Last Updated on April 6, 2021
Alcohol is probably best known for its more immediate effects—from intoxication to the dreaded hangover the following morning. But what’s really going on inside from the time you take that first drink? What does alcohol do to your body, brain, and organs?
Realistically, alcohol can enter just about every system in the body. Below, we’ll discuss some of the short and long-term effects of alcohol on different organs and systems, and what you can do to keep yourself healthy.
How Fast Does Your Body Process Alcohol?
To begin with, the body can process about one ounce of alcohol every hour, although this differs slightly depending on age, sex, weight, and other factors.
Drinking at a pace consistent with this (1-2 drinks per hour or less) often means feelings of excitement, relaxation, and greater social ease. People may also experience flushed skin, or a warm sensation. These mild effects usually clear up quickly once alcohol leaves the body.
Drinking too much too fast, on the other hand, can overwhelm your system. The body simply can’t keep up, and organs become saturated.
Alcohol affects every part of the body differently, but there is one commonality—it is toxic to cells and healthy functioning. Some damage can happen in just one sitting, while other harmful effects might be more subtle, showing up months or years later.
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain and Nervous System
When You Are Drinking:
Alcohol starts working on the brain within 5-10 minutes, releasing dopamine1 and other feel-good chemicals. These initial positive effects can motivate you to continue drinking. However, too much alcohol also starts to slow the brain down, via changes in other neurotransmitters.
Alcohol mimics the effects of GABA2, a neurotransmitter which slows or calms your central nervous system. Simultaneously, it also blocks the effects of glutamate, which stimulates your nervous system. This leads to some of the common signs of intoxication: confusion, blurred vision, slurred speech, and trouble walking.
As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, these effects become more severe, increasing the likelihood of accidents, or even alcohol poisoning.
The Next Day:
Some people experience “fuzzy” memories, or forget chunks of time altogether—often referred to as a “blackout.” This is due to alcohol interfering with memory formation4 in the hippocampus while you drink, and often only affects the night before. Permanent damage is possible, however.
If you drink excessively for a long period of time, alcohol can cause lasting changes to the neurotransmitters in your brain. This can leave your nervous system in a constant state of stimulation, resulting in withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking suddenly.
Heavy drinking can also cause the brain to shrink in size, increasing your risk of dementia. And in severe cases, years of thiamine deficiency may lead to a debilitating brain disease known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome5.
Alcohol’s Impact on Your Liver
The liver takes on most of alcohol’s metabolism, generating toxic chemicals such as free radicals and acetaldehyde6 in the process. The liver can usually remove these safely in small amounts. But if you overdo it, your liver is left at the mercy of these harmful byproducts.
In the early stages of liver damage from alcohol use, there are often no outward signs. But this can be very misleading. In fact, even short-term binge drinking can damage cells and cause fat to accumulate in the liver.
Alcoholic liver disease occurs in three different stages:
- Fatty liver disease: Rarely causes symptoms, and is generally reversible with abstinence.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: Cell damage and severe inflammation that can lead to life-threatening complications.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: Permanent scarring of the liver. Abstinence may help manage symptoms, but many people require a liver transplant.
Alcohol and Your Stomach
In addition to absorbing alcohol, the stomach can help break it down. This is especially important when the liver is overwhelmed with too much alcohol. But this also puts the stomach at risk for harm.
Alcohol irritates the stomach lining by increasing acid and bacteria production. This can account for uncomfortable symptoms like heartburn or nausea. And the more you drink, the more likely you are to experience other issues like severe vomiting and dehydration. Both of these problems, in turn, can make hangover symptoms worse.
Your stomach will usually recover from a night of heavy drinking. But chronic alcohol use puts you at risk for long-term complications, including alcoholic gastritis, gut leakage, and stomach cancer.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Pancreas
Like the stomach, the pancreas can help with alcohol metabolism, and can also take a hit during and after drinking.
Your pancreas helps regulate your blood sugar levels by releasing insulin. Since alcohol puts tons of carbs into your body, this can kick your pancreas into high gear. The resulting spike and drop in blood sugar can give you the munchies. Short-term, this is only a minor issue. But long-term, there is a link between excessive drinking and diabetes.
Alcohol can also cause the overproduction of digestive enzymes. This can damage pancreatic cells and clog ducts to the point of painful swelling and inflammation, also known as pancreatitis7. This may last just a few days, or become permanent.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Kidneys?
The kidneys work as a filtration system, keeping the body’s fluids and electrolytes in balance. They also help remove toxins, such as alcohol.
You might notice yourself using the bathroom more when you drink. While seemingly harmless, this can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, stressing your kidneys.
Long-term, heavy alcohol use can make it harder for your kidneys8 to regulate this balance. And if simultaneous liver damage is taking place, the kidneys are forced to work even harder to filter toxins from the body. This can progress to chronic kidney disease, often requiring dialysis or a transplant.
Alcohol and Heart Health
Alcohol has a range of effects on the health of your heart, depending on how much and how often you drink.
Some studies9 suggest that moderate drinking actually has benefits for your heart. However, more than a glass or two per day can have the opposite impact. In fact, just one episode of binge drinking can spike blood pressure and cause an irregular heartbeat. And long-term, drinking too much can damage and weaken the heart muscle, contributing to problems such as:
- Heart attack
Alcohol and Your Immune System
Despite rumors that drinking can help prevent the coronavirus, it turns out that alcohol can actually repress your immune system11. Drinking moderately on occasion is unlikely to do you serious harm. But chronic use and binge drinking may leave you more vulnerable to infections.
Alcohol’s harmful effects on the gastrointestinal system play a role in this. Drinking too much upsets the balance of positive and negative bacteria in your gut, weakening your immune response12. It can also cause intestinal permeability, allowing more harmful bacteria and other toxins to enter the bloodstream.
Finally, alcohol abuse may slow your recovery time from illness or injury. For the strongest immune system, it’s best to drink moderately or not at all.
How Alcohol Affects Your Bones
Even your bones are not immune to the impacts of alcohol. To begin with, intoxication can impair thinking and body function, leading to physical injuries like fractures or breaks. But beyond these immediate risks, alcohol can also have negative impacts on long-term bone health13.
Excessive alcohol consumption may reduce calcium and vitamin D absorption, and even make it harder for your bones to repair themselves. It may also impair adolescent bone growth. And although some studies suggest moderate amounts of alcohol may improve bone health in women after menopause, heavy drinking increases the risk of fracture for all members of the population.
Tips for Safe Drinking
Overall, too much alcohol appears to have a damaging effect on nearly every part of the body. So, how to avoid the negative impacts of alcohol on your body and mind? Here are several steps you can take to keep your drinking in a safer zone:
- Stick to moderate drinking: No more than one drink per day for women, and maximum two per day for men.
- If you have multiple drinks in one night, don’t have more than one per hour
- Eat when you drink to slow alcohol absorption
- Alternate each drink with a glass of water to keep hydrated
How To Help Your Body Recover From Alcohol
If you’re worried your drinking is taking a toll on your body and organs, there are several things you can do to help it heal:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Supplement with vitamins, particularly B vitamins like thiamine
- Incorporate exercise into your routine
- Make sure you are getting enough rest
Finally, it goes without saying, you’ll need to cut back or quit drinking alcohol to prevent further damage.
Of course, this can be easier said than done. Ria Health’s online program is one way to get help to reduce or stop drinking from home. We offer expert medical support, coaching sessions, medications to reduce cravings, digital tools, and much more—all from an app on your smartphone.
Schedule a call with a member of our team to learn more.