A pounding headache. Unrelenting fatigue. Frustrating stomach issues. If we’ve had a night of drinking too much, we’re familiar with the not-so-pleasant aftermath awaiting us the next morning.

Hangovers can give us immediate feedback about what alcohol is doing to our bodies. But what’s more worrisome is what’s happening to our bodies in the long term with excessive alcohol consumption.

It’s no secret that drinking too much is hazardous to our well-being. In fact, the CDC reported that between 2015-2019, excessive alcohol consumption led to 140,000 deaths and 3.6 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year. (Yikes!)

Here at Reframe, we believe knowledge is power. If we take action and learn about alcohol’s short- and long-term effects on the body, we can prevent injuries and further health issues.

In this blog post, we’ll be chatting all about the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol on the body.

Alcohol’s Short-Term Effects

Alcohol can lead to many unpleasant — and dangerous — effects in the short term. Here are just a few we can expect.

Slower Central Nervous System Responses

Alcohol slows down the central nervous system in the short term by increasing the release of a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA is a neurotransmitter that decreases the activity of neurons in the brain, making us feel calm. We can think of GABA as our body’s “OFF” switch. This can explain why many people turn to alcohol to help them unwind at the end of a chaotic day.

When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it enhances the activity of GABA, causing neurons to become less excitable and slowing down the central nervous system. As a result, a person's cognitive and motor abilities, such as reaction time, decision-making, and coordination, are impaired. This can also lead to drowsiness and feelings of relaxation, which can be dangerous if we’re planning to get behind the wheel or have other pressing responsibilities to attend to (i.e., work or family obligations).

Impaired Coordination and Judgment

Isn’t it amazing how, without thinking about it, our bodies remain upright? And that most of us can walk, hold our phones, and open our front door without thinking about it?

We have the cerebellum to thank for that! This part of the brain is responsible for controlling balance and coordination. When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it affects the cerebellum, which can explain why we may appear unsteady or clumsy when walking or performing tasks after a few drinks.

Alcohol also impacts the prefrontal cortex. We can think of this as our brain’s CEO because it’s responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, impulse control, and reasoning. Without a CEO, we can imagine that a company would quickly become chaotic and unorganized. The same idea applies to our brains when we’re under the influence of alcohol. This can lead to poor judgment and impaired decision-making, expressed through risky behavior, driving under the influence, or making poor choices regarding our personal safety.

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalances

Did you know that 50-70% of our body weight is water? Though alcohol is a liquid, it does anything but hydrate us. In fact, alcohol acts as a diuretic, which means it increases urine production and causes the body to lose fluid. If we aren’t drinking water in between our alcoholic beverages, we can quickly become dehydrated, which can cause symptoms such as headaches, dry mouth, dizziness, and fatigue. Dehydration can also lead to a decrease in our blood volume, which can cause a drop in blood pressure and increase the risk of fainting.

In addition to dehydration, alcohol can also cause imbalances in electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Electrolytes help to maintain fluid levels inside and outside of our cells, among several other essential functions. Alcohol interferes with the normal balance of electrolytes in the body, leading to an increase in the excretion of electrolytes in the urine. This can cause symptoms such as muscle cramps, weakness, nausea, and heart palpitations.

Increased Accident and Injury Risk

Alcohol can lead to fatal injuries and accidents. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 10,142 deaths occurred in 2019 as a result of alcohol impairment. (This accounted for 28% of all driving fatalities that year.) Furthermore, alcohol is the third highest preventable cause of death in the U.S., with tobacco and poor diet/sedentary behavior being the first and second, respectively. It’s estimated that about 95,000 people die annually due to alcohol-related causes.

As we discussed, alcohol impairs cognitive and motor abilities, such as reaction time, coordination, and judgment. This can increase the risk of accidents and injuries, such as falls, car accidents, and alcohol-related violence. For example, drinking and driving is one of the most dangerous activities a person can engage in, as it increases the risk of a fatal car crash by more than 100 times.

Alcohol’s Long-Term Effects

Chronic alcohol misuse can increase our risk of several chronic health conditions. Here are some of the long-term effects of alcohol on the body.

Liver Disease

Our liver is the largest organ in the body. We can think of it as our major detox organ, and it performs over 500 vital functions that keep our bodies in balance. For instance, our liver removes harmful bacteria from our blood, and also breaks down medications so that they’re easier to use for our bodies.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is one such condition that can arise as a result of excess alcohol consumption. This is when excess fat builds up inside our liver cells. When we drink too much alcohol, our livers have to process it, which can create harmful byproducts as the alcohol is broken down. These harmful substances can lead to inflammation, and can damage our liver cells. There usually aren’t symptoms at this point, so routine bloodwork usually picks up on cases of alcoholic fatty liver disease. If we dramatically reduce our alcohol intake, or stop drinking completely, we can improve alcoholic fatty liver disease.

However, if no preventative action is taken, alcoholic fatty liver disease can turn into cirrhosis. With long-term inflammation due to excess alcohol use, the liver can become permanently scarred and hardened. This may lead to jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), itching, weight loss, weakness, and severe fatigue. Over time, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure.

Heart Disease

We typically don’t pay much attention to our heart (that is, until it starts beating faster when we’re nervous, excited, or exercising). But this 10-ounce, fist-sized organ is hard at work from the moment we take our first breath to our very last.

So, what can happen to the heart when we chronically consume too much alcohol?

  • High blood pressure. Alcohol consumption can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure, and long-term excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Cardiomyopathy. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the heart muscle, leading to a condition known as cardiomyopathy, which can weaken the heart and increase the risk of heart failure.
  • Arrhythmias. Alcohol consumption can cause irregular heartbeats, known as arrhythmias, which can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death.
  • Stroke. Alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, especially in people who consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis.

Pancreatic Dysfunction

Many of us seldom think of the pancreas, but this leaf-shaped organ underneath the liver is crucial in converting our food into energy for our cells. It does so by releasing digestive juices called pancreatic enzymes. The pancreas also produces an important hormone, insulin, which helps to keep our blood sugars from rising too high. For individuals living without diabetes, the pancreas helps our bodies maintain balance — even after we’ve overindulged in chocolate chip cookies!  

Chronic alcohol overconsumption can lead to inflammation in the pancreas, also known as pancreatitis — which can manifest as abdominal pain and nausea. While isolated bouts of pancreatitis can clear up, long-term alcohol use can increase our risk of chronic pancreatitis, which can lead to severe pain, and an inability to produce essential enzymes and hormones.

Alcohol consumption can also lead to a greater chance of developing insulin resistance — when our cells no longer respond to insulin, leading to a buildup of glucose in the blood. This can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Finally, alcohol consumption also increases our risk of developing pancreatic cancer. This is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, with 5-year survival rates at only 11%.

Increased Cancer Risk

Alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of several other types of cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization attributed 740,000 new cancer cases diagnosed in 2020 to alcohol consumption. Regular and excessive alcohol consumption can damage DNA and interfere with the body's ability to repair this damage, which increases the risk of developing cancer.

The specific cancers associated with alcohol consumption include…

  • Mouth and throat cancer. Alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, and esophagus.
  • Breast cancer. Regular and excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women.
  • Colorectal cancer. Alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Liver cancer. Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for liver cancer, especially in people with liver disease, such as cirrhosis.

In addition to the specific types of cancer, alcohol consumption has also been linked to an increased risk of overall cancer mortality.

It is important to note that the risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. That’s why, if we do choose to drink, we should be very mindful of our consumption to reduce the risk of cancer.

Cognitive Decline and Memory Impairment

So, if alcohol can lead to memory loss and impaired judgment in the short term, what can it do in the long run? Quite a bit, actually, and the effects aren’t pretty.

For starters, when we chronically drink too much alcohol, our brains actually shrink! This can lead to cognitive decline and memory impairment. Our brains have a harder time processing information, thinking critically, and making sound decisions. It also increases our risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Long-term overconsumption of alcohol can also impact the body’s ability to absorb thiamine, one of the B vitamins essential for proper brain function. Thiamine deficiency is associated with an irreversible condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause memory impairment, confusion, and disorientation.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Among alcohol’s long-term effects is the ability to become deficient — often severely — in many of the vitamins and minerals our bodies require for optimal functioning. Here are a few of the most common nutritional deficiencies that arise with long-term alcohol consumption.

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to absorb thiamine, a vitamin essential for proper brain function and energy metabolism. As discussed above, a thiamine deficiency can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause permanent memory impairment, confusion, and disorientation.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency. Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to absorb vitamin B12, which is important for maintaining nerve function and the production of red blood cells.
  • Folate deficiency. Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to absorb folate, a vitamin important for cell growth and the production of DNA.
  • Zinc deficiency. Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to absorb zinc, an essential mineral important for the immune system and wound healing. Zinc deficiency has also been linked to hair loss.

Even if we’re eating the healthiest, cleanest diet, our bodies will not benefit so long as we’re consuming too much alcohol. Cutting back (or quitting alcohol completely) allows us to hone in on our nutritional intake, and allows the body to benefit from the healthy foods we do eat.

Addiction and Dependence

Finally, a discussion on alcohol’s effects on the body isn’t complete without highlighting its ability to lead to dependence and addiction. This is a major problem — the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that 14.1 million adults had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in 2019.

When we become dependent on alcohol, changes in our brain structures occur, which then associate alcohol with feeling good. Over time, we come to rely on alcohol to help soothe uncomfortable feelings — anger, fear, or even physical pain.

The problem with this is that our body becomes accustomed to alcohol, so when we dramatically reduce our intake (or quit cold-turkey), we increase our chances of undergoing withdrawal symptoms.

When we use alcohol to cope, we are also more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or depression when we do take the step to change our drinking habits. This can push us to reach for the bottle again, perpetuating an unhealthy cycle.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body: A Summary

As we’ve discussed, alcohol has the ability to negatively affect our body in the short term and with long-term use.

These adverse effects can have serious impacts on our overall health and quality of life.

That’s why it’s so important to stick to our drinking limits (if we do choose to continue drinking in moderation), or stay true to our sobriety goals.

We designed the Reframe app to help you do just this. Whether your goal is to cut back or quit completely, our app provides you with resources like a Drink Tracker, community support, and daily neuroscience-based activities to help you stay on course and navigate your journey with ease.

In just a few clicks, you can become a part of a community that’s devoted to changing for the better. Can’t wait to see you on the app!