Variety of problems
If you were one of the millions of Americans that overindulged during the holidays and are considering cutting down on your drinking, here are some facts about alcohol and its effects on your body. Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke and high blood pressure. Heavy drinking can also lead to a variety of problems with the liver, including cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. Chronic drinkers are also more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion can slow your body’s ability to ward off infections, even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
The human brain contains multiple systems that interact to support all of the body’s functions, from breathing to thinking and moving. These systems communicate through tiny nerve cells called neurons, which translate information into electrical and chemical signals the brain can understand. Chemicals called neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying messages between the neurons. Unfortunately, alcohol can slow the pace of communication between the neurotransmitters. Alcohol can make neurotransmitters relay information too slowly, making an individual feel drowsy. Alcohol-related disruptions to the neurotransmitter balance can also trigger mood and behavioral changes like depression, memory loss and even seizures. Abstaining from alcohol for an extended period may allow structural brain changes to partially correct. Abstinence can also help reverse negative effects on thinking skills and memory issues.
Weaken the heart
The human heart is the driving force of the body’s cardiovascular system, which delivers oxygen and nutrients to cells and carries away carbon dioxide and other unnecessary materials. The heart drives this process, contracting and relaxing over and over again, moving blood along the necessary path. The heart beats about 100,000 times a day, pumping the equivalent of 2,000 gallons of blood throughout the body. Extensive consumption of alcohol can weaken the heart muscle and cause a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. A weakened heart droops and stretches and cannot contract effectively. As a result, it cannot pump enough blood to sufficiently nourish the body’s organs. In some cases, the blood flow shortage causes severe damage to organs and tissues. Some of the symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy include shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen legs and an irregular heartbeat. It can even lead to heart failure.
Heavy drinking, even for just a few days at a time, can cause fat to build up in the liver. This condition, called steatosis, is the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease and the most common of all of the alcohol-related liver disorders. The excessive fat makes it more difficult for the liver to generate the proteins and enzymes the body needs to function and ward off disease. The liver breaks down most of the alcohol an individual consumes. But the process of breaking down alcohol generates toxins even more harmful than alcohol itself. These by-products damage liver cells, promote inflammation and weaken the body’s natural defenses. Eventually, these problems can disrupt the body’s metabolism and impair the function of other organs. The good news is that a variety of lifestyle changes can help treat alcoholic liver disease. It is important to stop smoking, quit drinking and improve your eating habits to keep liver disease in check.
Drinking too much alcohol has been shown to increase your risk of developing certain forms of cancer. This is not to say that anyone who drinks too much will develop cancer, but research has shown that drinking can increase your chances of developing specific types of the disease. For example, at least seven out of 10 people with mouth cancer drink heavily. The risk of throat and mouth cancers is especially high because alcohol and tobacco both come in direct contact with those areas. Alcohol can also damage the liver, causing cirrhosis. Cirrhosis results when too much scar tissue builds up within the liver and leaves its unable to perform its vital functions. One of the many complications that can result from cirrhosis is liver cancer. People who drink alcohol are also more likely to smoke. Smoking alone is a known risk factor for some cancers. But smoking and drinking together intensifies the cancer-causing properties of each substance.
These programs were first broadcast the week of January 12, 2016.
T. Glenn Pait, M.D., of UAMS is the host of the program.