We have known for centuries that excess alcohol consumption has dire consequences for human health. Prior to the early 20th century, the phenomenon of alcoholism had undergone only a little study and was largely a mystery. What we did know was that people who drank a lot often suffered serious health problems, especially later in life. More recently, science has been studying not only the long-term effects of alcoholism on the body but also the brain.
Alcohol is classified as a drug in the sedative-hypnotic class. This means it acts as a central nervous system depressant at higher doses. When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it affects every organ in the body. How serious these effects depend on how high the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is and for how long.
Negative Effects of Long-Term Alcoholism
The liver is one of the organs most directly impacted by alcohol. There are over 500 vital functions associated with the liver. It regulates most chemical levels in the body, processing blood and cleaning it of toxins, just to name a few. (1) Liver disease is commonly seen in late-stage alcoholism. Alcohol abuse causes the liver to become inflamed. Alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, and cirrhosis are just some of the consequences chronic alcohol abuse can have on the liver.
Heart and Circulatory System
The heart and circulatory system are impacted by alcohol. Chronic alcohol abuse is associated with high blood pressure, excess clotting, stroke, and heart attack. The digestive system is often damaged in long-term alcoholics. Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to produce, process, and absorb critical nutrients and it damages the lining of the stomach and increases stomach acid production. (2)
Brain and Central Nervous System
The central nervous system and brain are negatively affected by alcohol. Long-term alcoholism can cause permanent coordination and memory problems. The memory lapses and blackouts associated with heavy drinking give a hint that the brain is negatively affected by alcohol. Remember that the damage done by alcohol is closely related to BAC over time and the brain by itself uses 20% of the blood in the body.
Excess consumption of alcohol over years is associated with various types of brain damage. The liver is eventually overwhelmed and unable to properly process alcohol. This can lead to hepatic encephalopathy that directly impacts the brain causing anxiety, depression and more severe effects like coordination problems and shortened attention span. Liver dysfunction along with other factors causes up to 80% of alcoholics to have a deficiency in thiamine, a vitamin that is critical to brain health. The lack of enough thiamine can lead to serious brain disorders like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). WKS is a debilitating disease also sometimes called ‘wet brain’ that involved swelling of the brain, mental confusion, muscle coordination problems and paralysis of the nerves that control eye movement. WKS can and often does lead to permanent brain damage. (3)
Research into the effect alcohol has on the brain is ongoing, but the findings of decades of research and observation are already conclusive. Long-term chronic alcohol abuse has devastating effects on the body and brain. It increases the chances of contracting stomach, colorectal and other cancers. It can lead to permanent, irreversible brain damage, coma, and eventually death. In the U.S. alone, at least 88,000 people die every year due to alcohol abuse. That makes alcohol abuse the third leading preventable cause of death. Alcohol abuse treatment is more effective than ever before and benefits from ongoing research and evidence-based programs. If you or someone you care about is in a battle with alcoholism, it is never too late to get help. Call us at (844) 746-8836 and we can walk you through the options for care and help you figure out what to do next.