According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the most frequently occurring substance use disorder is alcohol use disorder. Long-term use or abuse of alcohol has been empirically demonstrated to be associated with many different types of negative health issues and damage to numerous organ systems in the body. Volumes of studies and numerous books are devoted to investigating these effects and any attempt to list all of the potential negative effects associated with alcohol use/abuse would require a volume of works. Some of the major areas affected by alcohol abuse and how some of this damage is resolved once an individual stops drinking are discussed in this article.
The BrainThere is extensive research that has investigated the effects of alcohol use on the brain from the cellular level all the way up to its effects on major areas of the brain and various neural networks. Chronic use and abuse of alcohol:
- Is associated with damage to the neurons in all areas of the brain
- Inhibits the functioning of every brain mechanism
- Alters the activity of the neural pathways in the brain
- Results in an increased risk to develop neurological diseases and disorders, such as seizures, stroke, brain cancer, and dementia
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that former abusers who abstain from alcohol for several months to a year may experience partial correction of some of these structural changes. The effects of abstinence from alcohol typically peak and are maintained after 5-7 years of complete abstinence, although the most salient effects occur within the first year. However, any further damage due to alcohol abuse is also negated if one stops drinking. Nonetheless, many of the changes that have occurred in the brain are not completely remitted.
The determination of how much physiological and functional impairment someone who has abused alcohol will continue to experience is dependent on:
- The length of time the person abused alcohol and how much alcohol was typically consumed
- Whether or not the individual used alcohol in conjunction with other drugs, including tobacco
- Family history and genetic factors
- Other general health factors, such as the individual’s dietary habits, the amount of exercise they typically get, the presence of any co-occurring conditions, etc.
One condition that is often attributed to individuals who drink alcohol excessively is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome where individuals have issues with walking, nystagmus, and cognitive problems that include severe confusion and dense amnesia. This condition is not directly related to the use of alcohol but represents a chronic lack of proper nutrition in those who neglect their diet due to severe alcohol use. The condition has been associated with a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1); if it is recognized early enough, it may be reversed through diet and supplementation. However, if the condition represents a chronic situation, the condition may not resolve even with the use of megavitamin supplementation.
Cardiovascular IssuesThe American Heart Association (AHA) lists numerous cardiovascular issues associated with alcohol use and abuse. In addition, there is conflicting research about potential benefits associated with mild to moderate alcohol use. AHA strongly suggests that despite some of these research findings, individuals should not begin drinking alcohol in an attempt to improve their cardiovascular health, and individuals with cardiovascular issues should stop drinking alcohol altogether.
Some of the potential cardiovascular issues associated with using alcohol include:
Hypertension: High blood pressure is often associated with the use of alcohol. Having high blood pressure is a risk factor for numerous other related health conditions. Many individuals who stop drinking alcohol, become involved in formal treatment that may involve the use of medications, and take on various other lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a healthy diet and getting sufficient exercise, can correct this situation relatively quickly.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy: Chronic heavy drinking weakens the heart muscle and reduces its effectiveness in pumping blood. The symptoms of cardiomyopathy can include feeling short of breath, fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, and swelling in the legs and feet. Individuals who stop drinking alcohol and get treatment can reverse some of these symptoms to some extent, but in chronic cases, cardiomyopathy may be permanent.
Arrhythmias: Irregular heartbeat is associated with chronic alcohol abuse. Again, individuals who abstain from alcohol and get treatment can reverse this issue to some extent, particularly within the first year of recovery. However, the damage may not be entirely reversed.
High cholesterol levels: High cholesterol levels are associated with chronic use and abuse of alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol in addition to other forms of treatment, such as dietary changes and the use of medication, can help to reverse this issue. Moderate to heavy use of alcohol is also associated with obesity, which is linked to high cholesterol levels, hypertension, heartbeat irregularities, and increased potential for heart attack.
Heart attack or sudden cardiac death: Individuals who are moderate to heavy alcohol users are at increased risk for death due to heart attack. This risk is exponentially increased if individuals use tobacco products and drink alcohol. The risk drops significantly in the first year after one abstains from alcohol; however, cardiac damage may not be fully resolved. Individuals with a history of alcohol abuse are at an increased risk for later heart attacks compared to individuals who never abused alcohol. In addition, all of the other factors listed in this section increase the risk that an individual may experience a heart attack.
The same factors associated with recovery from neurological damage as a result of abstaining from alcohol apply to recovery from cardiovascular issues when one chooses to abstain from alcohol. However, in most cases, the full extent of the damage produced by chronic and heavy alcohol use on the cardiovascular system is not fully resolved. Typically, any reversal of damage occurs rapidly in the first months to the first year of abstinence and then slows down following that. Individuals need to also pay attention to other lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, getting plenty of rest, stress management, etc., in order to experience their full potential of recovery.
It has long been observed that excessive use of alcohol affects the liver. The liver is the major organ in the body that is responsible for eliminating waste products and other toxic substances from the system. When an individual drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, the person’s liver begins to metabolize the alcohol in order to rid the toxin from the body. Alcohol is metabolized before other substances, and the liver needs to work excessively hard to perform its functions when a person drinks large amounts of alcohol.
When the liver becomes overworked, it loses its efficiency, and damage occurs that produces scar tissue and fatty deposits in the organ. If enough scar tissue develops, the liver cannot work properly, and the person is in serious danger.
Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when there is so much scar tissue that the liver can no longer properly perform its functions. Research suggests that if individuals begin a program of abstinence early enough, mild liver damage may not be serious enough to cause issues; however, more severe liver damage, including cirrhosis of the liver, cannot be rectified in many cases unless the individual can get a liver transplant. Individuals who suffer from cirrhosis of the liver have a potentially fatal condition.
In addition, significant liver damage affects all other organs of the body, including the brain. Individuals who have significant liver damage often develop severe issues with attention, memory, and problem-solving that qualifies them for a diagnosis of dementia.
Inflammation that occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, particularly in the lining of the stomach, is known as gastritis. Alcohol use is associated with the development of gastritis, and if this inflammation continues for extended periods of time, abscesses and other damage may occur as a result. This is due to excessive stomach acids that build up in the gastrointestinal tract.
When this damage becomes chronic, the individual develops ulcers. Ulcers can be very uncomfortable, and if not treated, they can create a life-threatening condition. Unless they are extremely serious, gastritis and ulcers can be reversed through treatment and abstinence from alcohol, although there will most likely be some scar tissue remaining in the individual’s gastrointestinal tract.
Osteoporosis occurs when a person’s bones decrease in density and become more brittle and prone to breaking. Although the disorder is most often diagnosed in elderly individuals, it can occur in younger individuals as well. Women are at a higher risk to develop osteoporosis than men, but both men and women can develop the disorder.
Excessive use of alcohol interferes with calcium metabolism and absorption, and this is a risk factor associated with the development of osteoporosis. Alcohol also interferes with hormone production that can lead to elevated levels of cortisol that can deplete levels of calcium in an individual’s system.
The most effective way to treat osteoporosis is to prevent it from happening in the first place (as is the case with most disorders); however, individuals who have developed osteoporosis should refrain from drinking alcohol and seek treatment. Getting formal treatment for osteoporosis can reverse its effects to some extent; however, individuals with severe osteoporosis will most likely have issues with walking, be prone to bone fractures, and have issues with pain.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), abuse of alcohol is strongly associated with a co-occurring diagnosis of another mental health disorder. Whether or not this association is causal, such that drinking alcohol causes an individual to develop other psychological issues or having some other psychological issue causes a person to drink alcohol excessively, is strongly debated. As it turns out, both of these explanations are likely.
Nonetheless, individuals with any form of mental illness can increase the effectiveness of their recovery by refraining from alcohol use, and individuals with alcohol use disorders can enhance their recovery by getting treatment for any co-occurring issues with depression, bipolar disorder, stress, etc. Recovery from any mental health disorder is significantly enhanced if an individual does not drink alcohol. The rate and quality of recovery from a mental health disorder depends on a number of factors, including the person’s motivation, their engagement in treatment, their social support, etc.
Social and Occupational Damage
Sources such as NIH and APA also consistently report that excessive use of alcohol is associated with numerous social issues and problems with one’s career or education. When an individual’s use of alcohol begins to affect areas of their social, educational, and occupational functioning, it is strongly advised that the person stop drinking. Some of the damage that occurs in these areas as a result of a person’s alcohol abuse may never be completely resolved (e.g., such as individuals who get divorced, become estranged from family, lose their job, etc.); however, individuals who are dedicated to improving themselves can go on to improve their functioning in these areas, develop new contacts, and learn to live productive lives.
In the same way, some of the emotional damage that occurs as a result of the dissolution of a marriage, lost contact with family, loss of a job etc., may never be fully resolved; however, individuals in solid recovery programs learn to move forward and accept the past. The length of time that it takes to address or correct this type of damage varies from person to person and from situation to situation.
Alcohol abuse is associated with numerous health issues, emotional problems, social problems, and psychological issues. In some cases, if an individual can abstain from drinking alcohol, a significant amount of the damage that has occurred may resolve; however, in other instances, significant damage may remain. It is safe to assume that individuals who have a history of alcohol abuse also have to learn to cope with numerous alcohol-related physical, emotional, and social issues for a significant length of time even if they abstain from drinking alcohol. Getting involved in a strong recovery program and adhering to treatment can help individuals realize the full extent of their potential in recovery from alcohol abuse.