How Alcohol Damages Various Bodily Systems

Gillian May

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I’m a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, and I have been sober from alcohol for five and half years. After moving through recovery and reflecting on how alcohol damaged my health, I’m committed to providing education for those who want to know more about how alcohol affects various bodily systems.

The truth is, this education is not widely available, which is why most people don’t realize how alcohol is affecting them. Current research also shows that even lower doses of alcohol still have a detrimental effect on our health. My goal is to help people know the correct information so they can make better decisions about their alcohol use.

In this article, I’ll go through various bodily systems and discuss how alcohol affects each of them. I try to put the information in as simple terms as possible so that anyone can understand. One of the barriers to this education is all the medical jargon that often gets used to describe what’s happening. I’ll attempt to keep things as simple as possible.

Brain and Nervous System

The brain and nervous system are probably the most affected by alcohol use, which is why I put them first. All other body systems are directly influenced by the brain and nervous system and can all be under the same umbrella. However, they each have some specific issues as well, which is why I separated them out.

Recent research shows that even low-dose alcohol can affect the grey matter of the brain. This is the part that helps us control our movement, memory, and emotions. These are pretty important functions for our daily life.

In higher doses, alcohol can wreak havoc on the nervous system. It causes alterations in how our nerve messages are transmitted, which affects the whole body. Over time, the nervous system becomes primed for over-excitation, which plays a part in severe withdrawal symptoms. Also, through a process called neuroplasticity, our nervous system can become so used to using alcohol that it becomes challenging to quit or cut down. Pretty soon, it all becomes a vicious cycle of needing more alcohol to feel normal. But the heavy use of alcohol continues to damage the brain and neurons.

Kidneys

Alcohol changes the way the kidneys function almost immediately after drinking. It causes changes in hormones that monitor the fluid level in the body, which causes increased urination and dehydration. Alcohol also makes the kidneys less able to filter the blood properly, which is perhaps the worst outcome of alcohol use on the kidneys. This means that small amounts of toxins may stay in the body, causing a person not to feel as well.

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Pancreas

The pancreas is a digestive organ that helps us break down and process food. When we drink alcohol, pancreatic cells metabolize it into toxic byproducts that can damage the pancreatic ducts (where enzymes are released into the stomach). This means that pancreatic enzymes remain inside the pancreas and begin to digest the pancreas itself. This can lead to pain, nausea, and digestive problems. If alcohol intake is very high, it can cause pancreatitis, which can be life-threatening. However, even low-dose alcohol acts upon the pancreas, causing some irritation.

Skin

Many people likely know that alcohol can cause reddening of the face. This is due to dilation in blood vessels bringing blood to the surface of the skin. However, over time, this can cause permanent damage and scarring of the skin. Also, the inflammatory nature of alcohol can cause the skin to swell and look puffy. This effect can happen at even low doses. Due to the inflammation, alcohol can also cause more incidents of cystic acne.

Skin changes can also occur with more severe alcohol use that damages other organs, namely the liver. In this case, a condition called spider angiomas can occur on the face and chest and is a serious sign of liver issues. These angiomas look like small red spider webs and are permanent.

Heart

The way that alcohol affects the heart is also in combination with the nervous system. Alcohol can cause an increase in issues like tachycardia (fast heartbeat) and heart rhythm issues that can be dangerous for people with existing heart and blood pressure issues. Alcohol also raises blood pressure, which may not be significant for someone with normal blood pressure, but can be dangerous for someone with cardiovascular problems.

For a heavy drinker with potential liver problems, portal hypertension (increased blood above the liver) can put severe pressure on the heart, causing dangerous blood pressure and potential bleeding issues.

Digestive System

Alcohol, even in low doses, can upset the stomach and intestines. It can also disrupt the absorption and processing of nutrients. Alcohol raises stomach acid levels which can give rise to ulcers in the stomach and small intestine. The regular use of alcohol has been linked to esophageal, stomach, and intestinal cancers. Lastly, alcohol causes significant problems with the gut microbiome, which may have severe consequences for food absorption, immune system issues, and gut motility.

Liver

Alcohol at high doses taken over a long period of time can cause alcoholic liver disease. But even at lower doses, alcohol can slow down the functioning of the liver, which can cause some vague and uncomfortable symptoms. Even moderate use of alcohol can cause liver cell death. Oddly, the signs of alcoholic live problems are outside of the liver and occur in other parts of the body — you can read more about that here.

The more that people understand the actual effects of alcohol on their health, the better they can make decisions about alcohol use. Most people don’t realize that alcohol is a dangerous and toxic drug even though it’s legal and widely available. Unfortunately, the legal use of alcohol makes education about its effects less known and marketed to the general public.

Doctors encourage patients to stay within the safe drinking guidelines (one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for a man) but rarely educate them on the myriad health issues that can come up at high and low doses. My goal in this article is to remedy this education gap. The more we know, the better we can make decisions.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9. I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.

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