Alcohol Awareness
How it Affects You: Your Body
Long-term Effects
Moderate and occasional use of alcohol in a healthy person is unlikely to cause health problems. The possible benefits of alcohol consumption have also been studied. One or two drinks a day has been shown to have a protective effect against heart disease, at least in men over the age of 40 years and postmenopausal women. Because heavy drinking is harmful to health and can lead to violence and accidents, encouraging alcohol consumption seems a poor preventive health measure. Safer alternatives include eating sensibly, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking.The harmful physical and psychological effects of long-term excessive use are many and can be fatal. (Women are more susceptible to these effects than are men.) They can result from the direct toxic effects of alcohol or be secondary to the lack of nutrition, use of other drugs, and other lifestyle factors.

The effects of long-term alcohol use on the various organs and tissues of the body depend on the amount consumed and the number of years excess drinking has occurred. Diet and health care also have an effect. People vary greatly in how much alcohol they can tolerate before physical damage occurs.
Alcohol is a carbohydrate with non-nutritional calories that quickly add up. It has so little in the way of nutrition and vitamins that it could never replace food in the human diet. When you abuse alcohol you tend to be undernourished - making your hair dry, giving you cracked lips, aggravating acne, making your eyes look glassy, and giving your skin a puffy, broken vein look. According to researchers, more than one or two drinks a week promotes aging.
Nervous system
Research findings show youth who drink can have a significant reduction in learning and memory. The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes. Frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections continue until age 16, and a high rate of energy is used as the brain matures until age 20. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects. Alcohol abuse can also seriously disrupt sleep and cause movement disorders, damage to peripheral nerves, and an increased risk of serious complications following head injury.

Gastrointestinal tract & Digestive system
Serious disease of the liver and pancreas, and damage to the stomach and intestines can result from excessive use of alcohol.

Chronic alcohol abuse is the single most frequent cause of illness and death from liver disease. Fat builds up in the liver, blocking liver cells from functioning (detoxifying blood). Eventually scar tissue can develop and cirrhosis - an irreversible and fatal condition whereby liver tissue degenerates and dies. A severe bout of heavy drinking (alcoholic hepatitis) can also cause the death of liver cells.

Pancreatic disease and the onset of diabetes may occur. Alcohol's irritation of the stomach, increases acidity; this excess acid burns through the protective mucous lining causing ulcers on the stomach and intestinal walls. Bleeding from the stomach, from enlarged veins around the esophagus, diarrhea and malabsorption of food can all occur in heavy drinkers.
Cardiovascular system
Alcohol is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat rhythms, deterioration of the heart muscle and heart disease. Anemia is common in people who abuse alcohol.
Reproductive system, other Hormonal and
Metabolic effects
In men, chronic ingestion of excess alcohol may lead to impotence, sterility, atrophy of the testes, and enlargement of the breasts. Early menopause and menstrual irregularities are common in women who drink excessively. Excess output of hormones from the adrenal gland can occur and low levels of sex hormones can lead to premature bone loss (osteoporosis). Acute alcohol abuse can cause low blood sugar, which is of particular concern for diabetic patients. Ketoacidosis, a condition where the blood in the body becomes too acidic, can also be caused by excess alcohol use.

Immune system and Cancer-producing effects
Depression of the immune system by chronic alcohol abuse results in a predisposition to infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, and to cancer. In addition, increased risk of infection could occur if loss of judgment and inhibitions during intoxication resulted in unsafe sexual practices and in drug users sharing needles.

Cancer of the throat, voice box (larynx), mouth and esophagus, and liver are most frequently associated with excessive use of alcohol. Less conclusive evidence of increased cancer exists for the stomach, large bowel, pancreas, lung, urinary tract, and breast.

Last Updated: January 11,2005

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