What Happens to Your Body When You Drink: The Short- and Long-Term Effects

Few understand what happens in your body when alcohol is introduced to your system. Robert Mathews

It’s Saturday night. You’re sitting around the room at home, chatting and joking with friends as you pre-drink before heading out for the night. The conversation and effect of the alcohol begin to give you that warm, contented feeling inside.

You haven’t quite finished your beer, but someone’s getting up to go to the fridge, so you find yourself with another drink before you need it.

Not too long passes before some suggests a drinking game and in next to no time at all you’ve gone through three more beers. You’re feeling a little buzzed now and you’re a little less steady on your feet.

In the club cocktails appear; beers flow and a friend buys everyone shots. You don’t want to turn anything down. That would be awkward. So now you’re on hard liquor.

One or two more drinks go by.

Everything is starting to get a bit hazy now, and that haze is the last thing you can recall the next morning, waking up with a splitting headache, dry mouth and an acid-filled stomach.

Lying there, feeling sorry for yourself and trying to piece together the events of last night, you wonder what effect this is having on your body. You feel like shit, that’s for sure, but what’s going on inside you?

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?

As alcohol passes through your system, about 20 percent is absorbed by the stomach with the remaining 80 percent moving into the small intestine to be absorbed there.

The absorption rate of alcohol into your bloodstream depends on two factors. Firstly, the concentration of the alcohol. So, for example, vodka is more concentrated than beer and therefore increases your blood alcohol level more quickly. Secondly, what else is in your system. If you’ve got a full stomach it will slow down the absorption rate of the alcohol into your blood stream.

Once the alcohol has been absorbed, it goes into your bloodstream and from there it gets carried around your body. The amount of alcohol in your blood rises when you’re taking in alcohol faster than you can process it. This is where the term blood alcohol level comes from.

At the same time, your body is trying to metabolize and remove the alcohol from your system. This is done primarily in the liver, where alcohol is broken down into acetate. You also expel alcohol through your urine and breath in small amounts.

On average it takes about an hour for your body to metabolize and remove one standard unit of alcohol. As your blood alcohol content (BAC) rises, changes occur in your body and your behavior, which is why the physical symptoms of intoxication usually become apparent after just a couple of drinks.

The Bigger Picture: Beyond the Weekend Binge

Aside from the immediate, noticeable bodily effects of alcohol, there are also a number of other side effects than can occur on a broader and longer-term basis.

Let’s take a look inside the body to see what happens when you continue to drink heavily over a prolonged period of time.

The Brain

We all know alcohol stops you from thinking clearly, gives you a false sense of bravado, impairs your balance and co-ordination and suppresses your natural response to fear and threats.

In addition, alcohol consumption can alter your neurotransmitters, the chemicals that control your mood and behavior. This is because drinking alcohol releases excess gaba aminobutryric acid (GABA) and dopamine, two neurotransmitter that occur naturally in the brain. GABA calms you down and dopamine stimulates pleasure. Too much of these can lead to a host of health problems including night terrors, hallucinations, shortness of breath, high blood pressure and an increase in both aggression and depression.

As if this wasn’t enough, excessive alcohol consumption can result in temporary amnesia (all those things you can’t remember from the night before) and over the long-term it can result in more permanent damage and the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a condition that impairs memory, vision and speech.

The Reproductive Systems

As well as the release of neurotransmitters, alcohol also causes the release of endorphins (familiar to us all from the feeling we get after exercise), which are normally released upon rewarding actions. An excess in endorphins can cause low sex drive, depression, low testosterone, infertility and extreme fatigue.

Regular alcohol consumption can also decrease your sperm count, cause erectile dysfunction and increase the likelihood of premature ejaculation.

The Liver

As already discussed, that when you consume alcohol it travels to the liver to be processed. A healthy liver will break down the alcohol that it receives. But what happens if you drink too much, too often? The liver has a number of other functions, and excessive drinking can damage this organ, impairing its ability to breakdown fat, leading to fatty liver disease.

Fatty liver disease can leave to alcoholic hepatitis, which is an inflamed and diseased state of the liver, if not treated then this can lead to cirrhosis which is where the liver is so damaged it can longer repair itself. Liver failure and liver cancer are the results of cirrhosis of the liver.

The Stomach

Have you ever woken up after a night of drinking with severe heartburn and a dodgy stomach? That’s because drinking alcohol increases the production of acid in the stomach beyond normal levels, while also causing irritation and inflammation in the stomach lining.

This can lead to stomach ulcers and bleeding in the long-term, and increase your risk of gut permeability in the short-term. Gut permeability is where toxins leaks from your digestive system into your bloodstream where they can wreak havoc on your body.

The Pancreas

In the same way alcohol confuses the brain by making it release neurotransmitters and endorphins it doesn’t need to, alcohol also tricks the pancreas into secreting enzymes into itself instead of into the bloodstream. This backlog of enzymes results in inflammation of the pancreas, which, in the long-term, can increase your risk of cancer and reduce your ability to produce insulin which can result in diabetes.

The Heart

Binge drinking alcohol raises your blood pressure and blood lipids, increasing your risk of suffering from a heart attack or stroke. Heavy drinking over a prolonged period of time can also result in an irregular heartbeat and can gradually weaken the heart muscle, creating a condition known as cardiomyopathy.

Can You Reverse the Effects of Excessive Alcohol Consumption?

Yes, to a point. The average social drinker or occasional binge drinker can reverse the majority of the negative effects alcohol has on them. But there’s no magic fix. The continued abuse of alcohol over time will lead to serious health problems. The point to which you can bounce back will vary from person to person.

But there are a few sure-fire things you can do to help your body heal.

Do Some Exercise

Research conducted by the University of Boulder shows that aerobic exercise may help prevent, and possibly reverse, some of the brain damage caused by heavy alcohol consumption. They also found that those who exercise are also more likely consume less alcohol and have a greater control over their intake.

Additionally, regular exercise is not only good for your cardiovascular health but it can also prevent or control weight gain that may have resulted as a side effect of your alcohol consumption.

Drink More Coffee

A study carried out in 2016 found that “increasing coffee consumption may substantially reduce the risk of cirrhosis.” More research needs to be done to determine exactly what this means, but early signs are promising, with results showing that drinking between one and four cups a day could reduce the risk of cirrhosis by up to 65 percent.

Practice Periods of Abstinence

Reversing alcohol damage to the brain requires total abstinence from alcohol for at least a few weeks, with the number of weeks increasing depending on the damage done and current health condition.

Additionally, as the liver can repair itself over time provided cirrhosis has not set in, abstaining from alcohol will give the liver time to begin repairing itself and undoing the detrimental effects of alcohol.

Take Your Vitamins

Alcohol consumption can result in vitamin deficiency, so if you’re struggling to get your vitality back, or if you’re just had a weekend binge and find your appetite lacking, then consider grabbing yourself some multivitamins to help replace your stores.

Are There Any Benefits to Drinking Alcohol?

Alcohol is often associated with bad health and rapid weight gain, but while there are some negative effects, there are also a few health benefits from drinking in moderation a few times a week.

Reduced Risk of Hypertension

Researchers found a close link between insulin resistance and hypertension but concluded that “alcohol modified and reduced this relationship” resulting in a reduced risk of hypertension and improved insulin sensitivity.

In addition, epidemiologic data demonstrates that moderate alcohol consumption (about two drinks) “has beneficial effects on insulin and triglyceride concentrations and insulin sensitivity.”

Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

There is research that shows alcohol, particularly red wine, can provide protective benefits to the cardiovascular system, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is thought to be in part a result of the high levels of antioxidants present in wine.

Improved Immune System

Researchers found that “moderate alcohol consumption seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system compared to alcohol abuse or abstinence.”

Better Weight Management

This point sounds counterproductive, but moderate drinking can help maintain a healthy, steady weight.

A research study found that “compared with non-drinkers, initially normal-weight women who consumed a light to moderate amount of alcohol gained less weight and had a lower risk of becoming overweight and/or obese during 12.9 years of follow-up.”

Even so it’s important to remember that weight gain from alcohol is often a result of poor food choices in addition to calorie rich alcoholic drinks. Studies show that light-to-moderate alcohol intake, especially wine, may be more likely to protect against weight gain. Spirits, however, are linked to weight gain.

It’s worth noting that just because you drink a little a couple of times a week, there’s no guarantee you’ll experience the above benefits.

A lot happens in the body from the moment you take your first sip to the time you slam back your final shot.

Then even more happens over the following hours, day, weeks and months as your body expels the alcohol and tries to reverse the damaging effects.

When consumed in moderation it’s fair to say that alcohol can provide a variety of physical and metal benefits, including less stress, improved confidence, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and potential weight loss. But when consumed to excess it can result in negative mental and physical effects in the short-term, and dangerous health problems and disease in the long-term.

Theo is a personal trainer, kickboxing instructor, and the founder of Lift Learn Grow, a fitness blog that shows you how to change your body without sacrificing your lifestyle. Say hi and learn more at www.liftlearngrow.com.

What Happens to Your Body When You Drink: The Short- and Long-Term Effects