I quit drinking almost 7 years ago. Before that, I never understood that my body was struggling with alcohol use. After I got sober, it was really noticeable how much better I felt. I was shocked to see that some mysterious health problems I was having disappeared when I got sober. I know I’m not alone in this and I also know that alcohol use is only getting worse.
During the pandemic, alcohol sales went up by 55% in the US. One study showed that 36% of people were binge-drinking, and 7% were engaging in extreme binge-drinking. Given these statistics, it’s safe to say that alcohol abuse is on the rise. However, most people may not understand that some of their poor physical and mental health symptoms could be due to alcohol and not to life-stressors, other health problems, or the pandemic.
Before I quit, I went to the doctor for several health problems. I had many tests done but couldn’t figure out what the problem was. After I quit drinking and recovered from almost all these health problems, I realized it was the alcohol.
As a former nurse, I have a good understanding of research and the human body. And once I got through a few years of sobriety, I was able to look back to what was happening to my body and then connect the research. It’s important to note that I am not saying alcohol absolutely causes these health signs, but that the correlations are high and thus, can’t be ignored.
One thing is for sure — health problems from alcohol use are confusing and not always obvious. This is why most heavy drinkers don’t think their health issues are from their drinking. While some of that could be due to denial, it’s also because these health issues are not definitive. Trying to pinpoint problems in the body to alcohol use is like nailing water to a wall. Symptoms that show up could be from many other sources as well. Also alcohol use can exacerbate health conditions already present in a person.
The key indicator is that if these health issues disappear or greatly improve once alcohol use stops, it makes sense that alcohol use is the culprit. Also, since research shows these connections as well, it gives us more food for thought in understanding these health signs.
Below are 5 health signs of excessive alcohol use. At the end of this article, I’ll include the references I used to write this so that anyone can further educate themselves.
1. Unusual fatigue or brain fog
This is one of the most confusing signs as it shows up in many other health problems. However, most people who quit drinking (myself included) can say that this symptom was present during alcohol use and disappeared once alcohol was removed. Alcohol is a toxin and has a harsh effect on our organs, even with one or two drinks. Certainly, any binge-drinking incidents (more than 4 drinks for a woman and more than 5 drinks for a man on one occasion) will exacerbate fatigue and brain fog significantly.
Alcohol immediately affects the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. These organs are responsible for digestion, nutrient absorption, and the removal of toxins.With heavy or moderate drinking, these organs have to work extra hard, making us feel tired and sluggish.
2. Mental health issues
Alcohol unequivocally contributes to mental health problems. During the pandemic, people who engaged in heavy or moderate drinking during lockdown developed new or worsening mental health issues. And mental health crises reached an all-time high.
The number one symptom of hangovers and alcohol withdrawal is anxiety.Sometimes this can be very serious and progress to physical signs of neurological distress. Also, alcohol has been known to exacerbate psychotic disorders in a very severe way.
Mental health medications are known to lose their effectiveness when taken with regular doses of alcohol. This means that a person who may have been taking meds to treat a mental health disorder is not receiving the medication’s benefit. This obviously leads to relapses in mental illness, which may further increase alcohol use. Over time, it becomes a downward spiraling problem.
3. Chronic pain
Chronic pain is currently a complex and widespread health issue, especially among women. Many people use alcohol to self-medicate chronic pain. In the beginning, it may seem to work, but over time, this breaks down. The nervous system has to rewire itself to cope under the assault of alcohol. So, with regular alcohol use, chronic pain can get much worse.
One of the fallouts of chronic pain and alcohol use is that many people may also turn to opiates or other pain medication like acetaminophen. Since pain eventually gets much worse, more pain medication is needed. The problem is that those medications and alcohol are very toxic to the liver. Mixing pain medications with alcohol can actually be a fatal combination when taken in high doses. But even when used moderately, it can still cause a low-grade feeling of illness. It can also begin to erode the liver, which can ultimately result in serious liver damage.
4. Digestive disturbances
This is another health issue that can cause the body to struggle under alcohol use. Digestion requires the use of the liver, gallbladder, stomach, and intestines. With alcohol use, these organs have to work harder to clear the alcohol, digest food, and absorb nutrients. Even moderate alcohol use can cause digestive upset. But heavy alcohol use can seriously compromise both nutrient absorption and excretion of toxic wastes.
One of the common side effects of alcohol is thiamine deficiency, which can happen even with moderate daily drinking. Thiamine is essential for nervous system functioning and glucose metabolism. People low in thiamine have serious nerve damage and are at a high risk of developing diabetes. In fact, diabetes is often linked to alcohol abuse, but not many people know that.
Undoubtedly, most people who use alcohol in even small amounts report having heartburn and digestive disturbances. But as alcohol use increases, these problems often increase as well.
5. Microbiome disturbance
The importance of the gut and skin microbiome is getting more attention in recent years. Alcohol kills good bacteria in the gut. This bacteria is required for things like nutrient absorption, immune function, and nervous system stabilization. Actually, an unbalanced microbiome is indicated in many mysterious health issues.
Not only does alcohol kill good gut microbes, it also feeds bad microbes like yeast. Systemic candida, an overgrowth of yeast, has implications in many health problems, including mental illness, brain fog, allergies, obesity, digestive and autoimmune illnesses.
It’s important to know these 5 health signs of excessive alcohol use. Most people don’t realize that these health problems can happen even with moderate drinking. To prevent these issues, it’s recommended to stick only to the safe drinking guidelines, which are 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
However, new research shows that even moderate drinking (drinking that stays within the safe drinking guidelines) may still be problematic. This is especially true for people who have multiple health issues, take medications, or use other drugs.
Nonetheless, to prevent these health issues, the CDC and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism strongly encourage people, especially women, to stick to the safe drinking guidelines only. If a person has trouble sticking to those guidelines, they likely have an alcohol use disorder and need to seek treatment from their doctor.
Lastly, for anyone considering reducing their drinking or quitting, it’s strongly advised to seek medical attention as alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous without medical help.
Here’s a list of research I used to inform this article:
Alcohol Consumption during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults
Drinking to cope with the pandemic: The unique associations of COVID-19-related perceived threat and psychological distress to drinking behaviors in American men and women
CDC: Alcohol and Public Health — Facts about moderate drinking
CDC: Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently asked questions
CDC: Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol use and your health
Interaction Between Psychotropic Medications and Alcohol
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal
Association of Type 2 Diabetes with Liver Cirrhosis
Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health
Alcohol and Medication Interactions
Concurrent substance-related disorders and mental illness: the North American experience
The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease
Alcohol’s Unique Effects on Cognition in Women
Alcohol, microbiome, and their effect on psychiatric disorders
The Gut Microbiome: A new frontier for alcohol investigation
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