A psychoactive drug, which alters the body, causes lots of side effects and is potentially lethal. Most people would be horrified at this description but this drug is legal. Its name? Alcohol.
Known scientifically as ethanol, the results of alcohol abuse can be significant and severe, although the circumstances and the volume consumed will determine the consequences. For example, drinking after you’ve eaten produces very different effects that drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. It’s therefore vital to consider all the factors when you’re deciding how much to drink.
What does alcohol do to the body?
Alcohol can be very deceptive because the initial sensations can be very pleasant, enticing individuals to drink more to maintain the effects. However the happiness and contentment can wear off as the toxic effects of alcohol are felt, and co-ordination difficulties and blurred vision start to appear.
With excessive amounts of alcohol, a loss of consciousness can occur and in particularly high volumes, the consumption of alcohol can even result in poisoning or death.
The membranes around the body’s cells are powerless to prevent alcohol from invading, and once circulating in the blood, alcohol floods the majority of tissues in the body.
Once this high alcohol blood content is achieved, cardiorespiratory arrest can occur or asphyxiation due to drowning in vomit. This is because the gag reflex that enables the body to be able to expel vomit is unable to respond in the proper way because of the inhibitive effects of alcohol.
Once drunk, alcohol typically takes around 30-90 minutes to hit the bloodstream. When it does, there can be an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and the need to sleep. This is due to a drop in blood sugar as the alcohol speeds up the conversion of glycogen into glucose, which is then quickly expelled.
The stages of intoxication
Alcohol will affect individuals in different ways depending on their individual constitution and the circumstances in which it is consumed.
Broadly speaking, there are a number of different stages of being intoxicated and the ways in which it manifests:
- A drop in inhibitions, increased excitement and impulsiveness as well as euphoria are the first signs that alcohol is having an effect.
- True intoxication occurs next which typically includes a lack of co-ordination and balance.
- Next comes confusion and irritability, sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, agitation and headaches.
- An anaesthetic effect occurs next with stupor and incoherent speech. Consciousness is noticeably reduced, breathing may become laboured and the individual may become incontinent. The limbs lack any muscular strength.
- The final, and fifth, stage is death. This is when cardiovascular shock, respiratory arrest and ultimately death occurs.
Short and long term effects of alcohol consumption
Even if an individual feels unaffected by alcohol, there will be a significant impact on the body in both the short and the long term.
A number of different organs and systems are typically affected.
Nervous system and the brain
Alcohol has a particularly profound effect on the nervous system and on the brain and has the ability to cause any or all of the following:
- A change in neurotransmitter activity. Both their structure and function change. This can result in a deterioration in the ability to react and respond, with impaired reflexes and coordination. Other symptoms such as shaking and hallucinations can occur. Inability to concentrate, memory loss, motor functions and loss of self-control are all also liable to occur.
- Overall brain function will be affected resulting in fluctuations in mood and emotions, and problems with speech.
- The manifestations in the brain and nervous system are the cause of a significant number of both traffic and work-related accidents, which cause not just severe disability but also death.
- Permanent damage to both the cells and the peripheral nerves.
- Loss of vitamin B1, resulting in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This causes changes in memory, cognition and emotions.
- Sleep disorders.
- Permanent brain damage and coma when consumed in high volumes.
- Amnesia lasting anything from minutes to days.
The heart and respiratory system
- push up blood pressure creating the risk of cardiac damage
- increase activity within the heart muscle
- reduce the heart’s ability to pump effectively by weakening the muscle
- raise skin temperature by causing peripheral vasodilation, which in turn produces a reddening of the skin.
In the digestive system
The digestive system is particularly affected by alcohol in its entirety, not least because the gastric mucosa is irritated and eroded by ethanol. This results in a burning sensation within the stomach. The effects on the digestive system can be worsened by consuming different types of alcohol at the same time.
Some of the problems that arise within the digestive system as a result of alcohol include:
- ulcers and haemorrhaging within the stomach as a result of excessive acid production causing irritation and inflammation. The effects of this can be fatal.
- cancer of the oesophagus, pancreas, larynx and the stomach, when alcohol is consumed to excess
- acute pancreatitis, an extremely painful condition caused by sudden and severe inflammation of the pancreas. Death can result from this illness.
- chronic pancreatitis, also producing severe pain, but on a permanent and ongoing basis
- damage to liver tissue. This is a slow process and arises as the liver tries to metabolise the alcohol on an ongoing basis. The enzymes within the liver change the alcohol into a substance known as acetaldehyde, before being transformed into acetate and then into further compounds.
- alcoholic hepatitis. Caused by chronic inflammation of the liver and cellular inflammation. A fatty liver is the first sign before developing into an alcoholic hepatitis and then finally into cirrhosis. Once it reaches this stage the changes are irreversible. Another complication can be liver cancer, a fatal condition.
- complications in the liver or diseases in the liver, which can produce jaundice. They manifests as a yellowish tinge to the skin and eye membranes, and the accumulation of fluid in the extremities and peripheral parts of the body
- bleeding varicose veins and inflammation within the oesophagus as well as generalised oesophagitis
- type II diabetes
- a forcing down of the anti-diuretic hormones within the body, causing dehydration and altered kidney function
- essential nutrients lowering, as they stop being absorbed, reducing the appetite. Alcohol itself is very calorific but has virtually no nutritional value.
Within the blood and circulatory system
- Not enough red blood cells are produced in order to carry oxygen around the body; this condition is known as megaloblastic anaemia.
- The production of both red and white blood cells is prevented.
In the reproductive and immune system
- There is a reduction in libido and sex drive.
- Erectile dysfunction and infertility can occur.
- Immune system failure, caused by insufficient white blood cells, thereby increasing the risk of both viral and bacterial infections.
- The central nervous system of the unborn baby can be severely affected when the mother drinks, causing extreme developmental and learning disabilities
- Foetal alcohol syndrome is caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Stunted growth, alteration of craniofacial traits, ocular deformities and cardiac, liver and kidney problems can all occur when alcohol consumption gets out of control during gestation.
Individuals who are unable to limit how much or how frequently they drink could suffer from one of a wide range of illnesses and conditions, caused by alcoholism.
We’ve already illustrated the seriousness of alcoholic complications and the potentially fatal nature of alcohol. If you think you, or someone you love, might be struggling with an alcohol problem, seeking professional help is the first step on the path to recovery.
Alcoholism is far more than just a “bad habit” – it’s an addiction, which causes serious health problems and recovering requires support, help and guidance.
It’s never too late to get help, or to regain control of your alcohol consumption, but the sooner you seek advice, the lower the risk of serious complications, and death.