The immediate effects of alcohol can be varied, depending on the drinker. Some people become vivacious, friendly and talkative. Others become quiet and philosophical. There is variance on how alcohol will affect the same person on two different drinking occasions. One person may seek companionship and social interaction for enjoyable drinking; another may seek solitude for consuming alcohol. Alcohol may increase aggressive behavior for some, melancholy for others.
What is predictable with alcohol is the physiological impact on the human brain and body. There are recognizable effects to the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and systems of the body. These begin with a feeling of release and pleasure that most experience with the first drink. There is an immediate sensation of warmth spreading from the stomach through the body. As alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, relaxation and lessening of tension is experienced.
How Alcohol Affects Behavior
As alcohol is consumed, responses to outside stimuli are impaired, as are judgment and reflexes and muscle movement.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions governing day to day behavior, allowing them to relax their “guard” on what they do and say. This leads to more fun and freedom for some; however, some become unruly, loud and obnoxious. As they consume more alcohol, drinkers do things they find damaging to their own moral values and socially dangerous. Many become increasingly aggressive and have future cause for regret or embarrassment.
Sexual behavior often becomes promiscuous when drinking, although arousal is actually depressed by alcohol consumption. Risky sexual behavior becomes more frequent as drinking increases.
Other risk-taking behaviors take place, such as illegally driving while intoxicated, or operating dangerous equipment and machinery. Because thinking and response are slowed and disrupted, decision making is impaired by alcohol.
How Alcohol Affects Your Brain
Initially, alcohol creates blurrier vision; slower reaction time, memory lapses, poor balance and coordination, and decreases inhibitions in the drinker. All of this takes place within two to three drinks. This damage is repairable for those who stop drinking at this point. For those who continue to consume alcohol, and more frequently, this damage becomes permanent.
Over time, alcohol has been shown to lead to brain damage. Vitamin deficiency from heavy drinking is one factor in this damage. Health-related damage to tissues and other vital organs susceptible to alcohol impact the brain even further. Some of the cell loss in the brain may be reversed with the cessation of drinking, but some will be permanent. Memory lapses (blackouts) that occur with varying degrees of frequency for heavy drinkers can and do become permanent memory loss.
Alcohol slows the communication system among neurotransmitters in the brain. Primarily affected are the cerebellum, limbic system, and cerebral cortex. The cerebellum controls balance and motor coordination in the body. Alcohol damage to this part of the brain results in loss of equilibrium, memory and emotional regulation. Limbic system damage from alcohol impairs memory and emotional functions. The cerebral cortex is an intricate part of the brain that links to the nervous system, and also controls ability to plan, reason, and behave appropriately in social environments. Ability to remember, learn, or problem-solve are impacted with damage to this part of the brain.
How Alcohol Affects Your Body
- Over-consumption of alcohol, even one drinking binge, can lead to damage of the heart. Common heart problems seen in heavy drinkers are high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), and poor heart-muscle tone, otherwise known as cardiomyopathy.
- Liver disease is the most recognized side-effect of drinking. The damage can be repaired for some, but not all drinkers, with abstinence. Others die from the effects of long-term drinking, while some are susceptible to permanent damage within a short time. The most frequent diseases stemming from heavy drinking are fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. While these are serious and life-threatening by themselves, they also impact the brain by allowing toxins to permeate the brain that the liver can no longer filter from the bloodstream. This disease, called hepatic encephalopathy, causes mood/personality/behavior changes, depression, anxiety, decreased attention-span, shakiness in hands, and leads to coma or death. Treatment is possible and liver damage is sometimes reversible with drinking cessation.
- Drinking alcohol interrupts the normal process of the pancreas in sending digestive enzymes into the small intestine. Repeated interruption of this process creates inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis. This can lead to diabetes or death. Known to be a factor in the development of pancreatic cancer, this condition can be life threatening, but is not as common as other diseases caused by alcoholic drinking.
- Alcohol inhibits the immune system, making drinkers more highly prone to diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Immune system damage lasts for up to 24 hours after the last drink is consumed.
- The National Cancer Institute has recognized alcohol consumption as a risk factor for certain types of cancer. These are cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast. While there is no direct causal link between alcohol and these cancers, some of the statistics are dire. 7 of 10 persons developing mouth cancer are heavy drinkers and women drinkers having 5 drinks daily are 1.2 times more likely to get colon cancer than those who do not drink. Smoking behaviors associated with drinking increase cancer risks greatly when combining the two risky behaviors.
Alcohol breakdown by the liver creates a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, which damages cells and causes abnormal cellular growth. Both of these are factors known to promote the growth of cancerous cells.