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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Health?

April 21, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 21, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
April 21, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
April 21, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
April 21, 2023
11 min read

For thousands of years, alcohol has been a pervasive part of human culture. It remains one of the most widely consumed psychoactive substances today, with millions of people struggling with unhealthy drinking patterns worldwide. Some may be “gray area drinkers,” using alcohol to the point that it’s taken a toll on their lives but doesn’t fit into the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Others become heavily dependent on alcohol, leading to prolonged alcohol misuse and an AUD diagnosis.

Regardless of labels, unhealthy alcohol use has the potential to take a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Excessive drinking can lead to chronic health conditions, including liver disease, heart disease, stroke, and various types of cancer. In this blog post, we’ll explore how alcohol affects our health in both the short and long term and the importance of responsible drinking.

How Alcohol Affects Your Physical Health

Short-term effects of alcohol on the body include impaired judgment, reduced coordination, and slowed reaction times. Many key areas of our brains — like the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making), the cerebellum (involved in balance), and the hippocampus (involved in memory formation) — lose their ability to do their job correctly while under the influence. These effects increase the risk of accidents and injuries, particularly when combined with activities such as driving or operating heavy machinery.

Regular heavy drinking can increase the risk of several chronic conditions. Robust evidence has linked heavy alcohol consumption to liver disease, heart disease, cognitive decline, digestive disorders, stroke, and certain cancers. Alcohol use also impairs our immune system, making us more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

The liver is responsible for breaking down and removing toxins from our body, including alcohol. When we drink alcohol, our liver kicks into overdrive to process and remove it. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption taxes the liver and damages it, leading to conditions such as fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. These conditions can be irreversible, and in extreme cases, they may require a liver transplant to treat.

Alcohol can also have a significant impact on our cardiovascular system. Regular heavy drinking can lead to high blood pressure, increasing our risk of heart attack and stroke. Additionally, alcohol can increase levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, which also increases our risk of heart disease.

When we drink, we’re also impairing our gut health. Alcohol can disturb the delicate balance of bacteria in our digestive system, killing off healthy bacteria that help us digest our food. This can lead to bloating, alterations in bowel movements, GERD, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Furthermore, heavy alcohol use can impair our cognition by leading to problems with attention, memory, verbal fluency, and spatial recognition in hours following consumption. Excessive drinking kills essential neurons, and with prolonged use, our brains aren’t able to bounce back and regenerate new cells. Over time, this has been associated with cognitive decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, habitual drinking has been known to cause several types of cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization said that in 2020, 4% of cancers worldwide were attributed to alcohol use. The most common cancers associated with alcohol use are oral cancer, pharynx and larynx cancers, esophageal and colorectal cancers, and breast and liver cancers.

How Alcohol Affects Your Mental Health

Alcohol can significantly impact our mental health, particularly when consumed in large quantities or over extended periods of time. Heavy drinking can increase the risk of depression and anxiety, and it can exacerbate existing mental health conditions.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant: it slows down brain activity and can cause feelings of drowsiness and lethargy. While this can be relaxing in the short term, it can also lead to impaired judgment, memory loss, and difficulty concentrating. Long-term heavy drinking can even lead to permanent brain damage, particularly in areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Alcohol can also increase the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior. Studies have shown that individuals who misuse alcohol are at a higher risk of suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please seek help from a medical or mental health professional immediately. If you’re based in the U.S., you can call the Suicide & Crisis Helpline at 988.

How Alcohol Affects Your Emotional Health

Alcohol can have a significant impact on our emotional well-being. While some people may turn to alcohol as a way to relieve stress or manage difficult emotions, excessive drinking can actually make these problems worse.

Alcohol is a mood-altering substance that can lead to feelings of euphoria and relaxation. However, these effects are often short-lived — they can be followed by a "crash" as the body processes the alcohol. As a result, we can feel sad, anxious, and irritable. This is because alcohol disrupts the body’s natural production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which are heavily involved in our mood. When we drink to excess, the body produces less of these and other feel-good hormones. This can push us to drink more to cope with the resulting depression and anxiety, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Additionally, alcohol can impair our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Excessive drinking can lead to a loss of control, making it difficult to maintain boundaries and communicate effectively. Understandably, this can lead to a lot of additional stress in our lives, as we may struggle with ongoing conflicts. We may also struggle to uphold personal or professional responsibilities. Others may see us as unreliable and can struggle to trust us. Over time, we can lose certain privileges, like seeing particular friends or even holding down a steady job.

The Importance of Mindful Drinking

We’re always seeing ads that tell us to “drink responsibly,” suggesting that unhealthy drinking habits signal a lack of willpower on our part. We’re here to debunk that notion! Alcohol is a mind-altering substance that leads to many systemic changes at the chemical level — and when our entire system is out of whack, it’s incredibly difficult to break the cycle. So, unhealthy drinking habits are not a shortcoming on your part. Many factors go beyond our control: genetics, trauma, preexisting mental health conditions, and the intense cultural pressures to drink. Despite these factors, we want you to know that it is possible to drink mindfully and live a healthy life with less (or no) alcohol.

We’re not here to say you have to give up alcohol altogether. But we do want to emphasize the importance of being conscious about why you’re drinking in the first place and how alcohol makes you feel. Many of us turn to the bottle to numb out or because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing. But often, when we take a step back, we realize that alcohol isn’t truly serving us. And in its place, we can turn to healthier and more fulfilling behaviors — ones that truly enhance our well-being and even help us live longer.

Improve Your Health and Reframe Your Relationship With Alcohol

At Reframe, we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of people just like you break free from unhealthy relationships with alcohol. We know how debilitating alcohol misuse can be, so we rely on expert guidance, our passionate team (many of whom are former Reframers themselves!), and user feedback to create a life-changing program.

On our #1 iOS-ranked app, you’ll find a treasure trove of resources at your fingertips. From our supportive 24/7 Forum chat to our camaraderie-driven challenges like Dry January and Sober Spring, you’ll find all the support you need while navigating your journey. Find alcohol-free or alcohol-conscious friends and cheer each other on as you adjust to a healthier lifestyle together.

We also want your cutback or sobriety journey to be a holistic experience. That’s why we offer courses on topics such as finding purpose in life, setting healthy boundaries, and coping with negative thought patterns. Reframing your relationship with alcohol is reframing the way you show up in the world. And we want to help you uncover your best, most vibrant self so you can share your gifts with the world and experience all that life has to offer.

So, head to the App Store and download Reframe today! We can’t wait to see you in the app!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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