Skip to main content

The health effects of alcohol

It’s easy to let the drinks flow, whether that's at home or in the pub - especially if you are celebrating. But it's easy to overlook the effects this will have on your mind and body.

Without wanting to put a dampener on your celebrations, we explore the negative impact of overdoing it, and the damage this can cause in the future.

Central nervous system

The first signs that alcohol is affecting your body occur as it reaches your brain and other parts of the central nervous system. The short-term effects are slurred speech and poor coordination, two typical signs that someone is becoming drunk. Your inability to form memories is another outcome of drinking too much, but the long-term impact is more worrying. Drinking can cause the frontal lobes of the brain to shrink, while extended periods of alcoholism can lead to permanent brain damage and even dementia1.

Although some of the physical effects of alcohol may be obvious, the impact it can have on your mental health is invisible. Alcohol alters the chemistry of the brain2 by releasing serotonin that changes your mood. Negative thoughts and feelings can creep in which lead to depression, anxiety, confusion and anger. Some turn to alcohol to escape these thoughts, creating a vicious circle where alcohol becomes both the cause of and short-term solution to the issue.

Liver disease and failure

It is well known that the liver is hit the hardest by alcohol. Your liver is responsible for breaking down food into energy and helping to rid the body of waste products, such as alcohol. Excessive drinking damages the organ and can lead to liver disease, which for many in the UK is deadly.

According to the British Liver Trust, the cases of death caused by alcohol-related liver disease increased by 41% between 1999 and 20053.

The early symptoms of the disease include nausea, abdominal pains, diarrhoea, fatigue and vomiting. The later symptoms, even more concerning, include:4

  • Jaundice (yellow skin)
  • Bleeding in the gut
  • Swollen legs, ankles and abdomen
  • Vomiting blood
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heart and lungs

The heart suffers drastically from alcohol abuse, with women experiencing a higher risk of heart damage than men5. Excessive drinking raises the blood pressure, which is a leading cause of stroke6.

Alcohol can harm the arteries too, which are used to carry blood from the heart to other vital organs.

Alcoholic lung disease should be another concern for heavy drinkers. Your preferred tipple lowers the lungs’ ability to fight infections and disrupts the proteins that are used to stop fluid from entering them. The chance of developing pneumonia rises and you are more likely to suffer a collapsed lung7.

Sexual and reproductive health

The impact of alcohol overuse is felt below the belt in both men and women. Erectile dysfunction is a common side effect among men, and over a longer period of time they can suffer from reduced hormone production and infertility. Women are also at risk of infertility as alcohol abuse can stop the menstruation cycle.

The psychological impact of heavy drinking can even increase the chance of contracting an STI. People can lose their inhibitions after a few drinks, which can sometimes lead to unprotected sex. On top of the possibility of contracting infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and even HIV, there is also a risk of unplanned pregnancy8.

What is a ‘healthy’ amount of alcohol to consume?

The above may paint a disturbing picture of alcohol and how it impacts your body, but this shouldn’t stop you enjoying a drink as long as you do so in moderation. The NHS recommends that both men and women should consume no more than 14 units a week, equivalent to a small glass of wine or a pint of beer per day9. It is also recommended that you don't drink for at least two consecutive days a week to allow your liver to recover10.

If you feel you have an issue with alcohol dependence, we urge you to seek professional help to make sure that the immediate effects don’t develop into long-term problems.