Drinking alcohol affects everyone in different ways. There are many variables, including your tolerance to alcohol and your ability to moderate your alcohol consumption, that can influence the range and severity of the long-term effects of alcohol on the mind and body.
The long term effects of alcohol can vary from person to person. While many of the long-term effects of alcohol are physical, there are also potential psychological effects of long-term alcohol use.
This guide addresses common questions including “What long-term effects does alcohol have on the body?” and “What are the long-term effects of drinking on the brain?”.
What is Alcoholism?
Abusing alcohol or drinking heavily will increase your risk of developing alcoholism, clinically described as AUD (alcohol use disorder). You will also be at heightened risk of the health problems associated with alcohol abuse.
AUD is diagnosed using criteria laid down in DSM-5-TR, the fifth revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
If two or three of the following symptoms present, you’ll be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder. The presence of four or five symptoms constitutes moderate alcohol use disorder. Severe alcohol use disorder is characterized by the presence of six or more of the following symptoms
Alcoholism is a chronic and relapsing condition characterized by a strong, compulsive desire to drink alcohol regardless of negative consequences. People with alcoholism often experience physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, which can make it difficult to moderate their alcohol intake.
These are the DSM-5-TR symptoms of alcoholism:
- Drinking more alcohol than intended, and for longer periods than intended.
- Wanting to moderate or discontinue drinking but failing to achieve this.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
- Spending excessive amounts of time drinking and recovering from the effects of alcohol abuse.
- Getting strong cravings for alcohol.
- Failing to fulfill your obligations at home, work, or school because of alcohol use.
- Spending less time on important activities or hobbies due to alcohol abuse.
- Using alcohol in potentially dangerous situations (such as driving).
- Tolerance for alcohol building so you need more to achieve the same effects.
- Drinking alcohol despite physical or emotional problems caused by alcohol.
- Continuing to drink despite negative outcomes and mental health issues.
Consequences of Alcohol Addiction
Those abusing alcohol may have questions like, “How much alcohol is safe to drink daily?” or
“What is considered heavy alcohol use?”. DGA (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025), guidelines suggest men should drink no more than two standard drinks per day, and women no more than one standard drink daily. Regardless of alcohol’s short-term effects, drinking beyond these limits can have significant adverse outcomes, both physically and mentally.
Consuming alcohol to the point that alcohol dependence and alcohol addiction sets in will expose you to the risk of a battery of serious health conditions like liver damage. Some of these long-term effects of alcohol on the body may not manifest until later in life.
With over 95,000 people dying each year in the United States from causes related to alcohol according to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), only smoking and poor diet combined with insufficient exercise kills more people in the U.S. each year when it comes to preventable deaths.
Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism
Before we analyze how alcohol impacts some of the major organs, here is a snapshot of some of alcohol abuse’s long term effects on the body and brain:
- Alcohol hepatitis
- Alcohol poisoning
- Liver fibrosis
- Memory loss
- Diminished attention span
- Reduced white and gray matter in the brain
- Problems learning
- Fatty liver (steatosis)
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Various cancers (mouth, liver, larynx, breast, colorectal, and esophagus
Alcohol is a CNS depressant. That said, alcohol has inconsistent effects on the central nervous system. Under some conditions, you might find yourself excited after drinking, and under other conditions you may feel drowsy and sedated.
At lower doses, alcohol suppresses the part of your brain responsible for inhibitions. Consuming alcohol also impacts core functions like memory, thought, breathing, speech, and movement. The mental effects of drinking alcohol include lowered inhibitions, mood swings, relaxation, slowed reaction times, impaired judgment, confusion, and loss of consciousness. When abused chronically and long-term, alcohol can lead to permanent changes in the brain.
Alcohol use disorder is associated with several mental health conditions, including:
- Major depressive disorder
- GAD (generalized anxiety disorder)
- Other anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
Sometimes, these disorders occur separately from alcohol use disorders, and sometimes they predate AUD. On other occasions, these mental health disorders co-occur with alcohol use disorder in a dual diagnosis.
If you continue to abuse alcohol, you can damage your body in a range of ways. Alcohol’s long-term side effects can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
Abusing alcohol causes your pancreas to produce harmful substances. When left unchecked, this can lead to pancreatitis. With pancreatitis, your pancreas is inflamed to the extent that digestion is impaired.
Other Effects of Long Term Alcohol Use
It is also worth noting that for women who drink excessively while pregnant, fetal alcohol syndrome can develop. This is a dangerous problem in which the child born deals with alcohol withdrawal symptoms after birth. Children will need to be monitored until these symptoms fade.
Drinking abusively over time can lead to more digestive dysfunction, too. Alcohol can wear away the stomach lining, causing more stomach acid to be produced. Alcohol can also affect the absorption and breakdown of nutrients leading to potential nutrient deficiencies. Alcohol can also cause problems with blood sugar regulation.
Alcohol abuse ravages the central nervous system. Vitamin B1 deficiency is associated with severe long-term alcohol abuse. This can cause Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.
If you drink excessively, you’ll increase your risk of developing GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). With GERD – commonly known as gastric reflux – you get a flow of acidic fluid washing back from your stomach into the esophagus. This causes a strong and uncomfortable burning sensation. Gastric reflux is not only extremely uncomfortable but can also lead to reflux esophagitis. This is a more serious condition that involves even more severe backflow of acid partnered with inflammation. In its chronic form, esophagitis can trigger ulcers in your esophagus. It can also cause tearing where your esophagus joins your stomach.
Drinking alcohol excessively has a range of complex effects on cardiovascular health and heart muscle.
CV issues linked to excessive alcohol use include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Blood clots
- Heart attack
CV diseases related to alcohol claim almost 600,000 lives globally, according to WHO data.
Alcoholic liver disease is a long-term effect of alcohol that can be especially damaging. The more you drink excessively over time, the more your liver becomes scarred and inflamed. Heavy drinkers may develop the following conditions:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver cancer
When you drink alcohol, your liver metabolizes the substance. This turns alcohol into a digestible product. Unfortunately, your liver can only process small amounts of alcohol at any one time. The excess alcohol will simply circulate throughout your body.
Alcoholic hepatitis and hepatic steatosis are reversible conditions. In some cases, they will improve with no serious long-term consequences if you stop drinking completely. If drinking continues, symptoms instead often develop into cirrhosis or severe hepatitis, a life-threatening condition.
Even alcohol’s short-term effects impact the areas of your brain controlling motor function and cognitive function. Over time, abusing alcohol can cause permanent changes to brain structure and function, as well as brain damage.
Damage can occur in the:
- Cerebral cortex
- Limbic system
Alcohol can also be a contributory factor in a variety of mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
Short-Term Effects of Alcoholism
Even if you are not binge drinking regularly, you can still expect to encounter a variety of short-term effects on both body and mind.
Your liver is capable of metabolizing one standard drink of alcohol every hour. Many factors can impact this, including:
- Liver function
If you consume more than one standard drink per hour, this typically leads to intoxication, with BAC (blood alcohol concentration) levels climbing with each successive drink.
The short-term effects of alcohol use include:
- Flushed skin
- Loss of coordination
- Lowered inhibitions
- Impaired social judgment and decision-making
- Problems with focus
- Reduced critical judgment
- Mood swings
- Dulled visual perception
- Raised blood pressure
- Reduced core body temperature
- Losing consciousness
What is considered long-term drinking?
Long-term drinking refers to a pattern of alcohol consumption over an extended period, typically years or even decades, that can lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. The exact duration of long-term drinking can vary depending on factors such as frequency, quantity, and individual differences in alcohol metabolism and susceptibility to alcohol-related harms.
Get Help for Alcoholism Recovery at California Detox
If you are addicted to alcohol, we offer a variety of alcohol addiction treatment programs at California Detox in Laguna Beach.
Take advantage of the smoothest pathway to inpatient or outpatient rehab with our supervised medical detox program. Access medications to streamline withdrawal and mitigate cravings. Detox addresses the issue of physical dependence, allowing you to transition into one of the following treatment programs:
- Inpatient program (residential rehab)
- PHP (partial hospitalization program)
- IOP (intensive outpatient program)
- Dual diagnosis treatment program (for co-occurring disorders)
All California Detox treatment programs provide individualized treatment that combines evidence-based interventions and holistic therapies for a whole-body approach to addiction recovery. These include:
- MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
- Group counseling
- Individual counseling
- Psychotherapy (CBT and DBT)
- Family therapy
- Holistic therapy
When you complete your California Detox treatment program, you can step down to a less intensive form of treatment or move back into day-to-day life. You will have an aftercare plan that includes relapse prevention techniques to maximize your chance of sustained recovery from addiction. Call admissions at 949.694.8305 for immediate assistance.