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March 23, 2019

What Side Effects Does Alcohol Have on the Body?

America is undoubtedly an alcohol-saturated society.  Alcoholic beverages are a ubiquitous presence at social gatherings, the main attraction at sporting events, and a powerful engine of profit for the advertising industry. Although billboards and television commercials continue to glamorize and even sexualize alcohol’s universal appeal, the truth remains that it is a potent neurotoxin capable of destroying the body and irreparably damaging the brain.  According to a 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study, no amount of alcohol is deemed safe for human consumption, and outdated myths concerning its beneficial effects when taken in mild to moderate doses have been exposed. The following article will explore the terrible truth about alcohol’s corrosive, neurotoxic effects on the human body.

THE SCOPE OF DESTRUCTION

Beyond the crippling socioeconomic burden it produces annually, alcohol abuse is responsible for a number of terminal diseases and debilitating mental health problems—all of which significantly lower the quality of life for those affected. It is also a major cause of tragic death nationally and globally. For example, consider the following:

  • In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that alcohol was responsible for either producing or contributing to over 200 diseases and debilitating medical conditions.
  • In 2018, approximately three million deaths were linked to excessive alcohol consumption, which equates to five percent of all global deaths.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 38 million people binge drink at least four times per month, and approximately 6 die daily from alcohol-poisoning.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in approximately 30 percent of deaths by suicide in the US, blood alcohol levels (BALs) met or exceeded the legal limit.

ALCOHOL AND THE BRAIN

The human brain and central nervous system (CNS) are delicate and unable to handle the long-term effects associated with alcohol abuse. Even in people genetically predisposed to greater tolerance, or those who have developed tolerance through repeated exposure, alcohol’s destructive effect on cognitive function is legendary.  This destruction is clearly visible through the numerous mood disorders and neurological diseases linked to alcohol abuse. For example, extensive alcohol abuse has been implicated in the following:

  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)—a severe form of depression in which sufferers experience debilitating symptoms that interfere with healthy cognitive and physical function. Although MDD may appear as an isolated episode, most sufferers experience repeated episodes throughout their lives.
  • Psychotic Depression—severe depression in which sufferers experience unpredictable symptoms accompanied by psychosis. The hallucinations it produces may be auditory or visual, or limited to having false beliefs and delusions.
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder—a clinically significant, depressed mood lasting for two years or more. In certain individuals, persistent depressive disorder is a lifelong condition that is extremely difficult to treat.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—a variety of depression that typically begins in the late-fall or early winter months as sunlight decreases and the body begins producing less vitamin D. In many people, it can be alleviated by exposure to sunlight (or even artificial light), but not when excessive drinking prevents the body from metabolizing critical vitamins and nutrients.
  • Bipolar Disorder—a serious, debilitating disorder characterized by vacillating episodes of depression and mania. Although bi-polar disorder can be successfully treated, alcohol abuse interferes with, or completely sabotages, optimal treatment outcomes.

Of the over 200 diseases and neurological conditions that alcoholism produces, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)—or “wet brain,” is arguably the most devastating. This progressive neurological disease is the result of damage to multiple brain regions. Wet brain causes major cognitive decline, severe nutrient deficiencies, and frequently renders lifelong alcoholics incapable of autonomous functioning. In many cases, the extent of neurological damage is so extreme that it is considered irreversible by medical professionals, although it can be successfully managed in its early stages. In order to put alcohol’s toxic effect on cognition into proper perspective, consider the following indicators measured by blood alcohol content (BAC) levels: 

  • 04-.059 percent BAC—characterized by lowered inhibitions and slightly impaired judgment
  • 0.1129 percent BAC—characterized by significant loss of judgment, impaired coordination and/or hearing, and slurred speech
  • 0.13-0.159 percent BAC—characterized by blurred vision, significant loss of balance, and dysphoria
  • 2-0.249 percent BAC—characterized by loss of motor skills, general disorientation, inability to stand or walk, and vomiting
  • 0.25-0.399 percent BAC—characterized by black outs and alcohol poisoning
  • 4 percent or higher BAC—may result in a coma or respiratory failure-induced death

ALCOHOL AND THE BODY

Although the human body is remarkably resilient by nature–particularly in youth—the damaging effects of alcohol abuse progress with age and invariably worsen. Alcohol’s volatile and unpredictable impact on physical function is multifactorial and long-lasting. The following physical diseases, some of which are incurable, all stem from accumulated alcohol toxicity:  

  • Cirrhosis—a severe form of scar tissue that suffocates the liver, it is considered the most terminal of all liver-based alcohol diseases. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), approximately 10 to 20 percent of immoderate drinkers develop cirrhosis. Although reversible in its early stages, it is often irreversible once the disease progresses.
  • Liver Cancer—is the destruction of the liver by malignant cells, the result of excessive drinking. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) terminal throat, mouth, colon, and breast cancer are also associated with alcohol abuse.
  • Alcohol-Induced Hepatitis—inflammation of the liver that accompanies years or decades of alcohol abuse. The disease may cause irreversible scarring of the liver tissue and jaundice—even if treated.

Beyond these potentially fatal diseases linked to alcohol toxicity are dozens of other related physical problems caused or exacerbated by alcohol abuse. They include:

  • Impaired immune function
  • Inability to fight cancer, viral or bacterial invaders, or infections
  • Decreased bone density and osteoporosis
  • Gastrointestinal distress, ulcers, and bleeding
  • Elevated risk of hypertension, myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, and cardiac arrhythmia
  • Malnutrition

HEALING THE DAMAGE

Properly treating and healing the damage created by alcoholism is a long journey that unfolds in stages. The very first stage is detox, a short-term process designed to help the body expel the toxic effects of alcohol from the system and stabilize physical and psychological processes. Initial alcohol detox lasts for approximately one week , with early withdrawal symptoms appearing in as little as two hours following the last drink and reaching peak intensity within three days. Although all cases of alcoholism require professional medical management, extreme cases may require hospitalization. During hospitalization, clients receive intensive care including round-the-clock monitoring of blood pressure and vital signs, intravenous (IV) injections of special medications, and a host of other life-saving precautions.

Once a client is successfully discharged from initial detox and ready to transition to the next level of treatment, residential—or inpatient treatment—represents the industry preferred level of care. This popular treatment option usually lasts for 30-90 days and requires clients to live at a designated residential facility. During their stay, clients receive a combination of medical management and clinical supervision that includes evidence-based medications and individual and/or group psychotherapy. Reputable inpatient facilities may also feature ancillary benefits and services such as:

  • Alumni networking
  • Comprehensive aftercare planning
  • State-of-the-art technology
  • Alternative healing modalities
  • Low client-to-staff ratio
  • On-site recreational amenities

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a critical component of inpatient services that involves the use of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved pharmacological interventions in tandem with psychotherapy. The following evidence-based therapies are frequently included in the scope of MAT treatment depending upon individual client needs:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Motivational interviewing (MI)
  • Trauma-informed therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Creative and expressive therapy

Throughout the course of MAT, supplementary medications may be prescribed to help treat co-occurring mental health disorders. These disorders—including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD)—help fuel or exacerbate addiction. Many clients enjoy relief from the debilitating effects of these disorders in addition to a primary medication regimen that includes:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Clonodine
  • Naltrexone
  • Anti-seizure
  • Anti-anxiety
  • Benzodiazepines

THE NECESSITY OF ACTION

Alcoholism is an extremely serious, life-threatening disease that requires professional medical treatment and behavioral management. If you (or a loved one) are struggling with alcoholism and in need of treatment, call a substance abuse professional today. Early intervention is critical to successful long-term treatment outcomes. Never resort to self-guided treatment or at-home detox, as both can lead to serious complications and potentially fatal consequences.

And remember, alcoholism knows no personal, social, political, religious or economic boundaries. Anyone, at any time, can find themselves progressing from recreational alcohol abuse to full-blown addiction and in need of professional help.     

For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:

Sources:

  1. The Lancet. No Level of alcohol consumption improves health. August, 2018
  2. Neuropsychology Review. Alcohol: Effect on Neurobehavioral Functions and the Brain. September, 2017.
  3. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Alcohol and the nervous system. Sept, 2004
  4. American Journal of Public Health.  Key Findings on Alcohol Consumption and a Variety of Health Outcomes from the Nurses’ Health Study. September, 2016.
  5. Medical Science Monitor. Alcohol Consumption and Gastric Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis. Jan, 2017.
  6. The Journal of Pain. Analgesic Effects of Alcohol: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Experimental Studies in Healthy Participants. May, 2017
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