Primary Care

How Alcohol Affects the Body

What exactly happens in the body when alcohol is consumed? We break down both the mental and physical effects of alcohol today, tomorrow, and in the long-term.

Jun. 8, 2021 4   min read


According to a recent study, 85.6% of people 18 years and older have consumed alcohol in their lifetime, and 14.4 million Americans over the age of 12 experienced an alcohol use disorder within the past year.

“Whether you consume alcohol occasionally or you find yourself drinking every day, alcohol affects your body and mind from the moment you take your first sip,” said Hannah Smith, Clinical Nutrition Manager in our Eastern Region.

“As more alcohol is consumed in the moment or over time, the effects of alcohol strengthen and can become damaging.”

We break down exactly how alcohol affects physical and mental health while drinking, the day after drinking, and in the long run. 

In the Moment

Physical Effects 

When alcohol goes into the body, it doesn’t digest. Instead, it passes quickly into the bloodstream. After affecting the stomach and brain, it travels to the kidneys and liver.

First, alcohol hits the stomach. Oftentimes, drinking a small amount of alcohol can increase appetite because it increases the flow of liquids in the stomach. However, drinking too much alcohol can diminish appetite and even cause an ulcer due to the combination of stomach acid and alcohol.

Alcohol’s next stop: the brain. When the first sip of alcohol is taken, it races to your brain within the next thirty seconds. Alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways that help your brain send messages. This causes reflexes to slow and reduces the ability to balance. As more alcohol is consumed, physical coordination and the speed of reflexes continue to lower. 

After a number of drinks, depending on your body, you’ll likely experience:

  • word slurring
  • blurry vision
  • a lack of coordination

Then, the alcohol is on to the kidneys. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it increases urine production. When you drink alcohol, you’ll have to urinate more often, leading to thirst and dehydration.

Alcohol has short-term effects on the liver. The liver oxidizes 95% of the alcohol you consume, meaning that it converts alcohol into water and carbon monoxide. The liver can generally oxidize one standard alcoholic drink an hour, so drinking too much will overwhelm it.

Mental Effects

When alcohol goes into the brain, it affects the balance of chemicals and signal processes. This can affect your thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

The reason that some may feel more relaxed after a drink of alcohol is that the alcohol suppresses the part of the brain associated with inhibition. As more alcohol is consumed, the brain becomes less balanced, and normal thoughts and emotions become more scattered.

“The way that alcohol changes one’s mental health while drinking differs from person to person. However, people commonly experience an increase in negative emotions as more alcohol is consumed, such as anger, aggression, anxiety, and depression,” said Katelyn Gregory, Manager of Central Access for Chemical Dependency.

Does alcohol help you sleep?

While alcohol can make you feel drowsy and groggy, it does not help you sleep. Alcohol decreases the quality of sleep, even if it feels like you’re falling asleep faster and for longer.

“After drinking, you’re less likely to get good REM sleep and you’re more likely to experience nightmares or vivid dreams.”

The Next Day

Physical Effects

Feeling the effects of alcohol the day after regular heavy consumption is common—often called a “hangover.” The term labels a set of unpleasant symptoms that are often experienced the day after drinking alcohol, including:

  • thirst
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • diarrhea and nausea
  • fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and shaking
  • dry mouth and eyes
  • poor concentration
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • poor or restless sleep

These symptoms are a result of a combination of ways that alcohol affects the body, including dehydration, inflammation, irritation of the stomach lining, lessening of blood sugar, and expansion of blood vessels.

In general, the more you drink, the more likely you’ll experience such symptoms the next day. However, everyone is different, and many people experience a hangover after just one drink.

Mental Effects

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it affects the brain's level of chemicals that increase mood, like dopamine and serotonin.

“Some people may feel a boost in mood while drinking in small amounts, too much alcohol consumption can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety the following day,” said Gregory.

Studies have demonstrated that depression can result from heavy drinking and that reducing alcohol consumption can improve mood. 

The Long Term

Physical Effects

Alcohol has several long-term physical effects on the body, especially when consumed heavily and regularly. The impact that it has on the body begins as soon as you take your first sip and it affects many different parts of the body.

  • Brain: Alcohol can shrink the frontal lobes of your brain, which are responsible for voluntary movement, emotional expression, memory, judgment, and more.
  • Heart: Chronic heavy alcohol consumption is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.
  • Liver: Long-term alcohol use can damage the liver and prevent it from properly filtering harmful substances from your body.
  • Pancreas: Excessive alcohol consumption is a leading cause of chronic pancreatitis. Additionally, long-term alcohol consumption can decrease pancreatic function, potentially leading to blood sugar issues such as hyperglycemia.
  • Digestive system: Drinking too much can lead to bloating, gas, and painful ulcers. It can also damage your intestines, leading to diarrhea or stomach pain.
  • Reproductive system: Over a longer period, excessive drinking may lead to infertility in women and sexual dysfunction in men. If a woman drinks while pregnant, the baby has an increased risk of birth defects and mental development issues.

Mental Effects

Drinking heavily and regularly has been shown to be associated with symptoms of depression. Alcohol affects the nerve-chemical systems in the body that are important in regulating mood. Research has linked symptoms of depression to regular or heavy consumption of alcohol.

Gregory adds that long-term heavy drinking can lead to a variety of mental health issues, including alcohol dependency.

“Factors like drinking at an early age, genetics and family history, and history of trauma can increase the risk of alcohol dependency.”

Can alcohol be healthy in moderation?

According to the Mayo Clinic, drinking alcohol in moderation generally means drinking up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Examples of one drink include:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (80 proof)

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide certain health benefits. For example, red wine has certain ingredients that are proven to be beneficial to heart health due to antioxidants in red wine that can help protect the lining of blood vessels in the heart. Another ingredient in red wine, resveratrol, may help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce “bad” cholesterol, and prevent blood clots.

Wine isn’t the only alcohol that may be heart-healthy. Drinking any alcohol in moderation has been shown to potentially reduce heart disease by:

  • Raising “good” cholesterol
  • Reducing the formation of blood clots
  • Preventing artery damage
  • Improving the function of the cell lining of blood vessels

“While moderate drinking can have a variety of health benefits, heavy drinking does just the opposite,” explains Smith. “Too much alcohol consumption can increase your risk of heart disease and other major health complications.” 

Alcohol Abuse Disorder

Alcohol abuse disorder is a medical condition in which a person has difficulties stopping or controlling their consumption of alcohol, despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.

Gregory says it’s always better to ask for help.

“Handling something like alcohol abuse disorder is different for every individual experiencing it. Seeking help is the best way to fully understand your body, your mind, and your next steps in recovery. 

For those experiencing alcohol dependency, the long-term mental and physical effects are more severe and can include hallucinations, liver damage, severe depression, and more. Our Chemical Dependency team at Rochester Regional Health provides a variety of comprehensive and personalized treatment options alongside resources and information for those seeking support.

For a same-day chemical dependency evaluation, call SAFELINE at 585-723-SAFE (7233).

NEXT STEPS About Our Chemical Dependency Services

At Rochester Regional Health, our philosophy is to meet and accept every individual wherever they are in their path of recovery. We support our patients in recognizing the harmful effects of continued abuse and help them to adapt new skills to manage their addiction.

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