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Alcoholism Understanding The Physical Effects

You may know that an alcoholic drink will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. But did you know that your drink could also spark cancer, harm your heart, and damage your liver?

Few people realize that a drinking habit, even if it’s not associated with ending the day falling down drunk, can have a huge impact on almost every system in the body.

Fewer people realize how alcoholism is defined. That lack of knowledge could allow them to drink in dangerous ways for years while the damage builds.


How Is Alcoholism Defined?

A stereotypical alcoholic is incredibly inebriated every day and loses everything due to the relentless pursuit of drink. Experts define the condition in very different terms.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine uses four criteria to diagnose this condition. Someone with it deals with continuous or periodic:

  • Lack of control. After the first sip, the next is inevitable. The person may be unable to stop even when it’s vital to do so.
  • Obsession. Thoughts of where to get alcohol and when it’s time to start drinking dominate.
  • Consequences. Loss of jobs, homes, relationships, and more due to drinking take hold.
  • Denial. Despite all of these issues, a person with alcoholism may believe there’s nothing wrong.

Someone who drinks six martinis at lunchtime and loses their job in the afternoon could certainly be an alcoholism candidate. But if you’re a stay-at-home mom who watches the clock closely, wishing for cocktail hour to start, you could be headed in that direction.

Alcohol’s Short-Term Risks

Some of alcohol’s problems are tied to time. The longer you drink, the more damage is done. But other issues are immediate, and they can harm you even if alcoholism is a recent arrival.

The most severe of these issues involves alcohol poisoning. This life-threatening condition takes hold when you drink to excess and overwhelm your central nervous system. Your body temperature drops, your breathing slows, and you may vomit. Without medical care, you can choke. Your reflexes won’t awaken you, and death can come for you.

Even if you don’t develop alcohol poisoning, you could still put your health at risk through:

  • Accidents. Alcohol blunts coordination, which leads to falls.
  • Fights. Lowered inhibition can lead you into a life-threatening physical altercation.
  • Unsafe sex. Skipping a condom during a booze-fueled hookup could lead to a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Car wrecks. Drinking skills are severely impacted by alcohol, and if you slide behind the wheel, you could harm your car, yourself, or someone else.

saying no to alcohol

Long-Term Exposure and Your Body

Most of the risks we’ve described so far concern risks due to inebriation. That state fades quickly, but health risks remain. If you drink consistently, constant alcohol exposure can harm almost every part of your body.

The amount of damage you’ll experience can vary dramatically, experts say. Your age, your height, and your genes all play a role. But almost everyone who drinks excessively for a long period can expect some kind of health problem.

Every year, about 88,000 people die due to a health issue related to alcohol. That’s a big number, and many different types of disease contribute to the total. Alcohol abuse has been tied to:

  • Anxiety
  • Bone disease
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Immune system disease
  • Nerve disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stomach ulcers

In most cases, these conditions develop slowly. Each drink you take does a small bit of damage, and all of those tiny injuries build up into big problems. But often, those issues can be healed with abstinence.

Some health issues, on the other hand, can persist even in sobriety.

drug user in despair

Alcohol Can Harm Your Liver

Your liver processes every sip of alcohol you take. It’s not surprising that among all of the health issues tied to alcoholism, the most significant involve the liver.

Alcohol damages the liver in two ways:

  1. Chemical changes: Alcohol is transformed into a toxic enzyme in the liver, and that can cause permanent scarring.
  2. Dehydration: Alcohol seeps liquid out of the body, and the liver needs moisture to work properly.

Over time, when subjected to these two sources of damage, the liver can stop functioning properly, and that can cause loss of life. According to research published in 1997, long-term alcohol abuse is the top cause of death due to liver disease. It’s an incredibly serious risk factor for death or illness related to liver disease.

Your liver plays an important role in your overall health. It helps to digest the food you eat and the medications you take. It also helps to regulate your water and blood chemistry levels, so you’re functioning at an optimal level. When your liver isn’t working, almost everything about your health can be out of synch.

Even so, you aren’t likely to know anything is wrong with your liver until 75 percent of it is damaged. When that happens, you might develop symptoms like:

  • Exhaustion
  • Anorexia
  • Jaundice
  • Distended abdomen
  • Bruising
  • Confusion

While it does take time to develop liver disease, it isn’t uncommon in young people. In fact, experts say the disease is rising in people ages 25 to 34. These young people are bingeing on alcohol during weekends and holidays, and that exposes the liver to a great deal of alcohol all at once. The damage can be catastrophic.

Some types of liver disease can’t be cured even if you stop drinking. You’ll need to take medications to manage the issue for the rest of your life. But other types can be managed through sobriety. But you’ll need to stick to that plan for the rest of your life so the issue doesn’t come back.

woman at sunset with birds

What Can You Do?

If your relationship with alcohol is harming your health, sobriety should be your goal. The sooner you achieve it, the better.

But alcoholism does come with denial. That could mean that you’re unable to see the damage alcohol is causing even as it eats away at your health.

Try an experiment. Set aside one day per week, and try not to drink any type of alcohol on that day. Write down how you feel, and notice any sensation of desperation for liquor. Also, notice if you feel better during your sober day.

If you find you simply can’t get through one day without drinking, alcoholism could be an issue for you. But if you move through a sober day with ease and aren’t tempted to compensate by bingeing the next day, try to add another sober day to your week.

If you drink at high levels on a daily basis, don’t attempt to stop drinking on your own. This is a sign that you need medical assistance with withdrawal.

Remember that there are plenty of organizations that can help you. There’s no shame in asking for help in getting sober. Let the experts help you understand what to change to get your health and your happiness back.

The Definition of Alcoholism. (February 1990). American Society of Addiction Medicine.

How Heavy, Chronic Drinking Can Affect Your Body. (January 2015). Chicago Tribune.

What Effect Does Alcohol Have on Health? (February 2018). Medical News Today.

Alcohol. Hepatitis Australia.

Exploring Alcohol’s Effects on Liver Function. (1997). Alcohol Health and Research World.

Alcohol and Your Liver. (August 2017). UHN.