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Acute problems from alcohol poisoning can put a person in the hospital, and consistent problem drinking of any kind, over many years, can damage nearly every organ system in the body. This can cause health consequences ranging from pain to behavioral disturbances to life-threatening cancers.
How Alcohol Use Disorder Damages the Body
Alcohol use disorder, heavy drinking, and binge drinking can all cause acute and chronic health issues. Some chronic health problems related to alcohol use disorder or problem drinking are listed below according to the specific disorder or system they affect.
- Cholesterol: In moderate amounts – no more than one 5-ounce serving per day – red wine has been correlated with healthy cholesterol levels. Drinking more wine, beer, hard liquor, or mixed drinks, however, is likely to increase cholesterol. Problem drinking over years can lead to chronic high cholesterol. Also, damage to the pancreas, leading to chronic pancreatitis, can cause diabetes.
- Triglycerides: These are fats found in the blood, which provide excess calories to help cells function; drinking alcohol, particularly beer or liquor, can increase the amount of these fats in a negative way. Too many triglycerides can lead to hardening of the artery walls, increasing the potential of heart disease or stroke.
- Diabetes: Alcohol interferes with the liver’s ability to release glucose, causing hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. This can induce diabetes in people who are prone to the condition, or it can make diabetes worse in people who are already receiving treatment.
- Heart: All kinds of excessive drinking can damage the heart. Types of heart damage include arterial fibrillation (a type of heart arrhythmia), cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of the heart muscle, so it does not beat very strongly), and inflammation (sometimes causing blood clots, which can lead to stroke or pulmonary embolism).
- Blood pressure: Changes to the sympathetic nervous system when a person drinks excessively can raise blood pressure. While this is a temporary situation, consistent heavy drinking regularly raises blood pressure, and eventually, the condition becomes chronic.
Heavy drinking can also lead to seizures because it changes how GABA receptors function. When a person who is physically dependent on alcohol is not able to drink, or tries to stop drinking without medical supervision, those pathways are more easily excited, which can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, and seizures. Additionally, liver damage harms the brain by leading to hepatic encephalopathy, or swelling in the brain due to unfiltered toxins.
Areas of the brain damaged by excessive drinking include the cerebellum (controls motor function), the limbic system (controls memory and emotional processing), and the cerebral cortex (controls the ability to think, plan, and interact with others).