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What Changes to the Body Does Alcohol Create? (& Can You Fix Them?)

Alcohol has many effects on the body, some more serious than others. While intoxicated, alcohol can give you a sense of improved mood, reduced anxiety, and lowered inhibitions. Have you ever wondered how alcohol produces these effects on your body?

How Alcohol Affects the Body

When you drink alcohol, about 20 percent of it gets absorbed by your stomach, and the other 80 percent gets absorbed by your small intestine. The concentration of alcohol in your drink, the type of drink you have, and whether your stomach is full of food or not all impact how the alcohol is absorbed.

Once the alcohol is absorbed, it enters your bloodstream and starts to dissolve. From there, it enters tissues throughout the body, creating its intoxicating effects.

As you consume alcohol, your body recognizes it as a toxin and begins to work hard on filtering it out of your system. The three ways that alcohol leaves the body are:

  1. Through the kidneys: About 5 percent is secreted through urine.
  2. Through the lungs: About 5 percent is exhaled through breath.
  3. Through the liver: Most alcohol is chemically broken down in the liver.

Every time you drink, you put stress on many organs throughout the body, primarily the liver. Most people experience serious health effects following chronic long-term drinking, as seen with an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol can make serious changes to your body, however, with moderate drinking or acute episodes, such as binge drinking, as well.

fun responsible alcohol use

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol can be felt within minutes of your first drink and last for a number of hours, depending on how much you drink. Signs of intoxication range from feeling slightly relaxed to becoming unconscious.

Monitoring how much you drink, how quickly you drink, and how much food you have at the same time are ways to reduce your risks of experiencing some of the more serious short-term effects of alcohol.

There are additional short-term effects of alcohol.

  • Feeling giddy or happy
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Distorted senses and perception
  • Memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

The short-term effects listed above are likely to go away as alcohol is metabolized out of your system. The morning after a night of heavy drinking, however, may greet you with symptoms of a hangover.

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Dry mouth and eyes
  • Dehydration
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness

Most hangovers go away after about 24 hours, though it is possible to feel the effects of a heavy night of drinking for a couple days. Although all of the above side effects of drinking and a hangover are expected to resolve with time, they do indicate changes to your body caused by alcohol.

It is important to pay attention to how much you are drinking and how your body responds to alcohol to reduce your risk of developing any serious long-term effects of drinking.

Long-Term Effects

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking too much, especially over time, can cause serious health consequences. Alcohol is a toxic substance that can make harmful changes to your brain, heart, liver, and pancreas. Consuming alcohol also increases your chances of developing certain cancers, such as head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancer.

Specific health conditions linked to heavy drinking include the following:

  • Cardiomyopathy (elongating and drooping of the heart muscle)
  • Arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat)
  • Fibrosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Steatosis (fatty liver)
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Stroke
  • Pancreatitis

In addition to the above conditions, sustained heavy use of alcohol can cause physical changes to the brain that change how it works. These changes can affect mood and behavior. They make it harder for people to think clearly and maintain physical coordination.

The immune system is also greatly impacted by heavy drinking — in a single episode and over time. NIAAA reports that chronic drinkers are more likely to catch diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who only drink in moderation. Even following a single occasion of heavy of drinking, the immune system is suppressed for up to 24 hours.

woman sitting from drug use

Can Negative Effects Be Reversed?

Depending on the severity of the changes alcohol has made to your body, it is possible to reverse them, though some effects cannot be fixed. Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD), for example, occurs in three main stages and the possibility of treating each stage decreases as the diseases advance.

The stages of ARLD include:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease. The first stage of ARLD, alcoholic fatty liver disease refers to a buildup of fats on the liver. This is a reversible disease that you can treat by stopping all alcohol consumption for at least two weeks.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis. The second stage of ARLD, alcoholic hepatitis, is the first time you may experience symptoms of liver disease. The damage is usually reversible if you stop drinking immediately and permanently. Severe alcoholic hepatitis that is left untreated can be life-threatening.
  • Cirrhosis. The third stage of ARLD, cirrhosis means your liver has become irreversibly scarred by alcohol. Immediate and permanent cessation of all alcohol consumption will prevent further damage and increase life expectancy.

Other negative effects caused by alcohol, such as brain damage, also vary in how much can be reversed. Depending on the amount of damage that has already been done, it is likely that at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning will occur following extended periods of abstinence.

Studies have found that people who remain abstinent for at least a year are likely to experience a reverse in damage done to their brains by drinking, though noted improvement can be observed much sooner.

How to Fix Negative Impacts of Alcohol

Your best shot of fixing the negative impacts that alcohol has made on your body is to stop drinking alcohol and allow your body time to recover. There is no way to reverse the impacts alcohol has made on your body if you continue to put alcohol into your system, even in moderation.

Ways to support your body in recovery include eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and engaging in new experiences. These activities can stimulate the growth of new cells in your brain and throughout your body to promote recovery.

In addition to taking steps to address negative physical effects of alcohol on your body, it is important to take care of the mental and emotional effects of drinking as well. The mind and body are deeply connected, so it is unlikely that you will be able to treat your physical symptoms entirely without addressing negative psychological effects from alcohol. Participating in a recovery program, support groups, or speaking with a counselor can help you develop a holistic approach to addressing the impacts alcohol has had on you and your body. 

SOURCES

Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

How Alcohol Works. How Stuff Works: Science.

How to Reverse Brain Damage from Long-Term Alcohol Use. (December 2018). Verywell Mind.

Overview: Alcohol-Related Liver Disease. (October 2018). National Health Service UK.

What Effects Does Alcohol Have on Health? (February 2018). Medical News Today.

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