Effects of Drinking Alcohol on the Body and Mind

Seventy percent of Americans drink alcohol, and 10 percent of the drinkers develop problems associated with drinking.

There are two definitions for “safe” drinking: The U.S. Dietary Guidelines allow for “moderate alcohol consumption” — up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines “low risk” drinking as no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week for women, and no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week for men. These limits indicate low risk for developing an alcohol abuse issue.

But the current research doesn’t show whether there are significant differences between someone who drinks at this level and someone who never drinks. And, while there’s strong evidence to suggest that moderate wine consumption could benefit the heart, the researchers are not clear on why or what other parts of a person’s lifestyle play a role.

The bottom line is, if you stay within the healthy drinking limits, you’re likely to be at a low risk for alcohol-related health problems down the line.

Binge drinking is often associated with college students, but evidence suggests people beyond college age also maintain those heavy drinking patterns. The National Institutes of Health defines “binge drinking” as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a two-hour period.

Some of the risks associated with binge drinking are well known (sexual assault, self-harm, etc.) But there are other consequences beyond the usual hang-over and texting-your-ex kind of regrets. Regular binge drinking can damage the frontal cortex and areas of the brain involved in decision making. It can slow down the pace of the neurotransmitters in your brain that are critical for your moods.

Long-term drinking can make heart muscles unable to contract properly. Research confirms that after even a single occasion of heavy drinking, it’s not uncommon for people to experience atrial fibrillation. For the drinker who has an as-yet-undiagnosed heart condition, the irregular heart beat may result in hospitalization.

Alcohol poisoning is also very common, particularly in young people. People who have overdosed on alcohol are at risk of dying because they’ve suppressed their whole body so much that their breathing has stopped. Another danger is when the gag reflex is suppressed, which puts people at risk of “drowning” in their own vomit.

New evidence links even low levels of alcohol use with various cancers, particularly breast cancer in women and colon cancer in men.

Of all the negative effects of alcohol abuse, liver disease is the most talked about. But even short-term drinking can do serious damage. If people binge-drink over a number of days (say, bingeing every day of vacation), they can go into acute alcoholic hepatitis. Alcohol can make blood sugar levels plummet, leading to shakiness, feelings of weakness, fatigue and even seizures. If people binge-drink on any empty stomach, their blood sugar goes down. If they’re diabetic and take insulin, then it might go down further.

Of course, the most common side effect of too many drinks is a hangover. Alcohol breaks down into a nasty compound called acetaldehyde, which produces those unpleasant effects. Other effects are dehydration (alcohol increases the production of urine) and an increase of stomach acid, causing nausea.

Alcohol also can harm immune system function by preventing white blood cells from attacking bacterial invaders.

Regular heavy drinking also increases the risk of alcohol dependence. In my experience, people don’t quit drinking because they read a list of alcohol’s effects upon the body; they quit because of consequences. Here’s where the family and/or loved ones come in: With the best of intentions, they try to spare the drinker from the negative consequences of drinking. Basically they are trying to not upset the drinker (and ultimately themselves) because they fear if the drinker is upset, he/she will drink again. But the drinker needs to experience consequences. The loved ones’ behaviors are called “enabling,” and we will talk more about that next time.

Sandra Street is a licensed professional counselor with more than 30 years of experience in the mental health field.