Everyone knows that drinking alcohol in excess is bad for you, and most people know intuitively that the effects of drinking too much go beyond your hangover and your crummy day at work, but what exactly are all the long-term effects of alcohol abuse?
The COVID pandemic saw a massive increase in binge drinking, which health agencies believe will cause a high number of excess deaths over the next 20 years. The long-term effects of alcohol are more important to understand than ever.
One thing that most people don’t know is that alcohol can have a profound impact on your mood and mental health.
Although not as well known as the physical effects, alcohol can have a profound effect on your mental health.
People who drink heavily run a high risk of falling into depressive episodes, and people who continue to drink through depressive episodes run the risk of developing chronic depression.
Alcohol messes with the brain's neurotransmitters, causing chemicals such as serotonin (which regulates mood) and dopamine (which controls the brain’s reward system) to fluctuate wildly.
Over time, the brain may become dependent on alcohol for the release of these chemicals and become worse at creating and delivering them on its own. When that happens, people can fall into a vicious cycle of alcohol-induced depression and drink even more to ease those bad feelings.
Luckily, depression is a disorder that most people can recover from so long as the right lifestyle changes are made.
On top of quitting drinking, doctors will generally ask people suffering from depression to exercise, spend more time outside, and potentially use anti-depressants if symptoms are really bad.
There have been a number of studies showing that the brain of alcoholics — specifically the frontal lobe — is smaller and lighter than those who haven’t abused alcohol.
Most of the shrinkage is from white matter and nerve fibers known as dendrites, which help the brain branch out and communicate with other parts of the brain. Over time, these changes will affect your decision-making, inhibition, problem-solving skills, and much more.
Some brain shrinkage can be reversed after months of abstinence, but if the drinking was severe and lasted for a significant period of time, there will be some irreversible effects.
Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a degenerative disorder typically caused when years of alcohol abuse results in a major depletion in the vitamin thiamine.
Thiamine (B1) is essential for the brain to function, and alcohol prevents it from being properly absorbed in the GI tract.
When alcoholism is combined with poor dieting (which is fairly common), deficits in thiamine will result in confusion, coordination/balance issues, and significant memory loss, also known as Wernicke's encephalopathy.
If these warning signs go unheeded, it’s likely that Wernicke’s encephalopathy turns into Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is a potentially fatal disease characterized by hallucinations, derangement, and further memory loss.
Most people are aware that drinking heavily can can serious physical harm.
The negative impacts that alcohol has on the heart are almost too numerous to list. This is a little ironic since heart health is one of the very few benefits of drinking alcohol when consumption is in the low-to-moderate range.
However, people who abuse alcohol are highly susceptible to a number of heart conditions. Arrhythmia, heart disease, strokes, and heart failure are all consequences of long-term, heavy drinking.
Heavy drinkers will almost always develop a fatty liver, which is the first stage of liver disease. This is rarely accompanied by any noticeable symptoms outside of the occasional abdominal pain, so it’s rare for people with excess fat in their liver to know about and reverse it.
Eventually, if left untreated, this can devolve into cirrhosis of the liver. This is caused by significant scar tissue buildup and rarely has significant symptoms in the early stages.
Once cirrhosis begins, it is irreversible.
With cirrhosis you can expect:
Over time, this can result in liver failure or liver cancer and turn fatal. Some people may be eligible for a transplant if they meet certain criteria, but that is not a guarantee.
Long-term alcohol use can greatly increase the risk of both acute and chronic pancreatitis, which is an incredibly painful and sometimes even fatal inflammation of the pancreas.
Your kidneys play a vital function in your everyday health, including filtering out harmful substances, regulating the amount of water in your body, and producing hormones.
Alcohol negatively impacts all of these vital functions. The kidneys get overworked and start to lose the ability to do their job properly.
Even though a few conditions listed are irreversible, most mental and physical conditions brought on by excess drinking can be completely fixed in just a few months of abstinence along with other healthy and active behaviors.
If you’re tired of destroying your body through alcohol abuse, it’s time to get help. That’s where ASIC Recovery comes in.
Are you looking for addiction treatment in Texas? At ASIC recovery, our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is dedicated to helping you develop healthier coping skills and build a supportive recovery network.
Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.