Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
The short-term impacts of alcohol abuse are serious and hard to ignore. To give just one example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that one in three car crash deaths in the United States involves a drunk driver. It’s easy to understand that drinking to excess can be dangerous in the hours after that drink was consumed. But, the dangers of alcohol abuse don’t dissipate with time. In fact, alcohol abuse is associated with a variety of serious health problems. Some of these issues can be treated with medications and other therapies. Other issues cannot be treated effectively at this time.
This article will provide just a sampling of the myriad health issues associated with alcohol use and abuse. If, after reading this article, you’d like to learn more about how alcoholism can be successfully treated, please call us at Alta Mira. We use a variety of science-based programs specifically tailored to meet the needs of our clients. Recovery from alcoholism is possible. Please call us today to find out more.
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Alcohol and the Brain
Computerized tomography machines have given researchers the ability to examine how alcohol impacts the brain over the short term and the long term. According to an article published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), both men and women who have been heavy drinkers show shrinkage of the brain when they’re examined with these sophisticated machines, although women seem to experience rates of decline much faster than men do. These people may have small “slips” of memory that occur from time to time, or they may have difficulty learning and retaining new information. It’s still not clear why this damage occurs, nor is it completely clear whether or not the damage can be completely reversed if the person stops drinking altogether.
Many alcoholics are deficient in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1. When the brain is not provided with an adequate amount of thiamine, the portion of the brain responsible for coordination and learning begins to deteriorate. Alcoholics with this damage may develop a serious illness known as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. People with this condition may:
In some cases, addressing the underlying vitamin deficiencies can help the person regain their lost abilities, but other people never fully recover from the damage done. Instead, they receive help to learn how to adjust for their decreased abilities.
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Alcohol and the Liver
The liver works as the body’s janitor, cleaning up toxic substances and keeping the body’s system clear of pollutants. When a person drinks alcohol, the liver must go into overdrive to process the alcohol and render it inert so the person can return to normal once more. This excess strain can be extraordinarily difficult on the liver. The organ begins to lay down fat cells, and these cells can make it even harder for the liver to do its job properly. The NIAAA reports that many people feel no symptoms due to liver damage caused by alcohol abuse, but others experience:
Over time, the liver begins to develop scar tissue due to this overuse, and the chemical the liver would normally use to break down this scar tissue is often absent or missing in people who abuse alcohol. This scar tissue can cause the liver to become tough and brittle, unable to clear the blood. This cirrhosis of the liver can cause diabetes, and it can even cause cancer of the liver. While severe cases of cirrhosis of the liver do require a liver transplant, people who stop abusing alcohol can prevent further damage from occurring.
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Alcohol and the Pancreas
A healthy pancreas creates digestive juices that are used by the small intestine in order to break down and absorb food. When a person abuses alcohol, that person’s pancreas keeps making digestive juices, but those juices never leave the pancreas. Instead, the organ seems to digest itself from the inside out. Some people develop symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea due to this pancreatic damage, and they may even face surgery due to a sudden inflammation in the organ, but others may have damage for years without even knowing that it is occurring.
Alcohol-related pancreas damage can’t be completely cured, but symptoms can be managed with medications. Some people may change their diets, during the recovery process, and this may also help the pancreas to heal and symptoms to cease.
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Alcohol and the Intestines
As alcohol moves through the body and down to the intestines, it suppresses the gut’s ability to take in vitamins and digest food. As mentioned, this reduced ability may play a role in brain-related changes caused by alcohol abuse, but alcohol can also injure the intestines in a more direct manner. According to an article published in the journal Best Practice and Research: Clinical Gastroenterology, alcohol abuse allows bacteria to grow in the intestines, and this bacteria can weaken the walls of the intestine, causing pain and discomfort. Other research has suggested that these thin walls can also tear, causing bleeding and pain. In addition, alcohol abuse has also been linked to cancer of the digestive system. It’s clear that alcohol is incredibly dangerous and toxic to the delicate cells that make up the intestines and the digestive system.
Treatment options for these problems can vary widely, depending on the damage done. Some people may need surgery and medications in order to fully recover from this level of damage, while others may benefit from supportive care and good nutrition while their intestines rectify the damage on their own.
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Alcohol and Cancer
Alcohol abuse has been linked to a wide number of cancers, some of which have already been mentioned in this article, but the link between alcohol abuse and cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus is the most clear, according to the American Cancer Society. People who smoke and drink alcohol increase their risk of these cancers, as alcohol seems to help cancer-causing cells to work their way into healthy cells in the user’s body. Alcohol has also been linked to breast cancer in women. Alcohol can reduce a woman’s ability to pick up protective minerals like folate, and it can decrease the production of estrogen, which can help protect a woman from getting breast cancer.
People who have cancer, no matter the cause, can receive lifesaving help at the hands of surgeons and qualified medical professionals. Many forms of cancer can be effectively treated, but the earlier the cancer is caught, the better. People who drink to excess may not be adept at keeping doctors’ appointments for regular cancer screenings, and they may not be on the alert for cancer symptoms in their own bodies. Again, the sooner that people stop drinking and get the help they need, the better.
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Alcohol and Heart Disease
While it might be true that some research has suggested that red wine could be helpful in the fight against heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that high levels of alcohol intake can also be incredibly damaging to the heart. An alcoholic beverage contains a lot of calories, with no real nutritional benefit, so people who drink to excess are at risk for gaining weight and making their hearts work harder with each and every beat. In addition, alcohol tends to increase the amount of triglycerides, or “bad cholesterol” in the blood, and this can also cause the heart to work harder. Heart disease has also been linked to irregular heartbeats and sudden cardiac death, the AHA says.
The heart is surprisingly resilient, and people who lose weight and eat right may be able to ease the stress their hearts are under and regain their health. But some people who have severe damage, or who have a family history of heart disease, may need medications to truly heal from the damage that has been done.
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Alcohol and an Unborn Baby
Drinking alcohol while pregnant can be damaging to the mother’s body, but it can have significant and long-term effects on the health of her unborn baby. According to an article published on Medline, babies who are exposed to alcohol while in the womb and born with fetal alcohol syndrome can experience:
- Difficulty with motor skills
- Delayed mental development
- Heart problems
- Poor growth, both before and after birth
Some of these problems may ease as the baby grows, but Medline reports that almost no baby born with fetal alcohol syndrome has normal mental development, and those children may need help with learning for the rest of their lives. No amount of alcohol is safe for a woman to drink during pregnancy.
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Reading through a laundry list of health problems that can occur as a result of alcohol abuse can be frightening, especially since some conditions won’t automatically reverse when the person stops drinking altogether. It’s important to remember, however, that people who cease drinking stop causing damage to their bodies. They may face deficits due to the abuse that has already taken place, but that’s certainly no excuse for the person to keep drinking. With help, the person can stop drinking and get help for the medical conditions that have been caused by drinking. Recovery is possible. Please call us at Alta Mira to find out more.
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