How Does Alcohol Affect the PancreasAnna Ciulla
Every year, it is estimated that over 70,000 people are going to die due to alcohol-related incidents. Atop that, there are some 15~ million people in America currently suffering from AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder). While these numbers are staggering, the fact is that alcohol has been pervasive in our society for centuries, and its very roots trace back to the dawn of civilization itself.
The unfortunate paradigm is that, while alcohol plays a part in nearly all of our lives, few of us actually understand the substance, what it does to our body (scientifically speaking), and the physical effects that can occur after years of drinking excessive alcohol. We are all too familiar with the implication of being drunk; drunk driving, for instance, is a phenomenon we all know and fear.
With addiction rates and overdose on the rise, the opioid epidemic at our doorstep, and recovery centers overloaded with patients, it is more important today than ever to understand the substances our society presents to us. This education can be the difference between allowing an alcohol addiction to fester and learning how to stop drinking, overdosing and not, life and death.
The focus of this article will be to answer the question, “How does alcohol affect the pancreas?” First, however, we must come to understand what happens when alcohol is ingested.
Alcohol & The Body
When alcohol is consumed, it falls deep into the pit of the stomach. If empty, it’ll travel through the small intestine where it’s dispersed into the bloodstream. If food is present, this process can become significantly slower, with the fatty contents blocking pathways. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol then travels throughout the body, eventually reaching the brain.
The liver is the organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol and ultimately ‘cleansing’ it from our system. Typically, this process occurs at the rate of one standard drink per hour. Due to excessive drinking, as the liver becomes overloaded with alcohol, BAC (blood alcohol content) rises, which forces more alcohol into the brain and consequently fuels the intoxication we know so well. As you can probably assume, alcohol massively affects the liver and brain as well.
Alcohol is indeed a poison. Thing is, studies have been done that prove small amounts of certain alcohols are good for our bodies. Too much and it becomes toxic. This is important to note, as the rhythm of our drinking culture is often why we regard alcohol as a harmful substance. In moderation, it does indeed have its benefits.
Alcohol & The Brain
Now that we have an oversimplified understanding of how alcohol enters the body, how exactly does it affect the brain? Why does it have the capacity to impair our motor functions, inhibit our ambitions, and cause memory loss?
Our brains are complex. They’re a multidimensional universe of cities that are connected via pathways, with trains that move at lightning fast speeds we call neurons. Neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain responsible for regulating our moods, thought processes, behavior, and cognition, are found within this organic universe.
One such neurotransmitter is Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA for short) and it’s most notably responsible for our sleep patterns, stress levels, and metabolism. When alcohol reaches the brain, it stimulates this neurotransmitter, forcing the brain to produce more and more of it. This is why being ‘drunk’ can also feel relaxing, as stress levels wane, the brain reaches a depressive state (along with the central nervous system), and cognition is muddied.
In tandem, alcohol also stimulates the production of dopamine, a separate neurotransmitter linked to our reward system. This is why, as we become more sluggish and relaxed, we also feel happy in this sedated state. Additionally, alcohol effects:
- The Medulla: the region of the brain responsible for our natural processes like breathing and regulating body temperature
- Cerebral Cortex: the region of the brain responsible for governing our thought processing and general consciousness (this is where the memories are suppressed if too much alcohol is consumed)
- The Cerebellum: the region of the brain responsible for our movement (this is where falling off balance or staggering when drunk occurs)
Alcohol & Our Organs
Now that you have a basic understanding of how alcohol affects the body and brain, what exactly does it do to our specific organs? And, when drinking too much, what organs are most at risk? By the above, you can probably deduce that the organ which takes the brunt force of alcohol’s effects is, of course, the liver.
Alcohol & The Liver
You’ve heard that too much alcohol is bad for you. Perhaps you’ve even drank too much and found yourself hugging the toilet seat. In actuality, too much alcohol is bad for your liver—and that’s the reason that it becomes bad for the rest of the body. The liver is responsible for purifying our system, removing toxins from our bloodstream, regulating our metabolism, and much more.
When the liver is oversaturated with alcohol, it produces an enzyme (one that’s toxic) called acetaldehyde which kills liver cells, stifles the brain, and scars our stomach lining. Additionally, the liver needs water to operate properly. Alcohol is a natural diuretic, meaning it works to dehydrate the body. This very dehydration is the root cause of what we infamously know as a ‘hangover.’ This is easily noted when someone awakens after a long night of drinking, head pounding and heart pulsing, and they desperately crave a tall glass of water.
When this type of drinking occurs regularly, there are many ways in which alcohol can negatively affect the liver. Every condition stems from the fact that alcohol, while being metabolized by this organ, reduces its efficacy and hinders it from functioning properly. These effects include but are not limited to:
Fatty Liver Disease
Large excesses of fat can build up in the liver if too much alcohol is consumed regularly. In fact, in Australia—a country stereotyped for its drinking culture—1 out of every 10 adults live with fatty liver disease. However, it is important that we mention this disease is not specific to alcohol consumption, as a poor diet, diabetes, and a host of other factors can cause it too.
Cirrhosis is perhaps the most harrowing condition that can befall an alcoholic. You’ve probably witnessed it in a TV show or a movie, as the great tragedy ends with the alcoholic on a hospital bed awaiting a liver transplant that may never come.
Essentially, every time someone drinks in excess they damage their liver. When the liver works to repair this damage, it leaves behind scar tissue. The more these buildups form, the harder the liver becomes, clogged with scar tissue that inhibits its ability to function optimally. Typically, the damage that causes cirrhosis cannot be reversed.
When cirrhosis occurs, the complications are nearly too long to list. They contain everything from internal bleeding, infections, bone disease, cancer, to death (being that the liver can no longer function properly). This is not a condition that anyone wants to experience and is most commonly caused by excessive drinking; usually, this particular condition is reserved for the heaviest and most weathered alcoholics.
Alcohol & The Pancreas
When alcohol flows through the pancreas, it causes the organ to produce toxins which—if produced at a high enough level over long periods of time—can lead to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis has two different forms:
Acute pancreatitis is a sudden onset which causes excessive pain in the abdomen, usually accompanied by nausea, fever, and muscle spasms. Fortunately, this type of pancreatitis is temporary. It serves as a reminder that the pancreas is being overworked and, in this case, damaged by excessive drinking. Once the person begins to make lifestyle changes, the pancreas will return to its normal state and begin functioning properly.
Chronic pancreatitis is an entirely different story. When it comes to the gamut of cancers, it should be no surprise to you that pancreatic is among the worst. Which makes it paramount that people learn a harrowing fact: alcohol abuse is now known to be the #1 cause of chronic pancreatitis, and chronic pancreatitis is known to be the #1 cause of pancreatic cancer.
It most commonly strikes males in their 40s with a history of alcohol abuse. The problems that chronic pancreatitis causes are typically serious:
- Recurring pain (usually severe)
- Extreme weight loss
- Pancreatic Cancer
- Type 2 Diabetes (1/3 of sufferers with chronic pancreatitis develop type 2 diabetes)
Thankfully, it’s not common that chronic pancreatitis develops overnight. Usually, there will be warning signs and symptoms that are difficult to ignore. Yet, this is why this complication is commonly linked to alcoholism; to right the problem, one must stop consuming alcohol, yet this is no easy task for someone with AUD. This becomes a vicious cycle, as someone who partakes in excessive alcohol consumption will only further damage their pancreas.
A Merciless Condition
Furthermore, “Approximately 50 percent of patients with alcoholic pancreatitis die within 20 years of onset of the disease. Only 20 percent of deaths occurring before a patient’s life expectancy are attributed to pancreatitis or its complications; most of these deaths are attributed to the effects of alcohol or smoking on other organs such as the liver. The increased risk of pancreatic cancer reported in heavy alcohol users (i.e., people who consume 10 to 12 standard drinks per day).”
By this, it is not hard to recognize that when alcohol is consumed in excess, over long periods of time, the toxins created in the pancreas force it to malfunction. With that being said, rarely ever is the pancreas rendered in an acute or chronic state by a binge, moderate drinking, or even heavy drinking occurring over shorter periods of time.
Alcohol & The Heart
There are many long-term effects of alcohol on the heart. You’re probably aware of the belief that a bit of red wine can deoxidize our blood and reduce the risk of cardiovascular, right? Plenty of studies have been done that prove this. Yet, what occurs in the heart when that glass of wine becomes a bottle or two? How about a bottle or two per night?
As alcohol abuse continues, the heart muscle will begin to weaken, resulting in abnormalities (relating to blood flow). Cardiomyopathy is a condition in which the heart becomes disfigured, stretching out in a way that it’s not supposed to. This can cause a host of problems, including but not limited to:
- Difficult Breathing
- Damaged Liver
- Extreme Fatigue
- Increased Risk of Heart Attack
It should not be a surprise that excessive drinking greatly weighs on the cardiovascular system. After all, the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body and, when alcohol is consumed, it goes directly into our bloodstream.
An End Note
While most of this article addressed the effects (mostly negative) of alcohol on certain organs, it’s important to note that it’s all in the way alcohol is consumed. Unlike cigarettes, when used in moderation alcohol does have some benefits. Unfortunately, society has accepted this substance with little regard as to how it interacts with our anatomy.
There is no debate: when alcohol is used in excess, it becomes a poison to the body. Alcoholics have tough lives and their health suffers because of it. This isn’t and shouldn’t be news to you. Of all the organs that alcohol can damage, the pancreas is among those which are affected most. To prevent irreversible damage, alcohol detox needs to take place at an inpatient alcohol treatment facility.
Know your facts, understand how alcohol influences your anatomy, and drink responsibly to avoid any health complications that may arise from excessive drinking. Most of these complications are avoidable by simply drinking less.
If you are suffering from an alcohol addiction and need a long-term residential treatment facility, please call Beach House Recovery today.