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Alcohol and Health

What Are Alcohol's Effects on the Body?

February 20, 2023
24 min read
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Written by
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.
February 20, 2023
24 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.
February 20, 2023
24 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.
February 20, 2023
24 min read
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Reframe Content Team
February 20, 2023
24 min read

Alcohol is all around us — at social gatherings, wedding and holiday celebrations, work functions, dinner parties, vacation resorts, or neighborhood restaurants. We see it, smell it, hear about it, and wonder whether to have that glass of wine, cocktail, or pint of beer. But what’s really going on in our bodies once alcohol is in the picture?

We all know about alcohol’s immediate effects, but alcohol’s interaction with our body’s biological systems is more complex. Let’s explore the nuanced effects of alcohol on vital organs such as the brain, heart, liver, and stomach. Armed with scientific insights, we can have a better understanding of the long-term implications — and make decisions that truly serve us best!

1. Booze and the Brain: A Deep Dive Into the Cerebral Effects

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From the first sip, alcohol quickly enters the bloodstream and starts its journey to the brain. While wemight feel more talkative, relaxed,or even euphoric after the first fewsips, alcohol is actually depressingour central nervous system. This downer effect can lead to impaired judgment, slower reflexes, and distorted vision and hearing. With consistent alcohol consumption, the brain can undergo structural and functional changes that impact memory and learning.

Here’s a closer look at what happens:

  • Chemical crossroads. As soon as alcohol is consumed, it begins to affect the brain's neurotransmitters — the chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells. Alcohol boosts the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, leading to drowsiness, decreased anxiety, and muscle relaxation. At the same time, alcohol also suppresses the activity of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, further slowing brain function. This combination causes the initial feelings of relaxation and euphoria.
  • The feel-good factor. Dopamine, a “feel-good neurotransmitter,” plays a major role in the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. Alcohol consumption can spike dopamine levels, explaining the initial mood uplift and the sense of pleasure. However, over time and with frequent drinking, the brain may come to rely on alcohol for dopamine release, leading to cravings and increased alcohol consumption.
  • Emotional escalation. While booze might initially make us feel more sociable or happier, it can also amplify emotions like aggression, depression, or anxiety. This unpredictability is due to alcohol's impact on the amygdala, the brain's emotion center, resulting in out-of-character behaviors, mood swings, or overreactions to situations.
  • Blackouts and memory lapses. When consumed in large amounts, alcohol can interfere with the hippocampus, the brain's memory center. This interference can cause blackouts, episodes in which individuals cannot recall events despite being conscious during them. Over time, chronic drinking can also lead to long-term memory issues and cognitive deficits.
  • Rewiring and dependency. Chronic drinking can lead to neuroadaptation: the brain becomes accustomed to the frequent presence of alcohol. This can result in dependency — we feel the need to consume alcohol to function "normally" and avoid withdrawal symptoms. Over time, the brain can undergo physical changes: some regions shrink, and the overall connectivity between brain cells is impaired.
  • Sleep disruption. While many believe alcohol can aid sleep (because it can help us drift off), it can, in fact, disrupt the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is essential for restful slumber and cognitive processes. Over time, disrupted sleep patterns can lead to fatigue, concentration issues, and mood disturbances.

2. Heart Matters: When the Beat Falters

Our heart is always hard at work, rhythmically pumping blood to ensure that every part of our body gets the nutrients and oxygen it needs. But what happens when we introduce alcohol to this intricate system? 

  • Irregular rhythms: the beat changes with alcohol. We've all felt our heart race after a sprint or flutter when we're nervous. But alcohol, especially when consumed in excess, can lead to a condition called arrhythmia — the heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or just irregularly. This isn’t just a quirky beat; it can lead to serious complications, including stroke or heart failure.
  • Pressure play: the rise and risk of hypertension. Consistent heavy drinking can increase our blood pressure, a condition known as hypertension. Why does this matter? High blood pressure forces your heart to work overtime, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and even kidney disease.
  • The heart's strain: cardiomyopathy. Behind that complicated term is a straightforward concept: over time, excessive alcohol can weaken the heart muscle, making it harder for the heart to pump blood efficiently. This condition, known as cardiomyopathy, can lead to heart failure: the heart can no longer meet the body's needs for blood and oxygen.
  • Narrowed roads: the impact on arteries. Alcohol can lead to blockages in our arteries. Chronic drinking can result in the buildup of fats and plaques, narrowing these crucial pathways. This not only strains the heart, making it pump harder to push blood through narrowed passages, but it increases the risk of heart attacks.

3. Liver Lore: The Detox Dilemma

The liver and booze have a complicated relationship. Because the liver tirelessly works behind the scenes, carrying out over 500 essential tasks, we often become acutely aware of its importance only when something goes amiss. And one of the things that can put undue stress on this critical organ? You guessed it — alcohol. 

Once alcohol enters our system, the liver is the frontline defense, breaking it down so our body can eliminate it by using an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) to convert alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. Acetaldehyde is then further broken down into harmless water and carbon dioxide. However, the liver can only process a limited amount of alcohol per hour. Overwhelming it can lead to the toxic build-up of acetaldehyde, causing problems:

  • Fatty liver disease. One of the earliest responses to chronic alcohol consumption is the accumulation of fats in liver cells, leading to a condition called alcoholic fatty liver disease. Symptomless in its early stages, it can set the stage for more serious liver conditions. The good news? Cut back on alcohol, and the liver has a remarkable ability to heal and reverse the fatty buildup.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis. If drinking continues unchecked, the liver might become inflamed, a condition known as alcoholic hepatitis. Symptoms might include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), abdominal pain, nausea, and fever. While it can be mild, in severe cases, it can be life-threatening.
  • Scar stories: cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is the advanced scarring of the liver caused by various liver diseases and conditions, with alcohol being a leading cause. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and prevents the liver from functioning properly. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure — a life-threatening condition — and often presents symptoms only in its advanced stages.

It's not only about how much we drink, but also how we drink. Binge drinking — consuming a lot of alcohol in a short period — can overwhelm the liver, leading to a sharp rise in blood alcohol concentration. This acute stress on the liver can lead to rapid liver damage.

4. Stomach Stories: A Tumultuous Tale

Ever feel a burning sensation in your stomach after drinking? That's because alcohol stimulates acid production, leading to gastritis or inflammation. It can also damage the stomach lining, paving the way for ulcers. Here’s what happens in more detail:

  • Alcohol and stomach acid. Alcohol stimulates our stomach lining to produce more acid than usual. And while a little acid is essential for digestion, too much can lead to discomfort, heartburn, or gastritis — an inflammation of the stomach lining.
  • Digestive detours. It might seem counterintuitive, but although alcohol is a liquid, it can slow down the digestion process. How? It reduces the stomach's ability to contract and move food into the small intestine. This slowdown can lead to a feeling of heaviness or bloating.
  • Intestinal impact. The stomach isn't the only part of our digestive system that feels alcohol's effects. Once it moves into our intestines, it can interfere with our body's ability to absorb essential vitamins and minerals, potentially leading to deficiencies.
  • Friendly flora fallout. Our gut is home to a vibrant community of bacteria, which play vital roles in digestion and immunity — and they even affect our mood! Excessive alcohol disrupts this delicate balance, allowing harmful bacteria to thrive while reducing numbers of beneficial ones. An imbalanced gut can lead to issues ranging from digestive problems to weakened immunity.

5. Sugar Spikes: The Glucose Game

While we might often associate sugar spikes with indulgent desserts or that extra dollop of syrup, alcohol can mess with our blood sugar levels as well. When we take that first sip — especially those sweet cocktails or sugary beers — our blood sugar can initially spike. But here's the twist: as our liver processes the alcohol, it's less efficient at producing glucose, leading to a potential rapid drop in blood sugar levels. This roller coaster of rising and then plummeting sugar levels can leave us feeling dizzy, disoriented, or shaky.

  • The liver's lament: juggling glucose production. The liver — that multitasker! — plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar by producing glucose. But introduce alcohol, and the liver prioritizes metabolizing it, setting other tasks aside. (Why? Because alcohol is a toxin, and the liver needs to get rid of it as quickly as possible.) This can lead to hypoglycemia: our blood sugar levels drop below what's normal, especially if we drink on an empty stomach.
  • Hunger pangs and cravings. Ever felt ravenous after a night of drinking? That's not just your imagination. As blood sugar levels dip, your body craves quick sources of energy, leading to those intense desires for greasy, carb-loaded foods. Hello, midnight pizza runs and heavy diner brunches!
  • Alcohol and insulin sensitivity. Frequent alcohol consumption can mess with our body's sensitivity to insulin — the hormone responsible for helping our cells take in glucose from the bloodstream. Over time, the weakened response can lead to higher blood sugar levels and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Staying informed: diabetics and drinking. For those who already have diabetes, it's especially important to be aware. Alcohol can interfere with diabetes medications and insulin, making blood sugar management more challenging. It's always a good idea for diabetics to consult with a healthcare professional about the potential impacts of alcohol on their condition.

6. Immunity Impact: When the Guard Drops

Few of us think about our immune system; we take our intricate, 24/7 defense system for granted. This network of cells and proteins is always on high alert, protecting us in ways we rarely appreciate.

But what happens when alcohol enters the scene? Science shows that regular drinking can weaken our immune system, making the body an easy target for diseases ranging from common colds to more severe infections:

  • Immediate aftermath: short-term shields down! After just a few drinks, alcohol can temporarily suppress the immune system's ability to combat infections.
  • Chronic consequences: the long game. While occasional drinking might cause temporary dips in immune function, chronic drinking can lead to more lasting effects. Over time, booze makes the body more susceptible to infections, slows the process of wound healing, and increases the risk of complications from illnesses (even minor ones!).
  • Nutrient absorption and alcohol. For our immune system to function at its best, it requires a range of nutrients. However, alcohol can affect the absorption of vital vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, zinc, and antioxidants. 
  • Bigger battles: alcohol's role in major diseases. Beyond minor, everyday colds or infections, an immune system weakened by alcohol can also make the body more vulnerable to more serious diseases. Chronic drinkers might have an increased risk of conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, or even certain cancers.

Action Steps for a Healthier You

Now that we know how alcohol impacts our body, is there anything we can do about it? Absolutely!

  • Nutrient boost. Incorporate a diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Foods like leafy greens, berries, nuts, and seeds help repair cellular damage.
  • Liver repair. Incorporate sources of glutathione like avocados, asparagus, and broccoli; this antioxidant is vital for liver detoxification.
  • Pancreas repair. Engage in regular exercise, eat plenty of protein, and limit sugar to help your pancreas repair.
  • Improve gut health. Make sure you eat plenty of fiber and probiotic foods to give those helpful gut bacteria a chance to recover.
  • Eye health. Load up on carrots and give your eyes plenty of rest to keep your vision in top shape and get rid of “alcoholic eyes.”
  • Brain health. Opt for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, chia seeds, and fatty fish (like salmon) to support neural health.
  • Heart health. Whole grains, leafy greens, and foods rich in fiber and potassium support cardiovascular health.
  • Get rid of “alcoholic nose.” Reduce inflammation, hydrate, and get enough exercise to cope with alcohol-induced redness behind the “alcoholic nose.”
  • Limit sugar intake. Excessive sugar, especially in processed forms, can exacerbate inflammation in the body. Opt for natural sugar sources, such as fruits.
  • Exercise regularly. Engaging in consistent physical activity can enhance circulation, support cardiovascular health, and help in managing body weight.
  • Avoid over-the-counter painkillers. Regular intake of NSAIDS can cause additional liver strain. 
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Chronic alcohol use can lead to anxiety and stress. Practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga support mental recovery and resilience.

As for cutting back or starting your quitting journey, these tips can help:

  • Knowledge is power. Before you take that sip, remind yourself of its effects. You could keep a handy note in your wallet or set a reminder on your phone.
  • Seek support. Share your goal of cutting back or quitting with a close friend or family member. Their encouragement can make a world of difference!
  • Stay hydrated. If you do drink, follow each alcoholic beverage with a glass of water. It keeps you hydrated and reduces the amount of alcohol you consume.
  • Set limits. If you’re out with friends, set a limit for yourself. Maybe it’s just one drink, or perhaps it’s none at all.
  • Substitute non-alcoholic drinks. Explore the world of mocktails! So many delicious non-alcoholic beverages can be just as fun and refreshing as their alcoholic cousins.
  • Identify triggers. Recognize situations or emotions that tempt you to drink. By being aware, you can strategize ways to avoid or cope with these triggers.

Summing Up

The body is a remarkable assembly of interconnected systems, each playing a unique role yet collaborating seamlessly for our overall well-being. When alcohol enters the scene, it touches each bit, leaving both immediate and long-term imprints.

While understanding the glitches alcohol causes in the dynamics of our physiology is crucial, the picture isn’t all bleak — it’s heartening to realize our body’s incredible resilience and adaptability. By making informed choices and supporting our system with the right tools and practices, we can promote healing, harmony, and optimal functioning!

Summary FAQs

1. How does alcohol affect our brain function?

Alcohol interacts with neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to initial feelings of relaxation or euphoria. However, over time and with excessive consumption, it can impair judgment, slow reflexes, affect memory, and even lead to structural and functional changes in the brain.

2. What's the relationship between alcohol and heart health?

Alcohol can influence the heart in several ways. It can cause arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), increase blood pressure, lead to cardiomyopathy (a condition where the heart muscle weakens), and contribute to artery blockages. While moderate drinking might have certain protective effects, excessive alcohol consumption poses significant risks.

3. How does the liver process alcohol, and what are the potential risks?

The liver breaks down alcohol using enzymes, converting it into non-toxic substances. However, excessive drinking can lead to fatty liver disease, inflammation known as alcoholic hepatitis, and even severe conditions like cirrhosis where the liver is scarred and functions poorly.

4. What are alcohol's effects on the stomach?

Alcohol stimulates the stomach to produce more acid, which can lead to gastritis or inflammation of the stomach lining. Over time, it can damage this lining, leading to potential ulcers.

5. How does alcohol influence our blood sugar levels?

Alcohol can lead to an initial spike in blood sugar, especially with sugary drinks, followed by a rapid drop as the liver focuses on metabolizing the alcohol. This can lead to feelings of dizziness, hunger, and over time, even affect insulin sensitivity, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

6. How does drinking impact our immune system?

Alcohol, especially when consumed heavily, can suppress the immune system's function. This makes the body more susceptible to infections, reduces the efficiency of wound healing, and can even increase the risk of major diseases like pneumonia or certain cancers.

7. Is moderate drinking safe or even beneficial?

Some studies suggest that moderate drinking, especially of drinks like red wine, might have heart-protective effects. However, it's crucial to approach these findings with caution and balance potential benefits against risks. Always consult with a healthcare professional when considering alcohol consumption for health reasons.

Protect and Heal Your Body With the Help of Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet hundreds of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today! 

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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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