Judith Coulson is a certified corporate wellness specialist and a positive psychology, nutrition and lifestyle coach working with individuals, executive teams, schools and companies. She is studying for an MSc Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at UEL and blogs for Your Universe.
What alcohol does to your body
Thirty seconds after your first sip, alcohol races into your brain. This time frame might differ depending on what (and how much) you ate before drinking and how much fatty acid flows in your blood. The alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways that your brain cells use to send messages, altering your mood, slowing your reflexes and throwing you off balance. You also can’t think straight, which you may not recall later because you’ll struggle to store things in long-term memory.
Your brain shrinks
If you drink more than a moderate consumption for a long time, alcohol can affect how your brain looks and works. Its cells start to change and even get smaller. Too much alcohol can shrink your brain, resulting in a non-reversible effect on your ability to think, learn and remember things. It can also make it harder to keep a steady body temperature and control your movements.
What is moderate alcohol consumption?
Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. Personally, I believe that these recommendations are far too generous. As alcohol consumption research is ethically difficult to conduct, no study has so far been conducted to really measure the possible health damage of these guidelines.
Examples of one drink include:
- Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 millilitres)
- Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 millilitres)
- Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 millilitres)
Alcohol can make you drowsy, so you may doze off more easily. But you won’t sleep well. Your body processes alcohol throughout the night and once the effects wear off, it leaves you tossing and turning. You won’t fall into a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage, which your body needs to restore itself and you are more likely to have nightmares.
More stomach acid
Booze irritates the lining of your stomach and makes your digestive juices flow. When enough acid and alcohol build up, you get nauseated and you may throw up. Months of heavy drinking can cause painful stomach ulcers.
Diarrhea and heartburn
Alcohol irritates your small intestines and throws off the speed which your food normally travels through them. Regular drinking can lead to diarrhea, which can turn into a long-term problem. It also makes heartburn more likely – it relaxes the muscle that keeps acid out of your oesophagus, which is the tube that connects your mouth and stomach.
Your brain gives off a hormone that keeps your kidneys from making too much urine. But when alcohol swings into action, it tells your brain to hold off. That means you have to urinate more often, which can leave you dehydrated. When you drink heavily for months, that extra workload and the toxic effects of alcohol can wear your kidneys down.
Your liver breaks down almost all the alcohol you drink. In the process, it handles a lot of toxins. Over time, heavy drinking makes the organ fatty and starts to build up thicker and fibrous tissue. That limits blood flow, so that the liver cells don’t get what they need to survive. As they die off, the liver gets scars and stops working overtime leading to liver cirrhosis.
Pancreas damage and diabetes
Normally, the pancreas makes insulin and other chemicals that help your intestines break down food. But alcohol jams that process up. The chemicals stay inside the pancreas. Along with toxins from alcohol, they cause inflammation in the organ, which can lead to serious damage. Over time you won’t be able to make the insulin you need, which can lead to diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
What is a hangover?
That cotton-mouthed, bleary-eyed morning-after is no accident. Alcohol is dehydrating and expands the blood vessels in your body and brain, often leading to headaches. Your stomach wants to get rid of the toxins and acid that booze churns up, which can result in nausea and vomiting. Because your liver was so busy processing alcohol, it didn’t release enough sugar into your blood, which can cause a feeling weakness.
An offbeat heart
One night of binge drinking can jumble the electrical signals that keep your heart’s rhythm steady. If you do it for years, you can make those changes permanent. And, alcohol can literally wear your heart out. Over time, it causes heart muscles to droop and stretch, like an old rubber band. It can’t pump blood efficient enough anymore, what impacts every part of your body.
Alcohol widens your blood vessels, allowing more blood flow to your skin. That makes you blush and feel warm and toasty while you are drinking. In the long-term, heavy drinking boosts your blood pressure and increases the release of stress hormones that narrow blood vessels, so your heart has to pump harder to push blood through.
Weak immune system
You might not link a cold with a night of drinking, but there might be a connection. Alcohol puts the brakes on your immune system; for 24 hours after drinking, you are more likely to get sick. Long-term, heavy drinkers are more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Hormones manage everything from your sex drive to how fast you digest food. To keep it all going smoothly, you need them in the right balance. But alcohol throws them out of whack. In women, that can knock your periods off cycle and cause problems getting pregnant. In men, it can mean trouble getting an erection, a lower sperm count, shrinking testicles, and breast growth.
Thin bones, less muscle
Regular alcohol consumption can throw off your calcium levels. Along with the hormone changes that alcohol triggers, and the loss of restorative sleep, that can lead to the loss of bone density in men and women. Alcohol also limits the blood flow to your muscles and gets in the way of the proteins that build them up. Over time, you experience a lower muscle mass and less strength.