Alcohol – risks and effects
We all know (and feel) that excessive alcohol consumption is Not a Good Thing. Often it’s pretty obvious what impact alcohol is having. Other issues aren’t so obvious but could become problematic with long-term use.
In today’s post we review the longer-term effects and risks of alcohol on the body and brain, and then talk about the benefits of stopping drinking for a bit.
Physical health impact and risks of heavy alcohol use
Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to increased risk of more than 60 diseases and health problems – here are a few:
- Skin and appearance – with regular use, alcohol can cause dehydration and deplete the body of nutrients and adequate sleep, causing grey skin, tired eyes, sagging skin, high colouring (rosacea), and more acne.
- Weight gain – although chronic alcohol use can eventually lead to gastric problems and weight loss, many people who drink heavily are in fact overweight. Not just from the pointless calories in the alcohol, but from craving and overeating sweet/starchy food during or after drinking.
- Accidents – from mystery bruises to getting into fights, to being hit by a car, heavy nights on alcohol can lead to physical damage to your body because of the way it affects our judgement and reasoning, slows down our reactions, impairs our balance and coordination, vision and hearing.
- Anaemia – with symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath and lightheadedness.
- Increased risk of cancer – especially of the mouth, throat, voice-box, oesophagus, liver, breast colon and rectum.
- Cardiovascular disease – binging in particular, can make platelets more be more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. It can also weaken the heart muscle and cause heart rhythm abnormality.
- Cirrhosis – because alcohol is toxic to liver cells, heavy drinkers can develop cirrhosis, a sometimes fatal condition in which the liver is so badly scarred that it can’t function.
- Dementia – yes, the brain shrinks with age, but heavy drinking causes some key parts of the brain to shrink faster than they would usually, causing mmemory loss and other symptoms of dementia. Heavy chronic drinking also lowers key nutrients such as thiamine that are important for brain health which can lead to ‘alcohol related brain damage’.
- Nerve damage – heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage (alcoholic neuropathy), with symptoms like pins-and-needles feeling in toes and fingers, muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation, and erectile dysfunction.
- Pancreatitis – drinking can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis interferes with the digestive process, and causes abdominal pain, nausea and weight loss.
- Suppresses the immune system – increasing the risk of infectious disease.
- STD/STIs – because alcohol increases risky behaviour and poor decision making, and suppresses the immune system, the risk of STI/STD from unsafe sex is increased.
- Female fertility – chances of conceiving, even using IVF, are decreased for women if they drink more than a few units a week. Brewers’ Droop (e.g., erectile dysfunction)
- Male fertility – excessive alcohol use lowers testosterone levels and sperm quality and quantity in men. It can also reduce libido, and cause impotence.
- Oh, and there’s gout, gastritis (stomach irritation), high blood pressure…
Mental and emotional health impact and risks of heavy alcohol use
- Sleep – evening drinking reduces the amount of quality sleep you have (‘REM sleep cycles’) by half more. So you will feel less refreshed after a night’s sleep. Inadequate sleep can reduce concentration and productivity the following day.
- Depression – in the UK people who experience anxiety or depression are twice as likely to drink heavily or problematically. Although many people say they drink because they are depressed, alcohol also acts as a depressant itself (which is why it ‘depresses’ inhibitions and makes us feel more confident), and lowers levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain that controls our moods. This means existing symptoms of depression will be made worse, or new problems with depression are created.
- Anxiety – similarly people often drink to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Unfortunately because alcohol affects the brain’s neurotransmitters, it can have the opposite effect in the long run, and make it harder to cope with life’s problems – increasing stress.
- Alcohol also reduces the effectiveness of medication you might be taking for depression, anxiety, OCD etc. A MOB can help you give your meds a chance to work and get an ‘accurate read’ of your symptoms. During your MOB you can also try other coping strategies like exercise and relaxation exercises to help with feelings or pressure and stress.
- Other emotions and moods – The more you drink, the more parts of the brain start to be affected. So there are more chances of a negative moods and emotional reactions – like sadness and crying, anger and aggression, jealousy and suspicion etc.
- Our judgement, reasoning and concentration is impaired whilst we are drinking, making us more vulnerableand take more risks when we are out – from having our bag snatched, to getting into unlicensed taxis, having unprotected sex, being anti-social.
The benefits of stopping drinking for a bit
According to DrinkAware “taking regular breaks from alcohol is the best way to lower your risk of becoming dependent on it”.
But this isn’t the only reason to take an alcohol holiday, as 14 staff at the New Scientist found when they took a ‘liver vacation’ one January.
Ten of them stopped drinking for 5 weeks, and the other four continued to drink as usual. Doctors took blood samples and gave them ultrasounds to measure the amount of fat in their livers before and after. Here’s what changed:
- Liver fat, which is the beginning of liver damage, fell on average by 15%.
- The blood glucose levels of the abstainers fell by 16%. This is a sign of improved blood sugar control, as their bodies seemed to become more sensitive to insulin (which removes glucose from the blood).
- Blood cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease, decreased by almost 5%.
- All the abstainers lost weight, by an average 1.5kg.
- The benefits weren’t just physical. Average sleep quality, rated on a scale of 1-5 – improved by just over 10% (from 3.9 to 4.3). Ratings of concentration increased by 18% (from 3.8 to 4.5), with similar self-reported improvements in work performance.
- There were no significant changes in any of these areas for the four people who didn’t give up alcohol.
On a side note, the 10 people who took a liver vacation did say that the only downside was that they were less sociable during the 5 weeks. The beauty of doing a Sober Sprint is that you can join a large community of like-minded people at Club Soda, many of whom are taking a Month Off Booze by doing a Sober Sprint too, so you don’t have to isolate yourself (unless you want to). We also have information and advice on new ways and and places to socialise, and enjoy no-alcohol or dealcoholised drinks, etc.
A Sober Sprint is your n=me personal experiment where you can measure your progress and changes in areas of well-being, productivity, and physical health and see what an alcohol-holiday does for you. We will use the information we gather from the progress updates from Club Soda Sober Sprints (only at aggregate level and anonymously) to produce our own infographics like the one above, so we can see just what a month off booze does for our community.
Note – taking a month off will definitely be good for you in many ways but in the longer term we hope you can use your Sober Sprint to reflect upon and adjust your overall relationship with alcohol – if this is something you would like to do. Going on a huge bender/binge on 1st of next month or generally reverting back to heavy regular drinking will undermine the good work of your Sober Sprint! We continue the Sober Sprint emails for a couple of days after your month is over, to encourage you to take some time to reflect on your longer-term goals.