The Effects of Alcohol on Your Body & Brain

Last Updated: June 1, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcohol has many different effects on your body and mind. Understanding how alcohol affects you is important, as the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol can greatly impact your overall health and well-being.

Short-term Effects of Alcohol Use

Alcohol can have many harmful short-term effects that occur when you are intoxicated. The short-term effects of alcohol include:

  • Falls
  • Burns
  • Blacking out
  • Car accidents
  • Experiencing or causing violence
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Miscarriage
  • Drowning
  • Seizures

Short-term effects of alcohol are mainly related to the changes alcohol makes to the brain, impairing normal brain function and resulting in potentially harmful situations.

Long-term Effects of Alcohol Use

While the short-term effects of alcohol are dangerous, the long-term effects of using alcohol can be even worse, as many of these effects cannot be easily treated. Some of the long-term effects of alcohol use include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Multiple types of cancer
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Dementia
  • Learning problems
  • Liver diseases
  • Kidney problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Social problems
  • Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder

While the long-term effects of alcohol often develop gradually, they are equally slow to treat, frequently leading to long-term diseases that are difficult or even impossible to recover from.

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Alcohol Effects on the Body

Alcohol can affect almost every area of your body. Understanding the many ways alcohol can impact your health is important, as it will allow you to quickly recognize potential problems early while they are easier to treat.

Alcohol and Kidneys

There are many ways alcohol can affect your kidney health. Alcohol leads to dehydration, which puts stress on the kidneys. Over time, alcohol leads to high blood pressure, which causes kidney damage. Alcohol can raise the risk of kidney stones and can lead to liver disease, ultimately impacting kidney function.

Liver Damage and Alcohol

Alcohol is notorious for its long-term effects on the liver. Alcohol is an irritating toxin to the liver, causing stress that leads to disease. Alcohol-related liver disease starts with the development of fatty liver, as alcohol inhibits the normal breakdown of fats while also adding new fats to the liver. This step of alcohol-related liver disease is called fatty liver disease and leads to the second step, hepatitis.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The fat that accumulates in the liver leads to irritation and inflammation, causing hepatitis. This inflammation can go away on its own if alcohol use is stopped: however, it can cause the liver not to function correctly and lead to liver problems when it does occur.

Over time, the inflammation of hepatitis leads to liver scarring or cirrhosis. Scar tissue develops from the inflammation, causing permanent damage to that area of the liver. Cirrhosis is slowly progressive and will be permanent. Cirrhosiss will eventually lead to liver failure and death if alcohol use is not stopped.

Effects of Alcohol on the Heart

Alcohol temporarily increases blood pressure and heart rate over the short term. This may cause damage if someone is sensitive to blood pressure changes but is often not noticed. However, alcohol can lead to long-term blood pressure problems if abused.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, causes stress on your arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Alcohol can also lead to irregular heartbeats and weakening of the heart muscle, which can both increase the risk of heart failure and other cardiac problems.

Effects of Alcohol on the Digestive System

Alcohol can be very irritating to the digestive system over the short term, leading to abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting when large amounts of alcohol are used. Alcohol is also irritating when used for prolonged periods, leading to stomach lining damage and stomach ulcers.

Alcohol can also affect the balance of your gut bacteria, leading to long-term digestive problems. People who use alcohol very heavily may also find themselves consuming alcohol instead of food, leading to severe nutritional problems that are not caused by damage to the digestive system but by the absence of necessary nutrients in the digestive system.

Effects of Alcohol on Skin and Aging

Heavy alcohol use, especially for prolonged periods, has been shown to cause premature aging. One study found that women who consistently drank over seven drinks a week experienced:

  • Increased upper facial lines
  • Under-eye puffiness
  • Increased lines around the mouth
  • Sagging cheeks
  • Visible blood vessels developing on the face

Alcohol contains toxins that speed the aging process and lead to dehydration causing less healthy skin. These factors combine to increase the effects of aging and decrease skin quality.

Long-term Effects of Alcohol on the Eyes

There are many long-term effects of alcohol on your eyes. Alcohol affects normal blood flow to many body parts, and the eyes can be very sensitive to these changes. Long-term eye effects can include:

  • Increased risk of cataracts
  • Macular degeneration
  • Increased chance of diabetes and diabetic eye problems
  • Decreased circulation to the eyes and the nerves attached to the eyes

Alcohol may cause double vision, but over the long term, it can have many serious effects that can lead to decreased vision or even blindness. Many eye conditions that alcohol causes cannot be reversed.

Alcohol Effects on the Esophagus

Alcohol can affect your esophagus in two key ways. The first is by causing esophageal reflux. Alcohol relaxes the valve at the bottom of your esophagus, allowing the stomach’s acidic contents to move up into the esophagus. This can cause heartburn, but over time it can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which increases your risk of esophageal cancer.

Alcohol can also lead to liver damage, resulting in swollen veins developing in your esophagus. These swollen veins, called esophageal varices, can suddenly burst, leading to large volumes of bleeding in the esophagus that can be very dangerous or even fatal.

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

While alcohol can affect the body, it also has a profound impact on the brain, affecting both neurological functions and mental health. Understanding the effects of alcohol on the brain can help people quickly recognize when it is starting to affect them or others in a way that could have a permanent impact.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol activates the brain’s GABA receptors leading to the suppression of brain signals. This slows and suppresses the brain’s normal function, leading to the symptoms of alcohol intoxication. Short-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:

  • Decreasing coordination
  • Slowing speech
  • Impairing balance
  • Decreasing or temporarily blocking memory
  • Impairing judgment

These short-term effects can lead to an increased risk of injuries and blackouts in memory. While the short-term effects of alcohol do not typically last, they can cause injuries that have a lasting impact.

Long-term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

The long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can be debilitating and irreversible. Alcohol use over a prolonged time can lead to several effects on the brain that include:

  • Impairment in the growth of new brain cells
  • Learning problems
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Dementia
  • Inflammation of the brain
  • Strokes

While not everyone who uses alcohol over a prolonged period will develop brain-related problems, many people do, and these problems are often permanent to some degree.

Alcohol and Brain Damage

Alcohol can lead to brain damage in many ways. Alcohol decreases how vitamin B1 (thiamine) is absorbed, leading to lower levels of thiamine in the body. This causes a condition called Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome that can be reversed if treated early but leads to permanent brain damage.

Alcohol use over a prolonged time seriously increases the chance of head injury that can lead to traumatic brain injuries. Additionally, alcohol increases the risk of stroke, which causes death to an area of the brain and is often permanently disabling.

Alcohol also leads to slow brain development, causing learning and memory problems. This occurs with adults but is much more significant in teens and children.

Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol has a negative impact on mental health when used heavily. Alcohol can lead to addiction, a serious mental health-related problem that can last for years or even decades. Alcohol can also affect people’s moods and lead to depression or anxiety.

While alcohol is known to be related to mental health problems, people who have mental health problems are also more likely to use alcohol as they try to find relief from their symptoms. Additionally, alcohol can make underlying mental health issues more obvious. This makes it difficult to tell if alcohol is causing a mental health condition or if alcohol abuse is being encouraged by it.

Effects of Alcohol on the Teenage Brain

While heavy alcohol use can affect anyone’s brain, it is especially impactful on teens. Teenagers can seek out and use alcohol themselves, sometimes without their parent’s knowledge, but their brains are also still developing. Heavy alcohol use or binge drinking as a teenager affects their developing brain, leading to long-term neurological issues. Brain effects of drinking heavily as a teenager have been found to include:

  • Learning problems
  • Decreased attention
  • Decreased speed of muscle movement
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Decreased ability to form memories

Alcohol use in teens leads to lower volumes of gray matter in the brain and has been shown to increase the risk of addiction to alcohol and other substances later in life. The problems that alcohol can cause teenagers are a large part of why the legal drinking age does not include teens.

Finding Treatment for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction in Washington

The long-term effects of misusing alcohol can be devastating and irreversible. The sooner someone with an alcohol addiction seeks the treatment they need, the better their chances of avoiding long-term complications will be.

The Recovery Village Ridgefield Drug and Alcohol Rehab offers several different effective treatment options for those struggling with alcohol addiction. We are an in-network provider for a range of insurance companies, including Cigna, Humana and Consolium.

If you or your loved one has an alcohol addiction, we encourage you to seek help before long-term health issues develop. Contact us to start your journey to lasting recovery today.


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