With alcohol bottles containing health warnings and a relentless barrage of (sometimes confused) reports in the media about the dangers of alcohol, everyone should know that it is not good for you in excess. But how is it bad for you? Why does it have these effects? And what are the risks of long-term drinking?
The difference between alcohol abuse and “normal” drinking
For a long time, it was believed that moderate drinking was not harmful. This was a glass of wine or a beer a day or less. However, recent evidence has shown that there is no real safe limit for alcohol consumption. Even consuming a little can increase your risk of developing heart diseases, hypertension, suffering a stroke, or developing a wide variety of cancers. The risk is not very high for low levels of consumption, but it is there.
Claims that moderate alcohol consumption is good for you have been soundly debunked.
Alcohol abuse is different. This is excessive drinking that impairs functioning. In the short term, this can mean destructive behaviour, hospitalization due to injury or accident, violence, unsafe sex, and missing out on work.
In the long-term, alcohol abuse can be very serious. It can destroy brain cells and impair cognitive functioning and memory. All the internal organs can be damaged by chronic alcohol use, especially the liver, which can develop cirrhosis and cease to function effectively. As well as a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke, drinking to excess over a long period can increase the risk of developing many different forms of cancer.
Ethanol – what it does
The chemical name for alcohol is ethanol. In its pure form, it is poisonous. Diluted in a drink, it still has the capacity to cause your body harm. Ethanol damages your body by reacting with the body’s cells. In the brain, it impairs how neurons communicate with each other. In the liver, it causes inflammation that damages it. Elsewhere, it appears to be toxic.
Long term alcohol use – the effects
The risks of alcohol are not just from the immediate risks to life and limb that being drunk cause. Regularly consuming a toxic chemical like alcohol causes your body to react in a way that causes it to damage itself. One of the main causes of the effects of alcohol in the long-term is inflammation. This is your body’s response to something it does not want to be there. When you cut yourself, the swelling and pain are part of the inflammatory response. Alcohol causes something similar, the body tries to get rid of it in the liver. Eventually, the body starts attacking the liver and other tissues with inflammation, which causes damage. How alcohol causes cancer is not well understood.
Reduced sexual function
Using alcohol for a prolonged period causes damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Damaging the delicate blood vessels in the penis can cause impotence, a relatively common symptom of alcohol abuse. Damage to the nervous system can have similar effect. Females can suffer from similar symptoms. Chronic alcohol use reduces fitness, and so makes enjoyable sex more difficult.
As well as the physical damage caused by alcohol itself, consuming alcohol can increase the likelihood of unprotected and promiscuous sex, leading to sexually transmitted diseases.
Most people know that consuming alcohol damages your liver. A lot do not know that the kidneys, heart, gastro-intestinal tract, and cardiovascular system are damaged too. Most people who need a liver transplant are people who have damaged their livers through alcohol abuse. A considerable number of those who need a heart transplant or die of cardiovascular diseases can blame alcohol use.
Raised blood pressure
Known as the “silent killer”, hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. Alcohol consumption is one of the major contributors. Even small quantities of alcohol can considerably raise blood pressure, and long-term use all but guarantees high blood pressure. Furthermore, long-term alcohol abuse makes it much harder to control.
Alcohol generally contains a lot of sugar, which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Quitting alcohol can increase the risk of developing diabetes, but so can drinking a lot.
There are dozens of cancers caused by or related to excessive alcohol consumption. The most common are oesophagus, colorectum, breast, mouth, laryngeal and pharyngeal. Some of these have very low survival rates. Alcohol is a known carcinogen.
Drinking alcohol excessively can raise the risk of developing a wide range of skin conditions, including psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, pruritus, rosacea, flushing, and urticaria.
Some scientists think that alcoholic drinks can contain oestrogen-like compounds, which can cause the feminizing of male bodies. This can include growing breasts (gynecomastia) and testicular failure. In women, it increases the risk of breast cancer.
Alcohol impairs the functioning of the liver, the body’s toxin control centre. It causes a build up of fat, cirrhosis (the hardening of the liver) and hepatitis. All those conditions can be fatal.
Alcoholics develop lung diseases more than the general population. Alcohol related lung diseases are as deadly as liver diseases caused by alcohol.
Cognitive impairment and dementia
Alcohol damages the brain and reduces the ability to think clearly, use reason, take on new information, and recall information accurately (or at all). Consuming alcohol raises the risk of developing dementia.
Some benefits from drinking moderately
A reduced risk of some cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and gallstones, is associated with mild to moderate alcohol consumption. However, the risks from other conditions caused by this level of consumption are greater than the benefits, so alcohol cannot be recommended for any condition.
Withdrawing from and quitting alcohol can be dangerous, so you will need help. Thankfully, in the UK, there is a lot of help available. The NHS website has all the information you will need to find the right help for you.