Effects on the body
Alcohol contributes to the development of over 200 health conditions that can affect our quality of life. It is also one of the biggest risk factors for cancers, stroke, cardiovascular diseases, assaults, falls, car accidents, and drowning.
The information we provide is based on standard drink measures in Aotearoa.
Alcohol can make some health issues worse, including:
- any infections, as alcohol can impair the immune system
- any disease of the liver
- weight problems
- sleep disorders such as insomnia, as alcohol can disrupt a sleep cycle
- diabetes, as alcohol can be risky for anyone with low blood sugar
- mental health conditions
It is always best to:
- reduce or stop drinking
- discuss your alcohol use with a health professional
Talking about your condition with a health professional can help you to develop a plan that is achievable, safe, and suits your lifestyle. People with diabetes for example, may monitor their blood sugars with alert bracelets or apps.
Alcohol is a carcinogen, which means it can increase the risk of different cancers, including:
- mouth, throat and voice box
- oesophagus (food pipe)
- large bowel and rectum
Understanding this risk is important because a lot of people in Aotearoa are not aware of the link between alcohol and cancer.
The reality is that the more you drink, the higher your risk of developing cancer. Alcohol accounted for 6.6% of cancer deaths in people under 80 in Aotearoa. The risk for breast cancer increases by 7-10% for every standard drink per day. This means that alcohol can cause breast cancer even at low doses.
Strokes are a sudden paralysis, loss of sensation, or inability to talk because the blood supply to the brain is interrupted.
Alcohol increases the risk of haemorrhagic stroke, caused by bleeding in the brain. Heavy drinking can also increase the risk of ischaemic stroke, caused by the blockage of blood vessels in the brain.
Heavy drinking can have short-term effects:
- less capable of decision-making, concentration and memory recall
Some long-term effects of alcohol use include:
- possible mild to severe damage to the brain because of vitamin B1 deficiency. This can lead to abnormal or paralysed eye movements, difficulty with walking, and confusion.
- chronic memory loss, where old memories become lost and new memories become hard to lay down.
- damage to the brain’s cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and coordination. This leads to issues with instability and walking.
- damage to peripheral nerves in the body, leading to pain, weakness, numbness, and being unable to sense touch.
- developing epilepsy, which are chronic fits.
- sleep disturbances
Chronic and heavy drinking can cause abnormalities in your blood, which can lead to
- anaemia: this is a low number or quality of red blood cells. These cells contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around your body.
- low platelets: this can cause a lot of bruising and bleeding. Platelets help with blood clotting which stops you from bleeding.
Your immune system can also be affected by chronic heavy drinking in many ways. Alcohol affects your white blood cells, which fight viral and bacterial infections.
Drinking heavily also increases potential infections from:
- Hepatitis C
Some people can feel these effects after any drinking at all:
- skin flushing
- worsening of skin conditions such as rosacea, a chronic facial skin rash
Long-term effects of heavy drinking include:
- yellowing of skin, decreased body hair, and spider veins from liver disease
- being malnourished, because alcohol replaces nutritional food in some people’s diets
Drinking heavily can put you at risk for different injuries, on the road, by assaults, or by falling. This is because a high alcohol level in your blood can stop your brain’s thought processes and coordination. You’ll feel clumsier and find it harder to walk.
Long-term heavy drinking can cause:
- osteoporosis, the thinning of bones. This happens because alcohol gets in the way of calcium being absorbed in your body so bones can form properly
- osteonecrosis, a painful condition caused by bone tissue dying
- gout, a type of inflammation of joints
- muscle weakness and thinning
Hangovers can happen to anyone after drinking too much in one go. The severity of a hangover depends on your body and how much you’ve had to drink.
Some common symptoms are:
- stomach pain
- sensitivity to lights and sounds
- being irritable
- unable to sleep properly
The only cure for a hangover is time, although you can make yourself feel better by drinking water, juice, or eating something to make up for the dehydration and low blood sugar.
Avoid taking medication that can:
- be toxic for your liver, such as Paracetamol
- aggravate acute gastritis, such as aspirin
Heavy drinking can cause blurred or double vision. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to decreased vision when someone’s diet is low in vitamins B1 and B12.
Drinking can quickly lead to people seeming friendlier and more talkative. It can also lead to slurred speech, aggression, antisocial, and confused speech.
Heavy drinking also increases your risks of mouth, throat and voice box cancers.
Alcohol can be sedating, and relaxes the mouth and throat. It suppresses the gag and cough reflexes, and stops the lungs from clearing mucus and other matter. Vomit, saliva, and other substances can then enter your lungs. This causes inflammation and infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Heavy drinking can also put you at risk of:
- tuberculosis, an infectious disease that affects lungs and any other part of the body
- ARDS, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This is a life-threatening condition where the lungs fill with fluids.
There are plenty of myths about drinking to ‘protect the heart’. This is not advisable, because alcohol is an addictive drug that causes cancer and puts us at risk of injuries.
Long-term heavy drinking can increase your risk of:
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
- sudden death from heart failure
- irregular heartbeats
- dilated cardiomyopathy, chronic disease of the heart muscle. This leads to heart failure, because the heart can no longer pump blood around the body properly.
If you are already at risk of heart disease, make sure you’re looking out for other parts of your health that can make things worse when combined with alcohol. These include high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diet and being overweight, and high cholesterol.
Long-term drinking increases your risk of breast cancer. This risk is elevated for people who have even just one or two drinks a day.
Long-term heavy drinking can cause liver damage, leading to alcoholic liver disease. This is a spectrum that includes:
- fatty liver, where fat builds up in liver cells that can lead to other issues
alcoholic hepatitis, an acute injury to the liver that can cause tiredness, the yellowing of skin and the whites of eyes, swollen stomach, and an enlarged, tender, liver. This can lead to death from liver failure.
- cirrhosis, where the liver is permanently damaged and cells are replaced by scar tissue. This means the liver can no longer serve its function to detoxify the body, make vital proteins, store vitamins and sugars, and make chemicals for digestion. It can also lead to death from liver failure.
The treatment for liver disease is to stop drinking. Alcohol also causes liver cancer, which can happen at the same time as liver disease. These are often fatal situations.
Alcohol can cause some of these quickly after too much drinking:
- vomiting, which can block the airway and windpipe, making it hard to breathe. Inhaling
- vomit can also lead to bronchitis or pneumonia
- heartburn, which is when stomach acid rises into the food pipe
- acute gastritis, which is when the stomach lining becomes inflamed and causes pain,
- nausea, loss of appetite, and indigestion
- salt imbalances
- buildup of acids in the body
- ripping of the food pipe from lots of vomiting. This leads to vomiting blood.
Long-term effects of heavy drinking include:
- Cancer of the oesophagus, the food pipe.
- chronic gastritis
- swelling and bursting of veins to the stomach and food pipe from advanced liver disease. This causes life-threatening bleeding.
Alcohol causes water loss in our bodies. This happens when the kidneys turn what you drink into urine, leading to dehydration.
Because alcohol induces vomiting, our bodies also lose important minerals and salts such as magnesium, calcium, phosphate, sodium and potassium. Being low on these can cause problems like irregular heartbeats and seizures.
Your pancreas regulates sugar levels in the blood. Drinking heavily can lead to dangerously low blood sugar, causing shaking, sweating, dizziness, blurred vision, and if untreated, brain damage.
Heavy drinking also leads to risks of:
- acute pancreatitis, the sudden inflammation and damage to the pancreas. This causes abdominal and back pain, nausea, and fever. It can also be a severe, life-threatening condition that requires hospitalisation.
- chronic pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas that will not heal and will worsen over time. It causes abdominal pain, weight loss, diabetes, malnutrition, and oily bowel motions.
Long-term heavy drinking can cause:
- cancer of the large bowel and rectum
- Malnutrition and diseases from low vitamin levels, because alcohol blocks the absorption of nutrients in the gut.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgements. Sexual assaults, sexually transmitted infections, or unplanned pregnancies have been linked to drinking. Make sure you’re keeping yourself and your mates safe in any drinking situations.
Long-term heavy drinking can lead to reduced fertility and the loss of arousal and sex drive.