5 Surprising Ways Alcohol Harms Your Body

alcohol abuse

Living under lockdown and being quarantined has led to an upswing in the alcohol we Americans drink. A  Nielsen survey found that as of March 31, 2020, as stay-at-home orders were being issued across the country, alcohol sales increased by 54% at brick-and-mortar stores and 262% online, compared with the year before. A September study of 6,000 adults published inJAMA Network reported  that participants had increased their alcohol consumption by 14% compared to how much they drank in 2019. 

“Rates of both alcohol-related emergency department visits and deaths are increasing,” says George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “The CDC estimates that around half, 51,000, of alcohol-related deaths stem from the effects of chronic alcohol use on health, while the other half,44,000, stems from injuries, such as from car crashes and overdoses, caused by acute consumption of alcohol.”

Whatever the reasons, drinking alcohol in excess can lead to harmful and lasting results for the drinker and those in his or her orbit. Below are five effects of alcohol abuse you may not have been aware of:

1) Affects Stress Hormones

When faced with anxiety, uncertainty or fear, the body produces cortisol, a stress hormone which triggers your “fight or flight” response. Cortisol increases your heart rate and blood pressure while reducing inflammation. Alcohol consumption, which can lessen anxiety and stress, also acts as a stressor when you become intoxicated and can turn ramp up the cortisol levels. A study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that people who were intoxicated, alcohol-dependent patients, and those going through withdrawal, had elevated levels of cortisol compared to an abstinent group. 

2) Releases Bacterial Toxins

A 2014 study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that having four drinks in a night (characterized as binge drinking)  just once can let endotoxins from gut bacteria enter the body and trigger inflammation. “Alcohol causes the epithelial layer of the intestines to become more permeable, allowing components of bacteria to enter the bloodstream,” says Koob. This can cause inflammation throughout the body, which is thought to play a role in the damage alcohol causes in the liver, brain, heart and, potentially, other organs. 

3) Harms the Brain

Chronic excessive drinking can disrupt neurochemical circuits in the brain and even damage it, leading to lingering problems with motivation, stress, mood, attention, memory and other cognitive skills, says Koob. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that acetate, which is a byproduct of alcohol’s breakdown in the liver, makes its way to the brain’s learning and memory centers and alters proteins that regulate DNA functions. 

4) Disrupts Sleep

Using alcohol to get to sleep can keep you up. . Chronic loss of sleep or of restful sleep can lead to other health problems like depression or even heart disease. A 2014 study from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that using alcohol as a sleep aid can interfere with the sleep homeostasis, or the body’s sleep-regulating system. Researchers confirmed that while alcohol does help you sleep by increasing production of adenosine, a molecule that promotes sleep when levels are high,  it also shifts the sleep period, resulting in poorer quality sleep.

5) Worsens Coronavirus’ Effects

“There are reasons to suspect that alcohol could reduce the ability of the body to protect against COVID-19 and might worsen the prognosis,” says Koob. Since the pandemic started, a flood of patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a potentially fatal lung condition that often requires use of a ventilator, have turned up at medical facilities. A 2009 study in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology showed that patients with a history of excessive alcohol use who survive ARDS spend more time in the intensive care unit and on mechanical ventilation.

If you drink , remember that the health effects of chronic alcohol consumption are influenced by a variety of factors, including how much and how often you drink, says Koob. U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend daily drinks of one for a woman and two for a man. A typical U.S. serving of alcohol contains 6 ounces, or 14 grams, of pure ethyl alcohol, which is what’s in a 12-ounce beer,  or seltzer with 5% alcohol (such as White Claw). That corresponds to a 5 ounces  of wine with 12% alcohol or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits with 40%, 80-proof, alcohol. 

Adam Bible

Adam Bible is a veteran media professional with bylines in outlets like Men's Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Gear Junkie, Best Life, Road & Track, and Eat This, Not That!.

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