What do we know about the common effects of alcohol?
Alcohol has been part of our culture for many years, with many ancient civilisations and remote tribes using alcohol as a food, a medicine, a tranquilliser and even as a religious artefact. The effects of alcohol have long been studied and documented, but with today’s sophisticated research, tools and methods we are finding out more about the short and long effects of alcohol.
The effect of alcohol on your body starts as soon as you take a sip, it is absorbed from the stomach lining and intestine into the blood stream, where it quickly travels to the brain. The effect it will have depends on how quickly you drink, whether you have eaten, your age, your general health and even on your weight and body fat ratio.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the body’s systems, which can create a feeling of relaxation. It also affects perception, physical and mental reactions, and can result in clumsiness and confusion. Alcohol can be difficult for the body to process and this can put a strain on internal organs such, as the liver and heart.
Alcohol can irritate your stomach, particularly if you drink on an empty stomach. It can interfere with your gut bacteria, which affects how you absorb nutrients from food, and it can also cause serious conditions such as gastritis, which is an inflammation of your gut lining which can result in pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and even bleeding. One way to reduce the risk is to make sure you eat before and whilst drinking.
Some studies actually show that consuming alcohol in moderation with food can be beneficial, for example one study found that having a glass of red wine with a meal helped digestion as the polyphenols contained in red wine relaxed the stomach lining.
But what does drinking in moderation mean, and how much is too much alcohol?
Current government and CMO guidance suggests drinking fewer than 14 units per week, which equates to six glasses of wine, six pints of beer or lager or fourteen single shots of spirits. Anything above this level puts you at increased risk of health issues.
However, researchers are changing how they study the effects and risks of drinking, and it looks as though alcohol, even at low levels, may be much worse for your health than previously thought.
A recent study published in The Lancet, which pooled data from 83 studies from 919 countries found that drinking more than one drink per day was associated with a higher risk of death. The study also suggested that the risk is highest in people who drink beer or spirits and binge drinkers, and recommends that current safe threshold levels are revised.
So what effects can alcohol have on your health?
In the short-term alcohol consumption can cause changes to your mood and to your feelings and behaviour. It can increase or exaggerate feelings and make you feel angry, aggressive anxious or depressed. Alcohol has the effect of reducing inhibitions which can often result in an increase in antisocial and risk-taking behaviour.
Regular and long-term drinking can affect your mental health in several ways.
Drinking alcohol can change your sleep your sleep patterns affecting how well your body rests and repairs. This can cause feelings of tiredness, and simply being tired can make it much feel much harder to deal with difficulties and make problems seem overwhelming.
Lack of quality sleep and increased alcohol consumption is also linked to low mood, depression, anxiety. This is because alcohol alters brain chemicals such as neurotransmitters, which transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. Alcohol also affects serotonin levels, an important chemical known as the happiness chemical, which regulates mood, behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and even sexual desire. Low serotonin levels are also linked with depression.
Alcohol can also cause nerve damage, which can result in changes in balance and co-ordination and in how you experience pain.
Drinking alcohol affects the liver and this can lead to conditions such as fatty liver, steatohepatitis and cirrhosis. The more alcohol you drink, and the longer you drink for, the greater your risk of damage to the liver.
In the early stages you might not have symptoms, but as your liver deteriorates symptoms might include:
- abdominal pain on the right side
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- muscles weakness
If the damage continues the following can develop:
- a yellowing of your skin or whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- hair loss
- swelling in your abdomen and legs
- weight gain
- difficulty concentrating
- poor memory
- hormonal changes – testicles may get smaller in men and they may develop more breast tissue, while women may have irregular periods
Symptoms that indicate serious changes which need urgent medical attention include:
- high temperature and shivering
- stools that are black and tarry
- vomit that is bloody or looks like coffee granules
- sudden jaundice
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
A risk that is less widely recognised is that drinking alcohol can also increase the likelihood of developing certain cancers, and again the more you drink the greater the risk. Alcohol causes cancer by damaging our DNA and stopping cells from repairing the damage. Drinking alcohol regularly can increase your risk of developing cancers of;
The good news is that if you stop drinking you will quickly notice the benefits. One of the first things to improve will be your energy levels, your sleep should improve, and you should start to look and feel brighter. Your risk of developing a serious disease will start to reduce, and if your liver is not too damaged it can quickly heal and is likely to return to normal with 4-6 weeks.