Any discussion of alcohol’s health impacts can get pretty charged up, because we do love our liquor. But, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, so if you do want to enjoy your alcohol, you’ve just got to face some truths and deal with them. While the moderate consumption of alcohols like wine can offer some health benefits, the risks far outweigh any benefits when you drink irresponsibly. By this, we mean that you need to drink in moderation, limiting both the intake and frequency of consumption. Aside from the obvious risk of nasty hangovers, blackouts, and addiction, heavy drinking also threatens the health of major organs like the kidneys and brain, not just the liver.
Alcohol and Organ Damage
The risk of liver damage is perhaps the best-known threat of alcoholism or alcohol abuse, so we’ll get this one out of the way first. The liver plays a vital role in various bodily processes including digestion and metabolism. It helps in the absorption of nutrients, synthesis of proteins, detoxification of metabolites, production of biochemicals for digestion, and lots more. Over a period of time, the heavy intake of alcohol causes scarring and inflammation of liver tissue, impairing liver function and putting you at risk of conditions like fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and liver cirrhosis. Aside from destroying liver cells that causes scarring, chronic alcohol abuse also increases the risk of cellular mutations that can give rise to liver cancer.
If you want to measure the risk, consider these statistics. According to the American Liver Foundation, the fatty liver disease affects 90 to 100 percent of all heavy drinkers, while cirrhosis is likely to develop in 10 to 15 percent. Data from the National Institutes of Health shows that 47 percent of all liver disease fatalities in individuals above the age of 12 years can be linked to alcohol. While these risks can seem insurmountable for heavy drinkers, there’s a lot that you can do to minimize the risk of liver damage. Maintaining a healthy body weight, taking probiotic supplements (after consulting a nutritionist), and staying physically active can help offset the risk of alcohol-induced liver damage. Of course, the most important thing to do is to cut back on the alcohol or give it up entirely if you can’t moderate your intake.
For those of us who love alcohol, the heart health benefits of wine serve as a great talking point. Several studies suggest that antioxidants found in red wine can support heart health, offering some amount of protection against coronary artery disease and heart attacks. Unfortunately, most of us read too much into these findings and stretch the truth. While the moderate consumption of red wine (a single glass a day) can help, excessive consumption of any form of alcohol weakens the heart muscles, impairing blood flow. Unlike the benefits of red wine, which are not clearly understood or universally accepted, we do know for a fact that cardiomyopathy tends to develop in alcoholics and binge drinkers, causing symptoms like arrhythmia, breathlessness, fatigue, and so on. Over the years, heavy alcohol consumption puts you at greater risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes.
When it comes to respiratory health, we tend to regard alcohol as the lesser of two evils, the other being smoking. There’s no denying the truth there, but studies now show that binge drinking also takes a toll on your lungs. Nitric oxide is a gas that is produced naturally in the lungs, offering protection against bacterial infections. Researchers have found that heavy drinkers tend to have lower levels of gas, making them more vulnerable to lung infections. This also explains why individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are more vulnerable to conditions such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Despite the fact that you might love the high spirits or the feeling of euphoria induced by alcohol, the effects of alcohol on the brain are a lot more insidious. Ethanol, which is present in all alcoholic beverages, slows the transmission of information between neurotransmitters. If the effects were fleeting, they’d probably be funny, but truth is that this causes damage to different areas of the brain. Over a period of time, damage caused to the neurotransmitters because of heavy drinking can result in severe behavioural and mood changes, putting you at high risk of anxiety disorders, depression, memory loss, and seizures. To add to this, most heavy drinkers tend to make unhealthy food choices, leading to nutritional imbalances, which are worsened because of the impact of alcohol on nutrition absorption. This can ultimately give rise to serious brain disorders like Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, characterized by severe problems with coordination, learning, and memory.
The effects of heavy alcohol consumption can be just as damaging to the pancreas, giving rise to life threating complications. When you consume alcohol in excess it can impair the secretion of enzymes, causing them to be stored internally instead of being directed to the intestines. As these enzymes build up in the pancreas, it leads to an inflammatory pancreatic disease known as pancreatitis. Alcoholics are particularly vulnerable to chronic pancreatitis, wherein the condition could remain asymptomatic for years, suddenly causing severe symptoms, contributing to the onset of diabetes, or causing death. In other cases, pancreatitis could appear in the form of a sudden attack with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tummy aches, increased heart rate, and fever. This is known as acute pancreatitis. While this could work as a wakeup call, it should be pointed out that acute pancreatitis increases the risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.
The kidneys play a vital role in filtering blood impurities and toxins, including alcohol. While the occasional glass or two doesn’t really pose a risk, excessive alcohol intake has a direct impact on kidney function and their ability to function. Through its diuretic effect, alcohol interferes with the kidneys’ ability to maintain the optimal balance of water in the body. Coupled with elevated blood pressure, also caused by alcohol, the risk of kidney disease increases significantly – half of all chronic kidney disease patients suffer from diabetes or hypertension.
Alcohol is just plain bad for the gastrointestinal tract, no matter the amount, as it stimulates increased acid production that inflames the stomach lining. With heavy drinking, you can experience more severe symptoms of gastritis, including abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and possibly bleeding. Associated conditions like acid reflux and GERD can increase the risk of other health conditions. Long term alcohol abuse has been linked to malabsorption of nutrients, inflammatory disease, ulceration, and cancers, affecting the stomach, intestine, and colon.
The social acceptability of alcohol makes it easier to overlook abuse and addiction, but the problem is all too common. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 15 million Americans ages 18 and older suffer from some form of Alcohol Use Disorder. If you find it hard to cut back and drink responsibly it would be a good idea to seek helper sooner rather than later.
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