10 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Body

10 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Body

10 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Body

Lee esto en EspañolEven small amounts of alcohol can have a big impact on your body. From the first sip, alcohol enters your bloodstream and quickly travels through your body.

Based on your age, gender and health, it may stay there for two hours or longer. And it touches nearly every organ and system along the way.

What Alcohol Does to Your Body

When alcohol is consumed in moderation, the long-term impact is small for most adults. A moderate amount is no more than one drink a day for women and two for men

But the more you drink, and the more often you drink, the greater the impact. More than what is considered a moderate amount, and in some cases even a small amount, can affect you in the following ways.

1. Your Brain Slows
Messages travel between brain cells. When you drink, the pace of thoughts and feelings slows. The way your brain talks with the rest of your body changes. The result? You feel sleepy and uncoordinated.

2. Your Brain Shrinks
When you drink heavily over time, the structure of your brain changes. Brain cells wither, and the inner core swells. You may have trouble regulating your body temperature, and you sleep less soundly. Mood and memory problems can happen.

3. Your Blood Pressure Changes
A few drinks a week can lower your blood pressure. But if you cross the line into heavier drinking, the story changes. Chronic heavy drinking — or even one episode of binge drinking — causes the brain to release stress hormones. That stiffens blood vessels. Then your heart must work harder to pump blood.

4. Your Heart Beats Irregularly
Even moderate drinking may boost the risk for a heart rhythm issue called atrial fibrillation (AFib). That can quadruple the risk for stroke. It can also double the risk for dementia and raise the odds of dying from any cause.

5. Your Blood Sugar Can Drop
Alcohol can cause low blood sugar. Sometimes this occurs right away after drinking. But it may take up to 24 hours. Always have food with alcohol, and stay alert for signs of low blood sugar, such as feeling sleepy or dizzy. The symptoms are easy to mix up with the other side effects of drinking too much. If you have diabetes, check your blood sugar before and after you drink any amount.

6. Your Body Can’t Do Other Work
Drinking gives your body things to do that keeps it from other work. Your body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol, so it must work to metabolize it before it handles other important processes.

7. Your Pancreas Is Hurt
Over time, drinking can cause more problems that interfere with your body’s ability to use glucose for energy. Alcohol hurts the cells of the pancreas, which makes insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check. You may get a painful swelling called pancreatitis, which raises your risk for pancreatic cancer, diabetes and even death.

8. Your Liver Is Harmed
No organ works harder to clear your body of alcohol than the liver. But in the process, the liver makes harmful toxins. Over time, cell damage from these toxins may cause a buildup of fat or scar tissue that stops your liver from working the right way. You could even develop cirrhosis, a slow deterioration of the liver that’s life threatening.

9. Your Cancer Risk Rises
Experts say drinking — even a little bit — boosts the risk for some types of cancer. Seven out of 10 people with mouth cancer are heavy drinkers. And alcohol has also been linked to cancers of the esophagus, breast, liver, throat and colon. Direct cell damage, changing hormone levels and the toxins made when alcohol breaks down may be to blame.

10. Your Immune System Weakens
Alcohol holds back your body’s normal defenses against bacteria and other bugs that make you sick. Your body produces too many of some disease-fighting chemicals and too little of others. That can cause damage to some healthy tissues and leave others weak. Heavy drinkers face a higher risk for pneumonia, tuberculosis and other health issues.

How to Cut Back

Cutting back or quitting drinking lowers your risk for alcohol dependence and can improve your health in many ways. If you’re ready to make a change in your drinking habits, try these steps:

  • Set a goal. Your doctor can help you find out how much alcohol, if any, is healthy for you.
  • Track your drinks. Log them on paper or use your mobile phone.
  • Avoid triggers. Stay away from people and places that make you want to drink.
  • Have a plan. Know in advance how you’ll say no to a drink.
Getting Help

If you worry you may have a problem, talk with your doctor. Your doctor may provide treatment or have suggestions for referrals. If you don’t have a doctor, call the customer service number on your member ID card.

Alcohol and Medicine Can Be a Dangerous Combination

Read Prescription or Over the Counter: Follow Directions for Medicine Safety to find out how alcohol and medicine can interact in dangerous ways.

Sources: Drinking Levels Defined,   Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020; Alcohol’s Effects on the Body,   National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institutes of Health; What Is a Standard Drink?,   NIAAA; Alcohol Use and Your Health,   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; 6 Surprising Ways Alcohol Affects Health — Not Just Your Liver,   Cleveland Clinic, 2020