We know the short term risks of drinking alcohol, from personal safety and drink driving to hangovers. But, are you as clued up on the long-term effects it can have? Let’s find out more.
It’s enjoyed worldwide in many forms, yet long term consumption of alcohol can adversely affect our health. This isn’t easy reading, chronic drinking can damage our health and wellbeing. Alcohol’s a powerful chemical that puts strain on our major organs and systems of the body. In the UK, the Chief Medical Officer recommends both men and women avoid drinking more than 14 units per week on a regular basis, and that this be spread over at least 3 days.
Drinking to excess on a regular basis can contribute to over 60 health conditions that can affect many areas of the body including the heart, lungs and liver. Let’s look at just a few.
Our bodies convert the ethanol in alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde which is damaging to our DNA and stops cells repairing. In addition it can cause cell regeneration to accelerate, leading to genetic changes that can lead to cancer. Alcohol intake is linked to these cancers:
- Mouth – including pharyngeal, esophageal, & laryngeal (upper throat, food pipe & voice box)
According to Cancer Research UK “Drinking less alcohol could prevent 12,800 cancer cases per year in the UK.”
Alcohol related brain damage (ARBD)
Sustained alcohol intake reduces the white matter in our brains which helps transmit signals across the brain. Loss of this affects function and can lead to Alzheimers and other forms of dementia. ARBD is commonly found in people in their 40s and 50s and is responsible for around 10% of diagnosed dementia cases. There’s 3 subtypes. The first two can occur on their own or together as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy – sudden onset problems with balance and movement, coordination loss, confusion, disorientation and abnormal eye movements.
- Korsakoff’s syndrome is more gradual with symptoms including problems with concentration and attention, memory gaps and inability to learn new information.
- Alcoholic dementia causes a declining memory, ability to plan, make decisions and assess risks. Changes in personality and emotional control can cause conflict and inappropriate behaviours.
- Early intervention and treatment can lead to full or partial recovery, yet left untreated, the mortality rates for ARBD are high.
Firstly, alcohol can contribute to weight gain which is a risk factor for diabetes. Secondly, it can also play havoc with our blood sugar levels, causing them to spike or drop which increases the risk of a hypoglycemic episode.
This vital organ processes alcohol, too much can cause tissue damage and scarring. The early stages of liver disease — diagnosed by blood tests — is a fatty or enlarged liver. At this point damage is reversible if we stop drinking alcohol. Chronic damage causes cirrhosis of the liver, the final stage of the disease.
Early symptoms of liver disease:
- Loss of appetite/sex drive
Symptoms from later stages:
- Vomiting blood
- Itchy skin
- Swollen tummy
- Jaundice (yellow skin and whites of the eyes)
Excessive alcohol damages the heart muscles and causes high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms. This increases our risk of stroke too. Reducing, or better still abstaining from alcohol for a number of weeks can greatly lower blood pressure, reducing our health risks.
Alcohol interferes with hormones that are responsible for regulating our mood and motivation, serotonin and dopamine. It inhibits our central nervous system which controls our movement and thoughts. This can cause us to behave in undesirable ways and make bad choices, causing us to have low self-esteem and experience low mood. Drinking heavily increases our chance of depression and vice versa.
We know this isn’t easy reading, the long-term ramifications of sustained excess drinking are alarming. The consequences reach further still with relationship, emotional, financial and work problems often following. The good news is that it’s never too late to cut down or eliminate drinking entirely and there’s plenty of help available.