“Cheers!” is a word often associated with alcohol consumption, conjuring up images of celebration and good times. However, it is important to remember that alcohol is a drug as much as any other drug, prescription or otherwise. In fact, alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the U.S. Alcohol misuse affects every organ in the body and has both long- and short-term consequences.
Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis most significantly affects the liver, a major organ responsible for processing many substances in our bodies. The liver eliminates alcohol from the body through a series of steps using substances called enzymes. Enzymes break down alcohol into other materials called metabolites that the body can more easily handle (or get rid of). Some metabolites produced in the breakdown of alcohol are toxic. Excessive, long-term exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to inflammation, liver tissue damage and even cancer.
Long-term effects of alcohol can cause several types of liver disease, including:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s one of the earliest stages of liver disease. Too much alcohol can cause fat deposits to form in the liver. Abstaining from alcohol can reverse the damage from alcoholic fatty liver disease.
- Alcoholic hepatitis. In addition to fatty deposits, this disorder also causes scarring of the liver and impairs liver function. Mild cases may be reversible, but severe cases can lead to liver failure.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis. The most serious of alcohol-related liver injuries, alcoholic cirrhosis leads to hard scar tissue that replaces healthy liver tissue, causing extreme damage to the organ. Severe liver impairment can lead to significant problems with overall health and nutrition, gastrointestinal bleeding and even death. Abstinence can’t reverse cirrhosis, but staying away from alcohol may prevent further damage and improve symptoms. Cirrhosis symptoms may also be managed with medications and medical treatment. However, some patients may need a liver transplant to improve their health.
Alcohol affects brain function, too. A recent study showed that even short-term exposure to alcohol decreases the brain’s ability to get enough glucose, an important nutrient. Abstinence from alcohol can help the brain recover, but healing isn’t immediate.
It’s not all bad news, though! Research suggests that moderate consumption—defined as one drink per day for women and two per day for men—especially of red wine, can benefit cardiovascular health in adults. However, moderation is key, and any drinking in people younger than 21 is considered detrimental to health and development.
April is Alcohol Awareness Month. If you suspect that you or someone you know has a drinking problem, the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service can provide information and resources (800-662-HELP).
Audrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.