Drinking alcohol affects everyone in different ways. There are many variables, including your tolerance to alcohol and your ability to moderate your alcohol consumption, that can influence the range and severity of alcohol’s side effects.
Both the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol can vary from person to person. While many of the long-term effects of drinking alcohol are physical, there are also potential psychological effects of long-term alcohol abuse.
In DGA (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025), guidelines suggest men should drink no more than two standard drinks per day, and women no more than one standard drink daily. Regardless of the specifics of how alcohol abuse affects you, drinking beyond these limits can have significant adverse outcomes, both physically and mentally.
Even if you are not binge drinking regularly, you can still expect to encounter a variety of short-term effects on both body and mind.
Your liver is capable of metabolizing one standard drink of alcohol every hour. Many factors can impact this, including:
- Liver function
If you consume more than one standard drink per hour, this typically leads to intoxication, with BAC (blood alcohol concentration) levels climbing with each successive drink.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Before we dive into how alcohol can impact an individual’s long-term health, let’s take a moment to better understand the issues that can be involved in The short-term effects of alcohol use include:
- Flushed skin
- Loss of coordination
- Lowered inhibitions
- Impaired social judgment and decision-making
- Problems with focus
- Reduced critical judgment
- Mood swings
- Dulled visual perception
- Raised blood pressure
- Reduced core body temperature
- Losing consciousness
Abusing alcohol and heavy drinking will place you at heightened risk of developing alcoholism, formally known as AUD (alcohol use disorder) and the health problems associated.
Diagnosing Alcohol Addiction
AUD is diagnosed using criteria laid down in DSM-5, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
If you have 2 or 3 of the following symptoms, you’ll be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder. The presence of 4 or 5 symptoms constitutes moderate alcohol use disorder. Severe alcohol use disorder is characterized by the presence of 6 or more of the following symptoms:
- Drinking more alcohol than intended, and for longer periods than intended.
- Wanting to moderate or discontinue drinking but failing to achieve this.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
- Spending excessive amounts of time drinking and recovering from the effects of alcohol abuse.
- Getting strong cravings for alcohol.
- Failing to fulfil your obligations at home, work, or school because of alcohol use.
- Stopping important activities or hobbies in favor of drinking.
- Using alcohol in potentially dangerous situations (such as driving).
- Tolerance for alcohol building so you need more to achieve the same effects.
- Drinking alcohol despite physical or emotional problems caused by alcohol.
- Continuing to drink despite negative outcomes and mental health issues.
Consuming alcohol to the point that alcohol dependence and alcohol addiction sets in will expose you to the risk of a battery of serious health conditions like liver damage, so of which might not manifest until later in life.
With over 95,000 people dying each year in the United States from causes related to alcohol according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only smoking and poor diet combined with insufficient exercise kill more people in the US each year when it comes to preventable deaths.
Before we analyze how alcohol impacts some of the major organs, a snapshot of some of the long-term effects of alcohol on the body and brain:
- Alcohol hepatis
- Alcohol poisoning
- Liver fibrosis
- Memory loss
- Diminished attention span
- Reduced white and gray matter in the brain
- Problems learning
- Fatty liver (steatosis)
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Various cancers (mouth, liver, larynx, breast, colorectal, and esophageal)
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol?
The long-term side effects of alcohol use, even for moderate drinking, can include psychiatric syndromes, including:
- Alcohol-induced sleep disorder
- Alcohol-induced bipolar disorder
- Alcohol-induced depressive disorder
- Alcohol-induced psychotic disorder
Fortunately, these alcohol-induced disorders are only temporary. They typically occur following significant intoxication, or after alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol is a CNS depressant. That said, alcohol has inconsistent effects on the central nervous system. Under some conditions, you might find yourself excited after drinking, and under other conditions you may feel drowsy and sedated.
At lower doses, alcohol suppresses the part of your brain responsible for inhibitions. Consuming alcohol also impacts core functions like memory, though, breathing, speech, and movement. The mental effects of drinking alcohol include lowered inhibitions, mood swings, relaxation, slowed reaction times, impaired judgment, confusion, and loss of consciousness. When abused chronically and long-term, alcohol can lead to permanent changes in the brain.
Alcohol use disorder is associated with several mental health conditions, including:
- Major depressive disorder
- GAD (generalized anxiety disorder)
- Other anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
Sometimes, these disorders occur separately from alcohol use disorders, and sometimes they predate AUD. On other occasions, these mental health disorders co-occur with alcohol use disorder in a dual diagnosis.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
If you continue to abuse alcohol over the long haul, you can damage your body in a range of ways.
Abusing alcohol causes your pancreas to produce harmful substances. When left unchecked, this can lead to pancreatitis. With pancreatitis, your pancreas is inflamed to the extent digestion is impaired.
It is also worth noting that for women who drink excessively while pregnant, fetal alcohol syndrome can develop. A dangerous problem in which the child born deals with alcohol withdrawal symptoms after birth. Children will need to be monitored until these symptoms fade.
Drinking abusively over time can lead to more digestive dysfunction, too. Alcohol can wear away the stomach lining, causing more stomach acid to be produced. Alcohol can also affect the absorption and breakdown of nutrients leading to potential nutrient deficiencies. Alcohol can also cause problems with blood sugar regulation.
Alcohol abuse ravages the central nervous system. Vitamin B1 deficiency is associated with severe long-term alcohol abuse. This can cause Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Esophagus
If you drink excessively, you’ll increase your risk of developing GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). With GERD – commonly labeled gastric reflux – you get a flow of acidic fluid washing back from your stomach into the esophagus. This causes a strong and uncomfortable burning sensation.
Gastric reflux is not only extremely uncomfortable, but can also lead to reflux esophagitis. This is a more serious condition that involves even more severe backflow of acid partnered with inflammation.
In its chronic form, esophagitis can trigger ulcers in your esophagus. It can also cause tearing where your esophagus joins your stomach.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Heart
Drinking alcohol excessively has a range of complex effects on cardiovascular health and heart muscle.
CV issues linked to excessive alcohol use include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Blood clots
- Heart attack
CV diseases related to alcohol claim almost 600,000 lives globally, according to WHO data.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
Alcoholic Liver disease is one of the most serious medical consequences of chronic and long-term alcohol abuse, leading to a number of problematic health effects.
The more you drink excessively over time, the more your liver becomes scarred and inflamed. Heavy drinkers can develop the following conditions:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver cancer
When you drink alcohol, your liver metabolizes the substance. This turns alcohol into a digestible product. Unfortunately, your liver can only process small amounts of alcohol at any one time. The excess alcohol will simply circulate throughout your body.
Alcoholic hepatitis and hepatic steatosis are reversible conditions. In some cases, they will improve with no serious long-term consequences if you stop drinking completely. If drinking continues, symptoms instead often develop into cirrhosis or severe hepatitis, a life-threatening condition.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Even in the short-term, alcohol impacts the areas of your brain controlling motor function and cognitive function. Over time, abusing alcohol can cause permanent changes to brain structure and function, as well as brain damage.
Damage can occur in the:
- Cerebral cortex
- Limbic system
Alcohol can also be a contributory factor in a variety of mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse at TDRC
If you’re suffering from alcohol use disorder, we have a variety of personalized treatment options here at The District Recovery Community.
The severity of your symptoms will dictate whether inpatient or outpatient treatment makes the best fit. We offer outpatient programs at varying levels of intensity, including IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) and will work with you to address your substance abuse and develop a personalized addiction treatment plan.
Here at TDRC, we use MAT (medication-assisted treatment) if appropriate. FDA-approved medications like disulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone are proven effective for minimizing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and reducing the cravings for alcohol liable to trigger relapse.
MAT is always delivered in combination with talk therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), as well as both individual and group counseling. You can also expect access to a range of experiential therapies, vocational development programs, and holistic therapies if suitable.
If you’re suffering from a co-occurring mental health condition like depression or anxiety alongside alcohol use disorder, you would benefit from our dual diagnosis treatment program. Addiction and mental health issues can feed into each other, so we’ll help you address both issues simultaneously to maximize your chances of sustained recovery.
We can, of course, help you access 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, too. Many people in lifelong recovery find these peer support groups invaluable.
If you are worried about the cost of treatment, understand that at The District we want to make this process as easy as possible for you so we work in conjunction with many healthcare organizations to ensure you can get the treatment you need while expenses are handled through insurance programs.
So, here at The District Recovery Community, we’ll help you detox from alcohol safely and with minimal discomfort, and we’ll then help you build a strong foundation for sustained sobriety from substance use. The hardest part is taking the very first step. When the time is right and you’re ready to reclaim your life, call TDRC at 844.287.8506.