Whenever I think of the ill effects of drugs and alcohol on the body, I think of the 1980s Partnership for a Drug-Free America campaign with the egg. This is your brain (hold up a pristine egg). This is drugs (grease bubbling in a frying pan). And this is your brain on drugs (crack egg into bubbling grease and fry). Any questions?
The above-mentioned ad was reprised in the 90s and again in 2016. Likely, because it is so evocative. When you see the egg frying, there is no question that drugs do bad things to your brain. In fact, drugs and alcohol can take a toll on just about every organ in your body. And your appearance? Bloodshot baggy eyes, lank hair, and sallow skin are the hallmarks of substance misuse.
Part 1: Alcohol, the Effects
Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is a drug, classed as a depressant. According to the World Health Organization, “About 1 in every 20 deaths worldwide is the result of an alcohol-related disease, injury, accident, murder, or suicide.” And in the United States, excessive alcohol use is the leading cause of preventable death (CDC). For that reason, we will focus on alcohol for this article. The effects of other drugs will be covered in the second article in this series.
Alcohol is the ingredient in wine, beer or that jello shot you got talked into, that makes you intoxicated. When you take a drink, alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth, stomach, and small intestines and moves to every part of the body. As a result, the liver breaks down 90% of the alcohol at about one “standard drink” per hour. The rest is excreted through the lungs, kidneys, and sweat.
But what happens if we drink more than one alcoholic drink an hour? Or if our alcohol consumption is heavy over time? The National Institutes of Health (NIH), classify a standard drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. When the blood-alcohol concentration increases, and the liver is in overdrive trying to metabolize it, that is when we begin to feel drunk, nauseated, and later – hungover. Whether a single drink or many drinks over time, alcohol touches and can damage every system in the body.
Why is Alcohol Making Me Feel/Look Awful?
The Long-Term Effects:
Alcohol in itself can cause hypertension and diabetes. In those with existing health conditions, alcohol worsens the symptoms. Mental health is negatively impacted or exacerbated, such as depression, anxiety and OCD. Short-term health risks include: injuries, violence, alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviors, and stillbirths or miscarriages. Long-term excessive alcohol use can lead to: heart disease, stroke, cancer, dementia, social problems, and mental and substance use disorders (SUD).
Blood, and Immune System
Alcohol is a direct toxin in the bone marrow. This results in diminished production of red and white blood cells and platelets. It also lessens your ability to fight off infections and heightens risk of disease. Something to think about during a pandemic.
How’s your memory? Alcohol causes brain damage, memory loss, and sleep deprivation. Long-term excessive drinking can cause strokes, nerve damage, loss of brain volume, and impact brain functioning for life. Also, alcohol has a profound effect on the complex structures of the brain. It blocks chemical signals between brain cells, which lead to risky behavior, intoxication, slurred speech, memory loss, and slowed reflexes.
The damage to the liver with continued drinking, progresses from reversible fatty liver to permanent cirrhosis. Damage to this organ results in ascites (the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen). It can also result in dilated esophageal veins which can result in throwing up blood. A yellowing of the whites of your eyes and skin (jaundice) can also occur.
Chronic alcohol use irritates the lining of the stomach. Inflamed stomach lining causes gastritis, ulcers, heartburn, and nausea. It also impacts absorption of nutrients from food. Anyone who has had a hangover knows the telltale signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and general infirmity. (Not to mention, bloating, puffiness, and looking as bad as you feel.)
During digestion, your pancreas makes juices called enzymes. These enzymes break down sugars, fats, and starches. The pancreas can become inflamed and damaged due to drinking. Pancreatitis not only damages the pancreas, but it is unbearably painful.
Misuse of alcohol irritates the intestines. This causes intestinal malabsorbtion of nutrients and malnutrition.
One of the best parts of my job is being able to watch the healing process. Just the other week, I was able to discontinue a client’s anti-hypertensive medication because their blood pressure stabilized with the cessation of alcohol. It is amazing to see the healing take place!
Amy Bukala, FNP-BC, Sanford Family Nurse Practitioner
Heart and Circulation
Cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure are caused/exacerbated by alcohol use. Alcoholics are at increased risk of coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and congestive heart failure. Adverse circulatory effects also result in increased risk of strokes.
Mouth, Throat and Larynx
The first point of contact when drinking, the risk factors for mouth cancers include: tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and a weakened immune system. Those who smoke and drink are at higher risk for this type of cancer. Alcohol weakens your immune system. Alcohol increases the risk of head and neck, and esophageal cancers.
Lungs and Breathing
Alcohol is a respiratory depressant. Heavy use impairs the lungs and their immune response. As a result, it can greatly increase the risk of pulmonary conditions, and contribute to aspiration events which lead to pneumonia.
Alcohol results in increased estrogen. Increased estrogen levels contribute to breast cancer. Women who average three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer than those who do not drink (Mayo Clinic).
In pregnant women, alcohol in the blood passes through the placenta and the umbilical cord to the baby. Alcohol harms the baby’s developing brain and other organs. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome produces non-reversable cognitive and physical deficits to the baby.
Spider veins, rosacea, and discoloration are a few of the indicators that alcohol is taking a toll on your skin. As alcohol use disorders progress, skin becomes jaundiced (yellowed).
Yellowing of the whites of the eyes is a side effect of a compromised liver. And lack of sleep, bad circulation, water retention, and overall poor health causes puffiness, bags, and dark circles around the eyes.
Heavy alcohol use, especially during adolescence and young adult years, can degrade bone health. It is also a strong contributer to osteopenia and osteoporosis. Alcohol impacts calcium and vitamin D absorption. This leaches calcium from the bones, leading to bone weakness and fractures.
Hear this gym enthusiasts! Chronic alcohol use results in decreased muscle mass due to malnutrition.
Alcohol impacts your waistline too. It has a high caloric content. And drinking can make you feel hungry or lead to fatty or processed food choices.
In males, there is a dose-dependent decrease in total testosterone. The more you drink, the lower your total testosterone level. This results in hypogonadism, impotence and decreased sex drive. In addition, both men and women experience reduced fertility.
Alcohol affects all parts of the body. Recovery is the chance for healing.
Kathleen Mosentine, MD, Sanford Medical Director
The good news about the bad news about alcohol…
Now that we have listed the bad news about drinking alcohol, we can talk about the good news. There are many health advantages to quitting drinking. Even if you only drink occasionally. After the detoxification process, you are safer from accidents, healthier both mentally and physically, and your hair, skin, and eyes will improve in appearance. Sleep patterns often improve as do relationships!
Most individuals with cognitive impairment show improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence (NIH). Reduced blood pressure, liver repair/regeneration, and reduced risk of disease and infection are all possible outcomes. If you are concerned about your drinking, educate yourself on the help available. Think of the egg analogy above with the camera in reverse. This is your brain on recovery!
Reviewed by Kathleen Mosentine, MD