How Alcohol Damages the Body: Everything You Need to Know

A man sitting pouring alcohol in a glass

From the moment you take your first sip, alcohol begins interacting with nearly every cell of your body. It travels through your bloodstream, mingles with your organs, and begins to influence the delicate reward center in your brain. While a single sip might not harm you, long-term use can cause physical changes to the brain. These changes impact your perception, impulse control, and even your lifespan. Once you understand how alcohol damages the body, you might rethink your relationship with substances.

Luckily, many of the effects of alcohol are reversible with the proper treatment and support. At New Life Recovery Center, we’re experts at treating alcohol addictions. Our compassionate staff helps struggling individuals reclaim their bodies and lives.

Successful recovery begins with knowledge and experience. We want to help you understand the real impact of substances on the body. Read on to learn how an intensive outpatient program can save your life.

How Alcohol Affects Your Organs

While your liver works hard to process alcohol, the substance still passes through your entire bloodstream before hitting your brain. That means it impacts nearly every organ in the body. Over time, organs sustain more and more damage, some of which may become permanent.

You can avoid many of these effects if you pursue treatment for substance use disorders. We’ve outlined some of the most common effects of alcohol on the internal organs below.

Liver Damage

The role of your liver is to remove toxins that enter your bloodstream. When you take prescribed medications, the liver breaks them down into their component parts and removes anything harmful. Upon drinking alcohol, your liver’s job is to purge the poisonous substances from your blood.

The detoxification process yields many harmful waste products, however. Over time, these can damage the cells of your liver, and it will be unable to perform basic filtering functions.

One potential health complication is chronic liver inflammation. This can lead to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis is painful and typically permanent.

When waste products build up in your bloodstream, they can cause liver damage or long-term disease. The early symptoms of alcohol-related liver damage include:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Jaundice of the skin and eyes
  • Swelling and distention
  • Lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Blood in the stool

Liver disease is often deadly and requires medical intervention. Alcoholism causes 80% of all liver disease-related deaths.

Kidney Damage

The kidneys are also responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood. They work best when the body is fully hydrated.

When you consume alcohol, you deprive your kidneys of the water they need to do their job. Your body may struggle to maintain its optimal fluid balance. Doctors call this acute kidney injury.

Symptoms of kidney damage include:

  • Fluid retention
  • Swelling in the lower extremities
  • Reduced appetite
  • Pain in the back
  • Urine changes

No matter how much you drink, your kidneys must work harder than necessary to compensate. Heavy drinking can double your odds of developing incurable chronic kidney disease. You may require lifelong dialysis or an invasive kidney transplant.

Pancreas Damage

The pancreas works with the liver to regulate your body’s sugar levels. It sends signals to your brain telling it how much insulin you need. Pancreas damage can cause your body to produce too much or too little insulin.

Hypoglycemia refers to low blood sugar. This can cause shaking, sweating, and feelings of anxiety. It can impact your hunger levels and cause difficulty with focus and concentration.

Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, mimics common symptoms of diabetes. If your pancreas sustains permanent damage, a doctor may diagnose you with Type 2 diabetes.

If you fail to pursue treatment, your body will use fat instead of sugar for energy. This can cause ketoacidosis, which often causes coma or death.

Digestive System Damage

Your digestive system includes your mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, intestines, rectum, and anus. Long-term alcohol use and binge drinking can damage the cells throughout the system. If you continue to drink, the symptoms and effects can worsen.

Your intestines are responsible for absorbing nutrients from the food you consume. If they become damaged, your body may fail to use the energy you should be getting from food. You may become malnourished or vitamin deficient, even if you eat a healthy diet.

When alcohol impacts your stomach, it can interfere with acid and enzyme production. It can dissolve the mucous lining, causing lesions, bleeding, and inflammation. If your stomach struggles to digest food, it can cause painful bacteria build-up.

Even moderate drinking can increase your risk of developing certain colorectal cancers by 20-50%. The more you drink, the more likely you are to develop cancer.

Cardiac Damage

Some studies suggest that certain kinds of alcohol, such as wine, promote heart health. In fact, doctors argue that correlation and causation are less clear-cut. The antioxidants in wine only appear to positively impact the body if you drink a single glass a day (or fewer).

If you drink more, you’ll begin to see negative effects, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Strokes
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • Anemia

Damage to your heart tissue is often permanent. You may sustain damage long before experiencing physical symptoms. Many of the above health complications can be fatal or cause lifelong physical or cognitive impairments.

Lung Damage

Your heart and lungs work together to move oxygen and blood throughout the body. Damage to one organ system can impact related organs, and chronic alcohol consumption can cause inflammation throughout the body. The lungs are susceptible to both types of damage.

Many alcoholics experience ARLD (or alcohol-related lung disease). This occurs when chronic alcohol consumption damages the immune system. It describes a range of adverse symptoms and syndromes.

These conditions may include:

  • Pneumonia
  • RSV
  • Tuberculosis
  • ARDS
  • Asthma
  • Oxidative damage

All these conditions make breathing difficult, and many present with anxiety, confusion, and lack of focus. It is challenging to accomplish tasks of daily living with a chronic pulmonary illness.

How Alcohol Affects Your Sexual Health

In popular culture, people often associate alcohol with sexual exploits. When your inhibitions are low, the potential for such encounters might increase. Over time, however, alcohol in the bloodstream can impact the production of sexual hormones, lowering your libido and preventing the body from becoming erect or achieving an orgasm.

Excessive drinking also has implications for reproduction. It can impact the menstrual cycle, alter your reproductive hormones, and cause infertility. Even light drinking can decrease fertility in the female body.

Furthermore, alcohol consumption can cause reduced testosterone levels. It can impair the cells that help sperm cells mature. This can also negatively impact fertility.

In some cases, drinking may reduce male secondary sexual characteristics such as body hair and muscle development.

No amount of alcohol is safe for pregnant people.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol use can cause physical changes in the brain. These changes can affect everything from your ability to form memories to your personality. Alcohol can also trigger or exacerbate many mental health conditions requiring treatment, creating a dangerous vicious cycle.

Some mental health conditions may only present symptoms during intoxication. These disorders become more severe in individuals experiencing alcohol dependence.

They include:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Psychotic disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Sleep disorder

Alcohol-induced conditions typically improve or even resolve during sobriety. Alcohol treatment programs can help many individuals find relief from conditional mental health symptoms.

Some of alcohol’s effects on the brain are more permanent, however. One of the more frightening effects is brain shrinkage, in which your brain decreases in physical size. This indicates brain damage, causing permanent learning and memory problems.

Some individuals may also develop Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. In the short term, this disorder can cause confusion, poor coordination, and paralysis of the eye muscles. Up to 90% of individuals with the syndrome will go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, causing severe anterograde amnesia.

We Understand How Alcohol Damages the Body

Alcohol may harm the body, but the right alcohol addiction treatment center can support you in reversing alcohol damage. The process begins with compassionate, supervised detox support and extends to individual and group therapy. If you’re struggling with an addiction to alcohol, now is the right time to seek help and pursue wellness.

At New Life Recovery Center, we understand how alcohol damages the body. Our intensive outpatient program ensures that all individuals regain control of their health and learn the strategies they need to thrive. Contact us today to begin your journey towards sobriety.