Non-moderate alcohol use poses many risks to health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published data that highlight this fact:
- Alcohol is a causative factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions
- 5.1% of the global disease and injury burden is due to alcohol use
- 13.5% of deaths in people 20-39 years of age are attributable to alcohol use
- 5.3% of all deaths in the world are due to alcohol use
Alcohol and its metabolites are toxic to the human brain and body, and therefore can cause many symptoms and health problems, especially in people who abuse alcohol.
Fortunately, alcoholism treatment and alcohol rehab are widely available for those who need and are ready to accept the right help.
Symptoms of Alcoholism
As an individual crosses the line from alcohol use to alcoholism, typical side effects of alcohol usually begin to develop. The physical harms of alcohol use are often not outwardly apparent initially, so many of the more obvious symptoms are behavioral.
Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) diagnostic criteria, the World Health Organization’s AUDIT questionnaire and the CAGE questionnaire, some of the common symptoms of alcoholism are:
- Using more alcohol or for longer than intended
- Inability to cut back or stop drinking, despite a desire to do so
- Obsessive or intrusive thoughts about using alcohol
- Alcohol use interferes with responsibilities and important commitments
- Continued alcohol use despite mounting negative consequences
- Having blackouts while using alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms (such as insomnia, shaking, sweatiness, restlessness, rapid heart rate or irritability)
- Developing tolerance
- Developing social problems from alcohol use (conflict with family or friends)
- Developing job, legal, financial, mental or health problems from alcohol use
- Using alcohol to cope with stress or negative feelings or emotions
- Hiding or lying about alcohol use
- Feeling guilty about drinking
- Criticism from others about alcohol use, feeling annoyed by that criticism
- Drinking alone
- Drinking at odd times of the day
Some of the physical symptoms of alcoholism can appear early on, and include:
- Digestive problems, especially nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea and appetite loss
- Poor balance and coordination
- Vertigo (dizziness)
- Sexual dysfunction
- Fatigue, low energy
- Poor memory
- Withdrawal symptoms (especially shaking, sweating, nausea and craving; more severe withdrawal symptoms include seizures, hallucinations, delirium and psychosis)
Some of the early symptoms of alcohol use can be easily visible to others, and include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Alcohol body or breath odor
- Tremor (shaking)
- Central obesity (from high-calorie alcohol)
- Red palms
- Ruddy complexion (alcohol causes a skin condition known as rosacea)
- Unkempt or deteriorating physical appearance
As a psychoactive drug, alcohol causes a number of psychological symptoms in people who abuse it, including:
Other symptoms of alcohol abuse are related to the increasing amounts of time that affected individuals spend using alcohol or recovering from alcohol use (i.e. in a hangover), resulting in neglect of responsibilities and life in general. These symptoms include:
- Job problems or job loss
- Financial difficulties
- Marital or relationship conflict
- Loss of drivers license (if caught driving while impaired)
- Social isolation, including alienation from children and family
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Long-term use of alcohol can affect a number of body systems and cause numerous health problems, including:
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (abnormal enlargement of the heart)
- Liver cirrhosis
- Cancer: esophageal, oral, liver, colorectal, breast or pancreatic
- Alcohol use disorder (alcoholism)
- Dupuytren’s contractures (where the flexor tendons of the palm of the hands contract and cannot be opened)
- Numbness and tingling in the extremities
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Health problems can develop over the short-term from alcohol consumption, or even from a single episode of binge drinking, including:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Acute alcoholic hepatitis
- High blood pressure
- Motor vehicle or other accidents and injuries
- Acute gastritis (inflamed stomach)
Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions
Alcohol use has a close reciprocal relationship with mental health disorders. They share many of the same genetic causes and risk factors. Recent discoveries of the effects of alcohol on the brain have shown that alcohol use causes changes in the brain cell connections that bring about mental health disorders.
A co-occurring mental health disorder (comorbidity) is present in 50-70% of people with alcoholism. Many people who develop alcoholism did so because of using alcohol to self-medicate their mental health symptoms. Even though the alcohol effects may provide a brief numbing of uncomfortable mental symptoms, in the short- and long-term, alcohol use worsens mental health disorder symptom severity. As well, alcohol use opposes the effects of otherwise effective medications used to treat mental health disorders.
As such, a short- and long-term effect of alcohol use is the development or worsening of mental health disorders, as well as blocking treatment efforts.
Alcohol poisoning, or acute alcohol toxicity, happens in degrees. Alcohol is toxic to the body and especially the brain in any amount. Milder degrees of alcohol toxicity are the drunk symptoms that people seek when using alcohol.
As blood levels increase, the symptoms progress:
Symptoms by Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)
- BAC 0.025% (25 mg/dL)
A sense of warmth and well-being
- BAC 0.025-0.050% (25-50 mg/dL)
Euphoria, impaired judgement
- BAC 0.050-0.100% (50-100 mg/dL)
Loss of coordination, slowing of reflexes, reaction time, thought processes, speech.
- BAC 0.100-0.250% (100-250 mg/dL)
Ataxia (slurred speech, abnormal eye movements, loss of coordination and muscle control)
- Above BAC 0.250% (250 mg/dL)
Coma. Death generally occurs at levels above 400 mg/dL (0.400%), as the person stops breathing
Note that the amount of alcohol ingestion required to reach various BACs varies greatly, according to certain factors inherent to each individual, such as:
- Genetic metabolism factors
- Type of alcohol used (liquors are absorbed more quickly than are wine or beer, for example)
- Time of day during which the alcohol is consumed
- General health
Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Alcohol and its metabolite acetaldehyde are toxic to all body tissues, and their toxic effects add up as alcohol use accumulates. There are some body tissues that are especially affected and have the greatest adverse health effects:
- Immune system
Additionally, because of the damage that the oxidant acetaldehyde does to DNA, alcohol is a potent carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical).
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol is psychoactive, meaning that it crosses the blood-brain barrier (which keeps most toxins out of the brain) and exerts its effects directly on the brain. Alcohol is metabolized into a toxic oxidant known as acetaldehyde, which has many adverse effects on the brain’s structure and function.
Alcohol really does kill brain cells. It causes apoptosis (premature death) of brain cells. Besides reducing the brain’s capacity to do its job, this also causes inflammation and scar tissue formation, which permanently replaces previously healthy brain tissue.
Alcohol and its oxidant metabolites damage DNA, which is a potent cause of cancer, premature aging, and reduced functional abilities of brain cells. It has also been recently discovered that alcohol alters the DNA that controls the brain’s immune function, resulting in chronic brain inflammation.
This inflammation breaks down the connections between brain cells and promotes the formation of new pathways that support addictive tendencies and mental health disorders. This is part of the reason that people in recovery from alcoholism can relapse right back to where they were with even one drink, even after many years in recovery. This also helps explain the high correlation between alcoholism and mental health disorders.
Chronic alcohol use can also cause a brain disease known as wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome (collection of symptoms) is incurable and fatal, and is characterized by:
- Confusion, lack of awareness, poor concentration, lack of interest in the environment
- Visual impairments
- Unsteadiness standing or walking
- Memory loss and confabulation (making up stories to hide the memory loss)
- Nonsensical speech
People who develop liver cirrhosis from alcohol often get toxins that are normally cleared by the liver accumulating in their brain, resulting in hepatic encephalopathy, which causes specific symptoms:
- A peculiar breath scent (known as “foetor hepaticus” or “breath of the dead”)
- Liver-flap (jerky, flapping uncontrollable movements of the limbs)
- Personality changes
- Excessive sleepiness
This condition can be treated, but it will come back if the affected individual continues using alcohol.
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Alcohol also has a profound effect on many brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. This is one of the reasons behind alcohol’s association with virtually all mental health disorders, as well as its association with other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
It is likely that as research continues, further effects of alcohol on the brain will be identified. Alcohol is, after all, a potent neurotoxin.
Alcohol treatment in Florida is available for those who want to stop using alcohol but can’t on their own. The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health has exceptional programs for treating alcoholism and other substance addictions and mental health disorders. If you have concerns about alcohol use in yourself or a loved one and would like to discuss treatment options, please contact us for a confidential discussion with one of our staff.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.