.

Alcohol-meter

The heart and circulatory system also are impacted.   Blood pressure may be elevated leading to stroke, irregular heartbeats may occur and the muscle cells in the heart become poisoned and ineffective.  Heart attacks may happen.

 

Finally, other body systems not commonly thought to be involved include bones which become thin as alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb calcium and may break.  Sexually, erectile dysfunction and infertility are a result.  The immune system can become weakened as the ability to fight infections decreases.  Finally, alcohol is very high in calories causing weight gain and its associated problems.

 

Much has been promoted and studied relating to the outcomes of moderate drinking. Please note that moderate drinking is one drink for females and two drinks for men which have been correlated to decreased chances of heart disease. It is also important to note that a “drink”  is considered to be 14 grams of alcohol which is the amount found in 12 ounces of 5% beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.  This is important to remember as often one drink contains more alcohol than this amount.

 

As we enter this season of summer celebration in our “Happiest” city by the sea, remember to indulge safely and with limits to maintain your healthy lifestyle!

 

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