Know the Facts

Helping you make informed decisions about your drinking

Long-Term Effects: The Body

Alcohol, and the toxic by-products created when alcohol is broken down, are carried through the bloodstream to just about every cell and tissue in your body. As a result, the effects of prolonged alcohol misuse are numerous and wide ranging.

Cardiovascular illness

About 25% of people who drink heavily will develop an early onset cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart or blood vessels). Long-term heavy alcohol use is a leading cause of:

Cardiomyopathy

This is where the heart becomes bigger and loses some of its ability to contract. This leads to shortness of breath and reduces blood flow to the body.

Coronary heart disease

This is disease of the major arteries that carry blood to the heart. Long-term alcohol use raises blood pressure and elevates levels of blood fat, bringing on coronary heart disease. This can cause chest pains, and in the worst case, death from heart attack.

Increased blood pressure

Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to elevated blood pressure, which raises risk of heart attack and stroke.

Cardiac arrhythmia

This is a disruption to the normal rhythm of the heart and is one of the causes of death in people who drink alcohol heavily.

Increased risk of stroke

A history of heavy drinking increases risk of stroke.

Cancer

About 5,070 cases of cancer per year are caused by long-term alcohol use. The risk of cancer is dose-related, which means the more you drink the greater your risk of developing cancer. Research has found that regular, long-term alcohol use increases the risk of mouth, throat, oesophageal, bowel, breast, and liver cancer.

Musculoskeletal damage

Long-term heavy alcohol consumption has negative effects on both bones and muscles. Prolonged heavy use decreases bone mass and density. This makes bones more fragile and increases risk of fractures and osteoporosis, in which bones become brittle and can cause severe back pain and spinal deformation.

In addition to weaker bones, long-term alcohol use causes wasting and weakness of muscles. This is reported in about 40-60% of people who drink heavily. Various muscle groups can be affected and a person’s entire muscle mass may be reduced by up to 30%.

Reproductive hormones

Men

Alcohol interferes with production of testosterone and causes shrinkage of the testes. This results in a range of male reproductive problems including:

  • decreased ejaculate volume, sperm count, and sperm motility
  • low libido
  • impotence
  • reduced male secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., reduced facial and chest hair, breast enlargement, and a shift in fat distribution from the abdomen to the hip area)
  • infertility

Women

Long-term alcohol use alters the levels of a range of female hormones that are important for reproductive function. This can cause menstrual irregularities, lower libido and increase the risk of miscarriage.

Digestive system

Alcohol has a toxic effect on all parts the digestive system. Some particular effects include:

Stomach

Long-term use of alcohol is associated with high rates of ulcer disease and inflammation of the stomach (gastritis) which causes loss of appetite, nausea and stomach pain.

Pancreas

Heavy alcohol use can lead to inflammation and scarring of the pancreas (pancreatitis). This can cause abdominal pain and interfere with digestion through impaired production of enzymes and insulin.

Small intestine

Chronic alcohol use causes changes in the structure and function of the small intestine, impairing its digestive efficiency.

Dietary deficiencies

Alcohol interferes with the absorption, storage and distribution of a number of essential vitamins and minerals (e.g., A, B1, B2, B6, C and E). This leaves the body depleted of essential nutrients and contributes to malnutrition and development of some alcohol-related diseases.

Liver

Long-term use of alcohol causes inflammation in the liver, cell death, and the build up of fatty deposits, which can lead to alcoholic liver diseases such as fatty liver, hepatitis or cirrhosis. These diseases impair the ability of the liver to perform its usual functions and can cause symptoms ranging from mild nausea and abdominal pain to fever, jaundice and coma.

Reducing risk

The good news is that most of the effects listed above can be reversed if alcohol use is stopped (remember you should always see a doctor before making sudden changes to your alcohol use). Into the long term, the only way to remove your risk of developing any of these alcohol-related health problems is to abstain from drinking alcohol. But if you do plan to drink, you can reduce your overall risk of alcohol-related disease by sticking to a limit of no more than two standard drinks on any day.

Sources

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  • Knight, R.G. (2001). Neurological consequences of alcohol use. In N. Heather, T.J. Peters & T. Stockwell (Eds.). International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems. (pp. 103-127). West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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  • Preedy, V.R., Ohlendieck, K., Adachi, J., et. al. (2003). The important of alcohol-induced muscle disease. Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Motility, 24, 55-63.
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