How Can Alcohol Affect the Overall Health of An Individual?
Everything that you consume goes into your internal system and can affect your overall health. When substances like drugs and alcohol are in your system, they can compromise your immune system, which is essential to living a healthy life. This protective system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defend the body against infection. A compromised immune system can be life-threatening, as it can lead to allergic diseases, immunodeficiencies, and autoimmune disorders. Alcohol causes havoc in a healthy body and disrupts the flawless function of the immune system.
How Alcohol Use Can Affect Health
When your immune system is weakened, your body is at a much higher risk for disease. People “who drink chronically are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.” It is not just consistent consumption that lowers immune function, but “drinking a lot on a single occasion slows down your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.”
This data highlights the often overlooked fact that alcohol can affect the overall health of an individual and deteriorate the immune system’s ability to protect them, regardless of how frequently it is consumed.
Alcohol and The Brain
Specific parts of the body are also drastically impacted by alcohol use. In fact, one of the body’s most important organs, the brain, is affected. Alcohol inhibits an individual’s brain functioning when under the influence, but there are long-term effects on the brain as well. When ingested, “alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works.” These alterations to the brain’s function “change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.” Because the brain controls all human functions, alcohol’s impact is significant.
Alcohol and the Heart
Another critical organ, the heart, can be damaged by drinking alcohol, either “a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion.” These heart problems include:
- Cardiomyopathy – stretching, and drooping of heart muscles
- Arrhythmias – irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
Alcohol and the Liver
The liver’s role in the body is essential for heavy drinkers because it breaks down and filters toxic substances in the blood, such as the components in alcohol. Excessive drinking and the consumption patterns of an individual with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), damage the liver and can initiate liver inflammation diseases such as steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
Link Between Alcohol and Cancer
The function of the pancreas is also disrupted by alcohol use. Alcohol makes the pancreas produce toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis (inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion). Then, “as liver cells try to repair the damage, they can end up with mistakes in their DNA, which could lead to cancer.” This then leads to cascading damage on the body and as cancer develops, it can be life-threatening. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, “there is a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer.”
This connection is so strong that in the National Cancer Institute’s Report of Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known carcinogen. A carcinogen is a substance with the ability to cause cancer in humans. Since alcohol has been presented as a known carcinogen, research has been done to investigate this connection. Research teams have gathered evidence which “indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time – the higher his or her risk of developing alcohol-associated cancer.”
According to these findings, it is not the quantity of alcohol consumed that matters most, but rather the consistency with which it is consumed that increases the risk of alcohol-related cancers. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shares that “even those who have no more than one drink per day and binge drinkers (those who consume 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one sitting) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers.” Statistics collected over the years demonstrate that this link between alcohol and cancer is real; based on studies from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.”
The big question then becomes, how does alcohol disrupt the overall health of an individual? How does alcohol trigger cancer in a relatively healthy human body? Alcohol can lead to inflammation and damage to body tissues. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol acts as an irritant, especially in the mouth and throat, which makes those damaged cells in need of repair. Unfortunately, when the cells that are damaged by alcohol repair themselves, there may be mistakes and alterations to DNA, which can ultimately lead to cancer.
When alcohol enters the human system, it is broken down and converted into the toxic substance, acetaldehyde, a chemical that can alter the DNA inside cells. This toxic substance has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Drinking alcohol, “can also lead to oxidative stress in cells, causing them to create more reactive oxygen species (chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen).” These reactive species can destroy the inside of cells, leading to an increased risk of cancer.
Unfortunately, alcohol is not the only toxic substance humans expose themselves to in today’s world. Alcohol can increase the absorption of other harmful chemicals, such as tobacco from cigarette smoking. Drinking alcohol “may help other harmful chemicals, such as those in tobacco smoke, enter the cells lining the upper digestive tract more easily.” This explains why individuals who smoke and drink are much more likely to develop cancers in the mouth or throat than those who just do one or the other. Regardless of how the toxic substances got into the drinker’s system, alcohol lowers the body’s ability to then break down and detoxify from these harmful chemicals.
In addition to increasing the absorption of harmful chemicals, alcohol can also decrease the absorption of essential vitamins and nutrients that the body requires to thrive. Folate, for example, is a vitamin that cells in the body need to remain healthy. This folate absorption issue becomes dangerous for heavy drinkers, who usually have low folate to begin with, only worsening their health with each drink. Having low folate levels has been shown to increase the risk of developing certain cancers like breast and colorectal cancer.
Alcohol consumption can lead to breast cancer. This risk factor is not driven by malabsorption, but hormone levels. Alcohol can affect estrogen and other hormones in the drinker. The American Cancer Society explains that “Alcohol can raise the levels of estrogen, a hormone important in the growth and development of breast tissue. This could affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer.” When a woman is pregnant, alcohol consumption also poses numerous health risks and dangers to the unborn baby. Pregnant drinkers are risking having birth defects or other problems with their fetuses.
Alcohol and Weight Gain
Less severe than the risk of cancer, alcohol can make the drinker gain weight, have low self-confidence, and overall health and wellbeing. It should be noted that having extra weight can also increase the risk of cancer. The American Cancer Society warns that “too much alcohol can add extra calories to the diet, which can contribute to weight gain in some people” and “being overweight or obese is known to increase the risks of many types of cancer.”
Social and Relationship Issues
While there are many long-term, critical health issues associated with alcohol use, there are also short-term and social consequences. Consider the horrible hangovers from drinking too much on top of any social issues that arose from uninhibited behavior. When excessive drinking becomes a problem, it destroys important relationships and responsibilities. It is important to recognize that excessive drinking can cause not only serious health problems but also social problems and internal conflict.
Risk of Alcohol Addiction
Addiction is one of the most serious problems associated with alcohol use. The risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is closely linked, and the repercussions of quitting are unpleasant. Heavy consumers of alcohol who suddenly stop drinking can have physical withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, and other serious problems over the next few days. In many people, this experience can be life-threatening. While most people consider drugs to be worse than a cocktail, alcohol is one of the few substances that can lead to death during withdrawal. This shows the power that alcohol has and how strongly it can affect the overall health of an individual.
It is essential to get help from a professional treatment center if you are struggling with alcohol consumption or to quit safely. At Boardwalk Recovery center, we are aware of all of the ways that alcohol can affect the overall health of an individual. We are here to protect your mind, body, and spirit from the effects of alcohol through an abstinence journey and commitment to a sober lifestyle.