The Effects of Excessive Alcohol on Your Body

From the Daily Mail, London England, September 7, 2004


In the short term, heavy drinking depletes the body of vitamin B1, causing a lack of concentration and poor memory. In the long term, it can kill off brain and nerve cells leading

to memory loss, confusion and reduced coordination. It can also shrink the brain, which increases the risk of epileptic seizures, and make cerebral blood vessels more likely to rupture and hemorrhage. Regular binge drinking increases the risk of the brain disorder Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which causes mental confusion, double vision and poor balance, and Korsakoff’s psychosis, which causes chronic memory loss. Alcohol is the third biggest cause of dementia.


Alcohol causes the tiny blood vessels on the surface of the eye, called the sciera, to become dilated and inflamed, resulting in bloodshot eyes. Heavy drinking depletes the body of the nutrients needed for eye health and consequently can lead to a condition known as alcoholic optic neuritis. This can impair eyesight and, in time, lead to blindness.


Excessive drinking can block the production of the anti-diuretic hormone – the resulting dehydration will dry out the skin, making it prone to wrinkles. It also widens blood vessels and increases blood flow to the skin, hence it can lead to thread veins, reddened ‘drinker’s nose’ and the skin condition rosacea, which causes a red rash or flushed complexion. The skin condition psoriasis, which leads to red scaly patches over the body, can be another side effect of heavy drinking – 40 percent of psyoriasis sufferers drink too much.


People who drink just three units of alcohol a day almost double their risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, pharynx and oesophagus. Persistently heavy drinkers – six or more units a day – have almost six times the risk of a teetotaler of developing these cancers. Heavy drinkers are also more likely to suffer gum disease and tooth infections.


Alcohol is processed mainly by the liver. As it breaks down, the toxins can overload this organ. This is particularly true in repeated heavy drinking. In the short term, this can lead to inflammation. In the long term, it can cause irreparable scar damage – or cirrhosis. This causes bloating, vomiting and weight loss because the liver becomes less able to process alcohol and other toxins in the blood. Cases of cirrhosis rose 300 percent between 1993 and 2000.


Heavy drinking can cause palpitations and is the second biggest cause of hypertension or high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Long-term heavy drinking – ten units or more a day – can cause cirrhosis of the heart, which leads to swollen ankles and shortness of breath. However, one unit of alcohol a day reduces the risk of a heart attack for post-menopausal women, or men who have had previous attacks.


Drinking can cause weakness and trembling because it depletes the body of the vitamins and minerals needed to maintain muscle health. Other effects include muscle degeneration, making the thighs and upper arms feel weak and painful. Alcoholic myopathy can occur after a bout of heavy drinking and causes inflammation and pain in any muscle in the body.


Even moderate drinking can delay conception. Alcohol can reduce a woman’s fertility as the toxins may interfere with her hormone levels. Also, heavy dinking can make women deficient in certain nutrients and therefore prevent them form ovulating.


Heavy drinking is a cause of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. It causes abdominal pain and weight loss because the damaged pancreas is unable to produce enough enzymes to digest food. It has been calculated that cases of this potentially fatal condition have doubled in the past 30 years.


Excess alcohol can force the digestive juices from the stomach back up the esophagus, causing the burning sensation of heartburn. This reflux action can lead to esophagitis – inflammation of the esophagus – and ulceration. IT is estimated that as many as 75 percent of cases of cancer of the esophagus in the UK are attributable to alcohol.


As it is a diuretic, alcohol can dehydrate the body, making the hair brittle, dry and liable to split ends. It also depletes the body of nutrients and can cause a deficiency of the mineral zinc, which can lead to hair loss.


Not all alcohol is processed by the liver. A small amount – up to 10 percent – will remain unprocessed and be excreted directly as sweat, in the breath or urine. This can lead to the stale smell of alcohol. The more alcohol in the system, the stronger the smell will be.


Gout, a type of arthritis that causes painful swelling of the joints, is exacerbated by drinking. It occurs when the liver is unable to process uric acid which then lodges as crystals in the joints, such as those in the big toe. People who drink to excess in their 20s increase the risk of developing the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis in later life. However, five units a week can prevent it in post-menopausal women.


Alcohol is an irritant and can increase the risk of ulcers and gastritis, a chronic inflammation of the stomach wall. This can lead to nausea, cramps, abdominal pain and weight loss. In the longer term, it puts pressure on the veins of the esophagus, causing digestive bleeding. It can affect the natural contraction of the intestines and cause diarrhea. Binge drinking has been linked to cancer of the colon.


Even light drinking – one unit a day – increases the risk of breast cancer by 10 percent. Drinking five units a day increases the risk by 41 percent.


Alcohol is loaded with sugar and calories – weight for weight, only fat contains more calories per gram so drinking can play havoc with the waistline. Alcohol can also increase the appetite. It stimulates the production of insulin, which reduces blood sugar levels so leading to feelings of weakness and hunger.


According to the Department of Health, safe limits for women are two to three units of alcohol per day or a maximum of 21 units per week. For men, the maximum is 28 units per week.

One unit equals half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine or a pub measure of spirits.

An alcopop is 1.5 units, a 175ml glass of wine is two units and a pint of strong lager is three units.

Binge drinking is defined as eight units in one session for men and six for women.

(Note from Dr. Saxe-Clifford – U.S. definition of excessive drinking is considerably lower and we do not have alcopops)

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