impact of alcohol
The Preventive Health Issue

The Impact of Alcohol on Your Body

For many of us, alcohol is embedded in our social and cultural activities. We go to happy hour after work, we give toasts at weddings, and we drink to celebrate and mark occasions. Oftentimes, we aren't thinking about how much or how often we consume alcohol or its effects on the body.  

From the first sip, alcohol impacts the body—even if you don't realize it. It impacts us both physically and psychologically. Any amount of alcohol can diminish your judgment and functioning, and even low or moderate alcohol use can have harmful effects on different organs.

Alcohol consumption continues to be on the rise. A 2020 study found that stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to increased alcohol use and misuse. Understanding alcohol's influence on the body can help you make informed decisions about your health and alcohol consumption.

This article discusses the physiological and psychological effects of alcohol and how to change your drinking habits.

What Parts of the Body Does Alcohol Affect?

We can all experience temporary and long-term effects of alcohol, depending on our consumption.

Short-term effects may include:

  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Concentration problems
  • Coordination issues
  • Mood changes

Longer-term effects may include:

Because alcohol is a depressant, it can also contribute to mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression. Research indicates that heavy alcohol use can also increase the risk of suicide.

How Common Is Alcohol Consumption?

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 69.5% of people in the United States reported drinking within the last year. 25.8% of people classified their recent consumption habits as binge drinking (excessive drinking in a defined amount of time).

Below we explore the specific parts of the body alcohol affects.

Brain/Memory

Alcohol use can damage the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning. Some studies have found that even light or moderate drinking can lead to some deterioration of the hippocampus.

As a result, prolonged alcohol use is associated with cognitive decline and dementia, including early-onset dementia.

Alcohol is also a known trigger of headaches and migraines.

Heart

Drinking can harm your heart muscle and influence your heartbeat and heart rate.

Alcohol use has been linked to a number of heart problems, including:

Liver

Your liver produces enzymes that break down alcohol, but your liver can only handle so much alcohol at one time (approximately 1 ounce per hour).

Therefore, heavy alcohol use can lead to liver diseases, such as:

Pancreas

The pancreas is essential for breaking down enzymes and starches (like those in alcohol). When the pancreas becomes irritated and inflamed, you can develop pancreatitis.

A comprehensive 2015 review found that alcohol use is one of the leading contributors to pancreatitis because it causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances.

Skeletal and Muscle Systems

Alcohol use can impact your bones. Whether you're a light, moderate, or heavy drinker, alcohol can reduce bone mass. This decrease can lead to conditions like osteoporosis.

Immune System

Your immune system works to keep you as healthy as possible by fighting off foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and toxins. To your body, alcohol is a toxin that interrupts your immune system's ability to do its job, thereby compromising its function.

Central Nervous System

Your central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and neurons that communicate messages throughout your body. It powers key functions and processes like movement, memory, speech, thought processes, and more.

Alcohol use suppresses the central nervous system and destroys neurons. This can lead to conditions like stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Alcohol also causes damage to nerves and pathways, which disrupts communication between essential organs and bodily functions.

Digestive System

Our digestive system processes everything we consume. Alcohol agitates and kills cells in your digestive system. The irritation to and atrophy of cells can lead to:

What Are the Psychological Effects of Alcohol?

Drinking alcohol can influence your psychological functioning and well-being.

Alcohol influences neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These brain chemicals are responsible for regulating your mood, concentration, motivation, and reward-seeking behavior.  

Alcohol is a depressant. While you may experience euphoria or relaxation at first, in the long run, alcohol affects neurotransmitters, which can lead to changes in your thoughts, moods, and behavior.

Alcohol use can exacerbate mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, or lead to their onset. In addition, prolonged misuse can lead to alcohol use disorder

Alcohol is also associated with increased suicide risk due to impaired judgment. Research shows that alcohol use is linked to increased suicidal thoughts, behaviors, and death.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Minor Benefits of Alcohol

There are many risks associated with drinking alcohol. At the same time, research shows there may be some perks.

Wine—specifically red wine—contains high levels of antioxidants. In low to moderate alcohol consumption, antioxidants may provide some cardiovascular benefits.

However, when researchers evaluate these potential factors, the risks outweigh any benefits.

Alcohol Limit Recommendations

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof alcohol constitute one drink. In people assigned female at birth, consuming more than four drinks in one sitting is considered binge drinking. For people assigned male at birth, it's five or more drinks. How much you choose to drink is a personal choice. However, there may be legal, financial, or relational consequences for drinking heavily.

Every state in the U.S. has a legal limit (or a point at which it is legally unsafe to operate a motor vehicle) of 0.8%. It's important to note that any amount of alcohol in your system can interfere with your ability to think and function without impairment.

Tips for Reducing Alcohol Consumption

Every person has their own reasons for drinking or wanting to reduce their alcohol consumption. Depending on how much you have been drinking, your body may experience physical and psychological changes as you reduce your intake, known as withdrawal. When making changes, it’s important to do so safely.

If you want to change your drinking habits, you might:

  • Set limits for yourself
  • Identify alcohol-free alternatives
  • Have alcohol-free days
  • Participate in activities that don’t revolve around alcohol
  • Explore how drinking has impacted your life and the reasons you want to change
  • Keep alternative drinks at home 
  • Stay hydrated with water
  • Talk to your healthcare provider
  • Share your goals with a loved one for accountability 
  • Find community through support groups
  • Be compassionate toward yourself 

Non-Alcoholic Drink Options

There’s been an uptick in non-alcoholic drink options, as more and more companies are creating alternatives. A 2020 study found that when weekly drinkers were presented with and aware of increased non-alcoholic options, they were likely to choose them.

If you are drinking heavily or are worried you may be dependent on alcohol, reach out to a healthcare provider before you start reducing your alcohol consumption to determine the safest way to make changes.

Resources

There are many organizations dedicated to providing education about alcohol use and helping people manage their drinking. If you’re looking for support or more information about alcohol consumption, you can contact:

Summary

Though alcohol seems woven into the fabric of our social lives, drinking can have harmful health effects, even in small doses. Short-term and long-term effects of alcohol can negatively impact the mind and body, despite any potential benefits.

Alcohol can impact various parts of the body, including the brain, heart, liver, and pancreas, as well as essential body systems like the immune and digestive systems. Alcohol use can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline, liver disease, mental health conditions, and more.

It's possible to implement strategies to reduce your drinking, such as lifestyle changes, seeking personal support, or contacting alcohol abuse resources.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding how alcohol affects the mind, body, and overall health can help you make the most informed decisions about your consumption habits. If you’re concerned with your alcohol consumption and attitude toward drinking, talk to a healthcare provider as a first step.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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