Those who abuse alcohol suffer long-term side effects from brain and nerve damage to social isolation and financial ruin. Alcoholism is a disease that does not just affect one aspect of a person’s life, but ravages the mind, the central nervous system, the heart, and is an acting negative force on those who live with or work with the addicted individual.
Alcohol addiction is complex. It affects men and women differently. Alcohol is a legal and socially acceptable drug that is widely available. Those who fall into patterns of alcohol abuse behavior are often blindsided by the addiction. Denial of the problem is common.
How Alcohol Becomes Addictive
Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, impacting all major organ systems, and the brain. Within the brain, alcohol begins changing how the brain functions. It shuts down glutamate neurotransmission, depressing brain activity.
At the same time, alcohol targets gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor sites, increasing levels of GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for muscle tension, and the body’s fear response network. GABA is normally released to evoke a sense of calm in stressful situations, but with alcohol, the effects are magnified, resulting in a far more impactful state of relaxation.
As this process begins to unfold, endorphins are released in response to this heightened state of relaxation. The body rewards this process with a release of dopamine along the reward pathways of the frontal cortex.
It’s a recipe for addiction: A deep state of relaxation, an accompanying feeling of euphoria from the release of endorphins, and dopamine, reserved normally for life-sustaining processes like eating and drinking water, signals to the brain that this new “feel good” experience is critical to its survival.
Physical Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse
With so many changes happening within the brain at once, alcohol consumption can quickly lead to a rewiring of the brain’s neural network, altering a person’s mood and personality significantly.
Alcohol impairs the prefrontal cortex, responsible for the brain’s reward system and reasoning. It also impairs the hippocampus, leading to memory loss. The cerebellum, which controls movement and balance, can be slowed down significantly by alcohol consumption, often leading to injury and even death for those who attempt to drive a car or operate other machinery while using. And lastly, the medulla, which controls involuntary functions like breathing, is depressed and with significant consumption can lead to asphyxiation.
Long-term abuse of alcohol can lead to many cardiovascular issues including cardiomyopathy as GABA receptors are continually activated, high blood pressure, and stroke. Alcohol is toxic to the liver and can lead to liver damage, tumors, and cirrhosis of the liver. It can also increase risk of pancreatitis and has been linked to higher incidences of mouth, throat, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, and breast cancer.
With an influx of toxins from alcohol, the body’s immune system is also compromised. A person who drinks is more likely to suffer from illness. And men especially are vulnerable to sexual dysfunction and infertility with long-term alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse can lead to mood disorders and other chronic issues, including delirium, panic and anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and even dementia. These do not include those disorders that commonly lead to alcohol abuse and other destructive behaviors, though those disorders may be made worse with consumption of alcohol.
Other Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Those who abuse alcohol are no longer in control of their lives. They grow more isolated, pushing away those who are closest to them. They lose jobs or careers as their productivity slows. They might suffer legal consequences from auto-related accidents, or physical altercations stemming from the alcohol abuse. And women are more likely to face unintended pregnancies, and higher rates of sexual and physical assault.
As the brain begins changing, people who abuse alcohol are no longer capable of making reasonable decisions about the course of their lives. They live in a state of denial about the addiction, which perpetuates the inhibition of the reasoning centers of the brain. It’s a vicious cycle that makes it especially difficult for those close to the person abusing alcohol, as they try to manage life with the addicted individual.
Those who abuse alcohol are more likely to be engaged in violent acts, often perpetuated against a spouse. Spousal homicides also increase when alcohol is a factor.
On a national level, billions of dollars are lost each year to alcohol-related health care costs, legal actions, and loss in productivity. When a person drinks, problem solving skills and reaction times are greatly decreased. A person drinking at work may behave more aggressively or irrationally toward co-workers or his or her employer, resulting in loss of gainful employment.
These two significant social impacts of losing friends and family and the loss of employment are factors in high rates of depression among those who abuse alcohol. In response, the alcohol addicted person begins to self medicate by drinking more. Without intervention, it’s a downward spiral. And in some cases, it ends in alcohol poisoning or suicide.
Changes in Appearance
These external factors all coincide with changes in the physical body. Alcohol suppresses appetite, so those who abuse alcohol may start to appear gaunt or thin. In more severe cases, as the liver has become compromised, an alcohol-addicted person may appear jaundice. Bloodshot eyes, skin issues or itchy, red, dry skin from poor diet, as well as anemia, indicated by more pronounced bruising and paleness of skin are common side effects of alcohol abuse.
A person who experiences a significant increase in their blood alcohol levels may suffer from alcohol poisoning. Signs of alcohol poisoning include confusion, convulsions, disorientation, vomiting, and unconsciousness. These symptoms may accompany a significant decrease in both breaths per minute and heart rate. Skin may appear blue or pale, and cool to the touch. Alcohol poisoning is life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Heavy drinking for an extended period followed by abrupt cessation can cause dramatic shifts in brain chemistry, as the brain’s altered state, no longer rewarded by alcohol, is put into a state of panic. Previously repressed neurons become hyper excited leading to severe reactions including anxiety, agitation, shakiness, rapid heart rate convulsions, and hallucinations. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is not usually fatal, but in rare cases can lead to death.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
If you or someone you know is coping with dependency on alcohol, AlcoholTreatment.net can connect you with the resources and treatment options in your area. Treatment for alcohol dependency often includes a detoxification process that is managed by medical and treatment professionals. Detox is used in conjunction with ongoing counseling to take a person from rock bottom, to a place of recovery. Call and speak with someone in confidence today to take that first step.