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.

Dec. 30, 2023 4   min read

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According to a recent study, 84.1 percent of people 18 years and older have drank alcohol in their lifetime, and 29.5 million Americans over the age of 12 experienced an alcohol use disorder within the past year.

Health experts agree that the best approach to drinking alcohol is moderation. Moderation generally means one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Examples of one drink include:

  • 12 fl. oz. of beer
  • 5 fl. oz. of wine
  • 5 fl. oz. of distilled spirits (80 proof)

Moderate alcohol consumption is linked to some health benefits. Research shows potential links to reducing heart disease by raising ‘good’ cholesterol, reducing the formation of blood clots, preventing artery damage, and 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,” said Hannah Smith, Associate Chief Operating Officer at Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic. “Too much alcohol consumption can increase your risk of heart disease and other major health complications.”

Below, we explain how alcohol moves through the body and affects physical and mental health while drinking, the day after drinking, and in the long run.

Immediate effects of alcohol

Physical effects

When alcohol first goes into the body, it is not digested like food. Instead, it passes quickly into the bloodstream before mainly affecting four parts of the body: the stomach, brain, kidneys, and liver.

  1. Stomach: Often, 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.
  1. Brain: Alcohol races to the brain within 30 seconds of entering the body. Alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways that help your brain send messages, causing reflexes to slow and reducing 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
  • lack of coordination
  1. Kidneys: Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it increases urine production. When you drink alcohol, you’ll have to urinate more often. At the same time, you become thirsty and need to drink water to avoid becoming dehydrated.
  1. Liver: Alcohol has short-term effects on the liver. The liver oxidizes 95 percent 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 that can alter thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Some people may feel more relaxed after drinking alcohol. This is because alcohol suppresses activity in the part of the brain associated with inhibition. The more alcohol a person drinks, the less balanced their thoughts and emotions become.

“The way that alcohol changes one’s mental health while drinking differs from person to person,” said Katelyn Gregory, Manager of Central Access for Chemical Dependency. “Some people experience more negative emotions while others have the opposite effect.”

Does alcohol help you sleep?

While alcohol can make you feel drowsy and groggy, it actually decreases the quality of sleep – even if it feels like you’re falling asleep faster and sleeping longer.

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

24 hours after drinking alcohol

Physical effects

Often called a hangover, it is common to feel the effects of heavily drinking alcohol the following day. People often experience:

  • 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 some people experience a hangover after just one drink.

Mental effects

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it affects the brain's balance of chemicals linked to 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,” Gregory said.

Studies show heavy drinking and depression influence one another. Research also points to the benefits of reducing alcohol consumption on a person’s mood, memory, and sleep quality.

Long-term effects of alcohol

Physical effects

Heavy consumption of alcohol on a regular basis can have several long-term physical effects

  • Brain: Over time, 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: If a woman drinks while pregnant, the baby has an increased risk of birth defects and mental development issues.

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.”

Alcohol use disorder

Alcohol abuse disorder is a medical condition in which a person has a hard time stopping or controlling their drinking, even if it affects them badly in their social, work, or personal lives.

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. It is always better to ask for help than try to handle it alone.

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

NEXT STEPS Find The Help You Need

Our philosophy is to meet and accept every person 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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