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One of the biggest misconceptions is about how much alcohol is safe to consume, as well as the exact impact that alcohol has on the body.
Lots of people are unaware of the fact that even moderate drinking, over a long period of time, can lead to worse health outcomes in the future.
Partly, these misconceptions are because there is a lot that we still don’t know about alcohol, and its short-term and long-term effects.
New research has sought to clarify exactly what level of alcohol consumption is dangerous and found that in most instances any level of alcohol consumption comes with a negative impact on health outcomes.
This research is disputed, with some studies suggesting that the consumption of alcohol in small amounts, in certain demographics, can actually have some beneficial health outcomes.
Therefore, anyone trying to find out exactly how much alcohol is safe to drink, and how much alcohol is unsafe, will probably have a difficult time because the topic is still being researched, and there are lots of contradictory findings.
However, there is something that researchers know for certain. There is a direct link between the extent of those negative outcomes and drinking high amounts of alcohol for a long period of time.
Blood alcohol content (BAC) is a measure of how much alcohol has entered the bloodstream. It is an indicator of how much you have drunk, and different levels of BAC have different short-term impacts.
As the level of BAC increases, the effects of alcohol on the body and brain change and become more serious.
As you can see, as the BAC increase its impact on the brain and body change and become more serious. BAC is important because, as the BAC percentage increase, the risks of developing serious symptoms and complications from too much alcohol also increases, and this can even end up being fatal.
The impact of alcohol consumption on health increases with consumption. If you only consume small amounts of alcohol infrequently, it will be hard to detect any impact that drinking might have had on your liver or brain, for example.
Conversely, if you drink heavily, or frequently (or if you binge drink regularly) it will be much easier to see the impact that alcohol has had on the functions and health of your body, its internal organs, and your brain.
The broad impacts of alcohol consumption are increased risk of various cancers, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of stroke, increased risk of liver damage and liver failure, and a change to the functioning and processes of your brain.
Unsurprisingly, this means that people who regularly consume alcohol have a lower life expectancy than people who don’t drink alcohol, or who drink alcohol in small amounts infrequently.
While it’s useful to know the general impacts that alcohol consumption can have on the body and brain, it is also important to understand exactly how consuming alcohol impacts specific parts of your body.
This can be especially important if you are trying to look after a specific part of your body (for example, if you have had health problems with your liver in the past).
Alcohol has a large number of complex effects on the brain because the brain is the most complex organ in the human body.
Broadly speaking, alcohol changes the brain’s communication pathways, impacting how it functions. Specifically, alcohol has been observed to impact the way in which the brain is able to control the functions of memory, judgement, speech, and behaviour.
Alcohol fundamentally changes the way we think, the way we behave, our perception of ourselves, and the way in which we interact with other people.
You might feel more confident and more open to risk-taking behaviour. You could also find that alcohol, in the short term, changes your mood as you become angrier, or happy.
In the short-term, heavy alcohol use can also change the way your brain stores memories, and you might find that your recollection of the night in which you consumed a lot (or even a moderate amount) of alcohol is patchy.
In the long term, alcohol can have some very serious effects on the brain.
It can fundamentally change the way in which the areas of the brain deal with memory and concentration function, leading to memory loss and an inability to focus.
Long-term alcohol use is also linked with permanent damage to the parts of the brain that deal with motor functioning, and the capacity to take on and learn new information.
In the worst cases, people who have developed an addiction or dependence on alcohol might find that the brain experiences something called ‘brain shrinkage’, which is a reduction in the volume of both grey and white matter in the brain. The reduction in this brain matter increases with the amount of alcohol that is consumed, and age.
Unfortunately, the use of alcohol impacts the brain in other ways too. In fact, the consumption of alcohol is strongly linked with negative mental health outcomes and the development of various mental health disorders.
The exact relationship between alcohol and these mental health disorders is unclear, because of the bi-directional relationship between the two.
This means that sometimes a mental health condition will cause someone to increase their consumption of alcohol, and sometimes the consumption of alcohol can lead to the development of a mental health condition.
Nevertheless, what is clear is that there is a strong relationship between alcohol and several mental health conditions.
Alcohol and anxiety have a complicated relationship. The symptoms of clinically diagnosed anxiety often include poor sleep, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, high heart rate, and general feelings of high tension.
At first, alcohol might seem like it can solve some of these problems.
This is because alcohol is a sedative and a depressant, which often causes a feeling of relaxation. It can provide relief from the worst feelings of nervousness and tension, and it can even have a reduction in heart rate.
Therefore, because of these effects, it isn’t uncommon for people to use alcohol as self-medication for anxiety.
However, research has shown that in the long term the use of alcohol can make the symptoms of anxiety worse, and it can also interfere with the medication that is often prescribed for anxiety.
Like with anxiety, the symptoms of depression can seem to be numbed by alcohol as it reduces feelings of worry and boosts self-confidence. However, like with anxiety again, alcohol actually contributes to depression in the short and long term, rather than reducing and relieving it.
Research has highlighted the fact that feelings of depression often worsen after bouts of drinking alcohol, and that when alcohol isn’t consumed feelings of depression can also recede and contribute to an improvement in mood.
Therefore, despite how alcohol might make you initially feel, it should not be used as a form of self-medication.
Because alcohol is so strongly linked with the development and worsening of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety (as well as others, like psychotic illnesses, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder), research has shown that it is also related to higher rates of suicide.
Partly, this is because of the increase in risk-taking behaviour and the reduction in inhibitions. This can make daunting or scary actions seem more achievable and can lead to people carrying out behaviour that they wouldn’t normally do.
Other than that, the link between suicide and higher levels of alcohol intake is generally thought to be linked to a worsening in mental health outcomes, and a decline in general well-being.
The good news is that, whether it comes to the impact on memory or mental health, a lot of the functioning of the brain can return to normal or near-normal levels after long periods of abstinence.
However, there are some repercussions of long-term alcohol consumption on the brain that are irreversible. Some functions like memory and concentration might not be able to return to normal levels, but are likely to still see significant improvement with abstinence.
While the impacts of alcohol on the brain are complex and sometimes difficult to fully understand, the way in which the use of alcohol impacts our other internal organs is often more straightforward.
Regular use of alcohol can increase the chances of:
Because the liver is the organ that filters toxins out of the bloodstream, it is often the first organ to show signs of excessive, regular alcohol consumption.
Alcohol can cause short and long-term issues with the liver in a variety of ways, including:
The most significant way in which alcohol impacts the pancreas is through the higher chance of developing pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the blood vessels in the pancreas, which leads to the inability to perform proper digestion.
This also leads to a higher chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
The relationship between alcohol and cancer is complex, and this is because both cancer and alcohol are the subjects of a significant amount of research, meaning that there is still a lot left to be learnt about both.
However, what does seem clear is that alcohol use is linked with the development of certain types of cancer and that the risk of developing these cancers increases with consumption.
The types of cancer that are linked to the long-term consumption of alcohol are:
Some of the statistics on certain forms of cancer and their relationship with alcohol will be surprising and include the figure that women who drink one alcoholic drink or more per day (on average) are up to 9% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t drink alcohol.
Other than impacting our organs and our brain, the consumption of alcohol also impacts our health in a variety of other ways.
Heavy drinking can compromise the effectiveness of your immune system. Because it weakens your immune system, heavy drinking can mean that you are less protected against bacteria and viruses.
Research has pointed to the fact that people who consume high amounts of alcohol over prolonged periods of time are more likely to develop serious illnesses like tuberculosis, and pneumonia.
The amount of sugar in the blood is regulated by the pancreas, which controls the release of natural insulin. Because of its damaging impact on the functions of the pancreas, alcohol consumption can lead to higher-than-normal levels of sugar in the blood, resulting in hyperglycaemia.
The heavy use of alcohol often directly and indirectly impacts our digestive systems. Firstly, excessive alcohol consumption can damage the tissue in the digestive system, meaning that our intestines are not able to absorb nutrients and vitamins from digested food as effectively.
It also impacts our digestive health indirectly by leading to diarrhoea, bloating, excessive gas build-up, and the onset of haemorrhoids.
Our sexual health is also another victim of excessive alcohol consumption, which can seem counter-intuitive. Because alcohol lowers our inhibitions and increases our confidence, many people assume that it is linked with increased sexual performance and enjoyment.
However, in the long-term, excessive alcohol consumption can have a negative impact on our sex lives, as it is linked with a decrease in sex-drive, or libido, an inability, to achieve orgasm, and trouble with maintaining an erection.
Although it is still being researched, there is also some indication that regular heavy use of alcohol can damage our reproductive health, and might be linked to infertility.
Our skeletal health and muscular health are also impacted by the consumption of alcohol.
Muscle development and maintenance can be stinted by alcohol, and it can lead to cramping and feelings of weakness.
Meanwhile, our bone density is reduced by long-term excessive alcohol consumption, which can be a particular issue of concern for elderly people.
Many people know that alcohol is widely understood to have a negative impact on pregnancy and the health of the mother and baby. Due to this, the current advice is that there is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe for pregnant women to consume at any point during their pregnancy.
While alcohol consumption during pregnancy is sadly linked with issues like miscarriage and premature delivery, it can also impact the health of the baby once born.
For example, research has shown that children whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy have a higher chance of developing learning difficulties and long-term health concerns.
Alcohol withdrawal is another side-effect of long-term excessive alcohol consumption when you’ve developed an alcohol use disorder (AUD) like alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction.
In these instances, the body craves alcohol because it has adjusted to its presence and become used to it. When you then avoid alcohol, you may experience significant physical and mental withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms often include:
They can cause physical and mental discomfort, making the consumption of alcohol seem increasingly attractive to relieve the symptoms.
If you believe that you or someone you know is consuming alcohol too frequently, in too high amounts, and may have an AUD, you may want to consider treatment options.
At a treatment clinic, someone who is looking for treatment for alcohol abuse will undergo a detox, where alcohol is removed from the system while they are treated for withdrawal symptoms.
They may then receive therapy to help them come to terms with their addiction, and understand the cause of it. Finally, they will be signposted to support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous which can help a person to maintain their motivation for abstinence.
For more information and advice, please contact our dedicated team on 0800 111 4108.
 Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
 Alcohol use in pregnancy