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Happy hour with coworkers. A scorching hot day at the beach. Concerts and long-awaited summertime festivals. You’re not alone if you associate any of these activities with the thought of cracking an ice-cold beer or sipping your favorite cocktail. In fact, you’re more than likely guaranteed to find alcoholic beverages at each of these places and in many similar scenarios. 

It’s no secret that alcohol is a widely marketed and commonly consumed substance that has been part of human culture for centuries. It is often used recreationally and viewed as a social lubricant, a way to relax and unwind or to celebrate special moments and events. However, while alcohol may seem harmless and fun, it can take a serious toll on your body and have significant impacts. 

How does alcohol affect the body?

Alcohol is considered a depressant, meaning it slows down your body’s central nervous system. This can lead to a range of effects on your body, both short-term and long-term. Short-term effects are those that occur immediately after consuming alcohol. An alcoholic beverage stays in your system for about an hour until your body metabolizes it; however, this can differ from person to person. Long-term effects are those that develop over time and with regular alcohol consumption.

Short-term effects of alcohol

Some commonly experienced short-term effects of drinking alcohol are:
•    Slurred speech
•    Impaired coordination and motor skills
•    Changes in mood and behavior
•    Dehydration
•    Digestive issues
•    Headaches and dizziness

Long-term effects of alcohol

Common long-term effects from alcohol consumption can include:
•    Liver damage
•    Weakened immune system
•    Increased risk of cancer
•    High blood pressure
•    Heart disease
•    Memory loss and cognitive impairment
•    Addiction and dependence

Read on to learn more about six serious, potentially harmful effects alcohol can have on your body.  

1.    Impaired coordination and motor skills

One of the first noticeable effects alcohol can have on your body is impaired coordination and motor skills during and after drinking. This happens because alcohol affects the cerebellum, or the part of the brain responsible for controlling movement and balance. As a result, people who have consumed alcohol may have trouble walking in a straight line, have difficulty with motor skills (such as coordination, reaction time or muscle movement) and may experience slurred speech. This stresses the importance of never getting behind the wheel to drive or unintentionally putting yourself and others in dangerous situations due to being under the influence of alcohol. If you know your plans will involve drinking, make sensible arrangements ahead of time for transportation, sleeping, emergency contacts, etc. to avoid any potential problems from not thinking or functioning at your full capacity. 

2.    Changes in behavior and memory  

Alcohol can have a significant impact on a person's mood, behavior and overall brain function. Drinking alcohol lowers inhibitions and can lead to impulsive or risky behavior because of how it affects the prefrontal cortex, or the part of your brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. As a result, you may act differently from how you normally would or end up doing something you may regret later. 

Heavy alcohol consumption, sometimes referred to as binge drinking, affects your hippocampus, or memory creation area of the brain, and can result in temporary lapses of memory or even complete blackouts of memory recall while a person is intoxicated. This happens when a person drinks enough alcohol that memories are blocked partially or fully from storing into their brain, often making it difficult or impossible later on to remember anything happening around them or what they personally did while they were drinking. Alcohol consumption typically reaches the point of being considered binge drinking when a male consumes five or more drinks and a female consumes four or more drinks within two hours. However, alcohol tolerance differs greatly from person to person, meaning some people will experience these effects, or worse, with only a few drinks in their system. 

3.    Digestive issues 

Alcohol can cause significant issues in your digestive system. It can be a harsh irritant to the lining of your stomach, often leading to nausea, vomiting and pain. It also increases the production of stomach acid, which causes uncomfortable heartburn and acid reflux. Heavy drinking disrupts the balance of bacteria in your stomach, causing gut irritation and chronic inflammation. Long term, this inflammation can lead to ulcers, or open sores, on the inside and outside of your stomach, major digestive issues or stomach cancer. 

4.    Liver damage

The liver is responsible for filtering toxins from the body, including alcohol. However, excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the liver, leading to a range of health issues. One of the most common liver conditions caused by alcohol consumption is cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver tissue. This can lead to liver failure and even death.

5.    Increased risk of cancer

Alcohol is a well-known carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. All types of alcohol are linked to causing cancer, and the more you drink, the greater at risk you are for developing it. The types of cancer commonly associated with heavy drinking include breast, liver, stomach and colon cancers. This is because alcohol can damage the DNA in your body’s cells, leading to abnormal cell growth and potentially cancerous tumors.

6.    Addiction and dependence 

Like any substance, it can be quite easy for people to become addicted to alcohol and the way they feel while they drink, especially when it’s used as an “escape” from reality or other problems going on in an individual’s life. A person may reach the point of becoming an alcoholic when they consume a heavy amount of alcohol on a regular basis, or when they depend on alcohol to function and feel normal or a false sense of happiness in their everyday life. 

If you think you may be suffering with alcoholism or addiction, talk to your primary care provider immediately, especially if your drinking habits are becoming overwhelming, too difficult to manage on your own or causing you to experience serious mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. There is no shame in needing to use professional resources, like Gundersen Behavioral Health, to help you cope and navigate your experience with alcohol controlling or interfering with your life. It’s never too late to seek help.

“In our part of the country, alcohol is engrained in our everyday lives in a way that many people don’t necessarily consider the health effects of alcohol consumption; however, here’s something to consider the next time you think about grabbing your alcoholic beverage of choice: According to the CDC, alcohol consumption is attributed to shortening the life expectancy of an average person by about 23 years. In addition, the deaths of 1 in 5 people (ages 20-49) have alcohol attributed to their deaths. Be the change—don’t allow yourself to be part of the statistic.” – Christie Harris, Gundersen Wellness Education Specialist, Population Health

How to reduce the impact of alcohol on the body

While the best way to avoid the negative effects of alcohol is to abstain from drinking, there are some steps you can take to reduce its impact on your body when you do choose to drink. These include:

  • Drinking in moderation

The key to reducing the impact of alcohol on your body is to drink in moderation. This means limiting your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. When you are out in a social setting or at an event where alcohol is being served, try alternating or limiting alcoholic drinks by also having other types of beverages, including water, mocktails (cocktails without alcohol), soda, coffee, tea, etc.

  • Staying hydrated

Alcohol can cause dehydration. To combat this, be sure to drink plenty of water or other beverages while consuming alcohol. This can help prevent other dehydration-related symptoms, such as headaches and dizziness.

  • Eating before and while drinking

Eating before and while drinking can help slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. This reduces the short-term effects alcohol can have and may help prevent some symptoms, like nausea and vomiting.

  • Avoiding mixing alcohol with other substances

Mixing alcohol with other substances, such as prescription medications or illegal drugs, can have dangerous and unpredictable effects on your body. It is best to avoid using any other substances while you are drinking. Make sure you double check your prescription medications and fully understand how they might interfere with alcohol.  

Alcohol may seem like a harmless substance, but it can have a significant impact on your body. From short-term effects, such as impaired coordination and mood changes, to long-term effects, such as liver damage and increased risk of cancer, it is important you are aware and mindful of the potential harm it can cause. By drinking in moderation and taking steps to reduce its impact, you can enjoy alcohol responsibly and minimize its negative effects on your health.

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