Effects of alcohol

Alcohol affects us in a wide variety of ways, which we’ll try and give you an insight into here. If you want any more detail, be sure to visit our fact sheet page, where we examine individual health issues in more detail.

When you drink alcohol, several things happen. After one or two drinks you may feel more at ease and more talkative – this happens as the alcohol gets into the brain and affects your cognition or thinking.

Physically, your heart rate can speed up and you may feel a warm glow. This is caused by alcohol in the blood making small blood vessels in the skin expand, allowing more blood to flow closer to the surface and lowering blood pressure at the same time.

The short term effects of alcohol

While drinking within the Government’s suggested guidelines has minimal detrimental effect on health, there are several health risks associated with drinking too much alcohol.
These include anxiety, sexual difficulties such as impotence, slowed breathing and heartbeat, impaired judgement leading to accidents and injuries, loss of consciousness, suffocation through choking on your own vomit and potentially fatal alcohol poisoning.

Drinking heavily also increases your calorie intake, and it is frequently associated with obesity. There are 125 calories in a medium-sized (175ml) glass of wine and over 500 in a bottle, the same as in a large hamburger!

Your ability to process alcohol can also decrease with age. The precise mechanism is not known, but it may be because the water content in your body has decreased, so when you drink, there is a higher concentration of alcohol in your blood.

The morning after

If you have drunk heavily the night before, you’ll almost certainly wake up with a hangover. Alcohol irritates the stomach, so heavy drinking can cause sickness and nausea and sometimes diarrhoea. Alcohol also has a dehydrating effect, which is why excessive drinking can lead to a thumping headache the morning after.

Being hungover is not a beauty aid. It dries out your skin, and if you drink heavily you may develop rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily and can progress to facial disfiguration, a condition known asrhinophyma.

Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. You may wonder what you did the night before, feel guilty or low.

Physical risks

The hangover may fade, but if you drink over the Government’s guideline amounts regularly you are putting your health at risk. Either on its own or in conjunction with other factors, alcohol is estimated to be responsible for at least 33,000 deaths in the UK each year.

Rates of liver disease are falling in the rest of Europe, but are rising in the UK. Liver disease has traditionally affected drinkers in middle age, but now sufferers are getting younger. Up to one in three of the adult population is drinking enough alcohol to create a risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease.

Alcohol misuse is also an important cause of oral cancer. Alcohol is second only to smoking as a risk factor for oral and digestive tract cancers. Recent evidence has suggested that this is because alcohol breaks down into a substance called acetaldehyde, which can bind to proteins in the mouth. This can trigger an inflammatory response from the body, the most severe of which is the development of cancerous cells.

Alcohol can lead to infertility for both men and women, In men, booze destroys the sperm-producing cells in the testicles, and drinking regularly can affect sperm count and the quality of the sperm.

Women and alcohol

For women, alcohol consumption can have a detrimental effect upon their chance of conceiving, although the links are not as clearly established as in men. For example, it has not been conclusively proven exactly how much alcohol women can drink before their ability to conceive is reduced. However, there is evidence that increasing levels of alcohol consumption can also disrupt menstrual cycles, and increase the risk of miscarriage.

If alcohol is drunk during pregnancy, it can pass through the placenta and damage the foetus. Children of mothers who drink very heavily in pregnancy can be affected by foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, whose effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with potential lifelong implications.

Drinking heavily can also lead to an increased risk of a variety of cancers, including breast cancer and cancer of the gullet.

Other health risks

Consuming larger amounts of alcohol increases blood pressure. This puts a strain on blood vessels and is a major risk factor for stroke. Cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart beating) caused by regular heavy drinking or binge drinking can increase the likelihood of clots forming and lodging in blood vessels in the brain.

Other health risks include osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), stomach ulcers, heart disease, dementia and other brain damage.

Psychological risks

Alcohol is frequently associated with mental health problems. A recent British survey found that people suffering from anxiety or depression were twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers.

Self-harm and alcohol appear to be linked. In 2006, a survey was carried out among 3,004 self-harm patients at Scottish accident and emergency departments. It found that 62% of males and 50% of females reported consuming alcohol immediately before or while self-harming, and 27% of men and 19% of the women cited alcohol as the reason for self-harming.

Extreme levels of drinking (defined as more than 30 units per day for several weeks) can occasionally cause ‘psychosis’, a severe mental illness where hallucinations and delusions of persecution develop. Psychotic symptoms can also occur when very heavy drinkers suddenly stop drinking and develop a condition known as ‘delirium tremens’.

Heavy drinking can lead to work and family problems, which in turn can lead to isolation and depression. For heavy drinkers who drink daily, there can be withdrawal symptoms (nervousness, tremors, palpitations) which resemble severe anxiety, and may even cause phobias, such as a fear of going out.

With such a raft of problems associated with excessive drinking the need to manage your consumption is vitally important. The good news is that for most people that just requires being more aware, and using simple techniques such as spacers, days off and avoiding buying rounds in pubs. Much better than to reach a point where your body tells you it’s had enough.