Drinking alcohol heavily in the long term can have many negative effects on a person’s brain and body. As alcohol is circulated in the bloodstream throughout the body and tissues, it affects every area it comes in contact with.
Unfortunately, the more a person drinks, the more severe the effects of impairment will be. The same is true for the longer a person drinks.
Some of the long-term effects of alcohol are reversible and will improve if the person can stop drinking. Others are more permanent and can affect someone for the rest of their life.
Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse On The Brain
The following are some of the long-term effects that alcohol can have on the brain.
Effects On Brain Functioning
Upon entering the central nervous system, alcohol acts upon certain regions of the brain that are susceptible to chemical modifications.
One such region is the reward pathway, which releases dopamine and floods the body and mind with feelings of pleasure.
Along the way, alcohol causes damage to neurotransmitters and the ends of neurons, causing permanent brain cell damage and nerve damage as it goes.
It is also important to note that alcohol can be especially damaging to a brain that is still developing, hence why it is so important for pregnant women to avoid alcohol.
Our brains shrink naturally as we get older, however, alcohol has been shown to accelerate this process.
Even moderate drinking of one standard drink per day (one glass of wine or one beer) has been shown to cause a decrease in brain volume over time.
The more a person drinks, the more effect it will have on any shrinkage in their brain, and they will start to feel the effects in areas of their thinking like concentration and memory.
Alcohol Effects On Memory
Alcohol can impair a person’s memory in the short term by causing blackouts or other more minor forms of memory loss, where someone doesn’t remember details from the previous night.
Drinking in the long-term can also cause damage to a person’s memory over time, as their brain shrinks and becomes damaged in various critical ways.
Specifically, alcohol causes damage to a person’s ability to form new long-term memories, but leaves intact previously established long-term memories.
The causes for alcohol-induced psychosis are not entirely known, but it only occurs in people who have drunk heavily, either in the short term or the long term. It is considered a life-threatening medical emergency.
Acute intoxication can occur when someone drinks a large amount in a single instance, known as binge drinking, to the point where they might also get alcohol poisoning, which triggers an alcohol psychosis state in them.
People can also get alcohol-induced psychosis from alcohol withdrawal. The sudden lack of alcohol can cause a shock to the nervous system, triggering alcohol psychosis.
There is also a condition called chronic hallucinosis, which usually develops after a person has been drinking heavily for years and causes auditory hallucinations similar to schizophrenia.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is related to a thiamine deficiency and is commonly seen in alcoholics. Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is very important for the body to function properly.
This syndrome is characterized by three main symptoms:
- altered mental state
- nystagmus — involuntary and repetitive eye movements
- ataxia — involuntary muscle movements and loss of coordination
Roughly 25% of people with this condition require long-term institutionalization.
It is also more common among people with eating disorders, terminal cancer, AIDs, and strict diets — conditions associated with malnutrition.
Alcohol-Induced Risk Of Stroke
Drinking alcohol heavily can increase the likelihood of a stroke. This occurs when health problems occur from drinking, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol.
Heavy drinking also can invite liver problems and bleeding in the brain, which contribute to a high risk of a stroke.
Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse On The Body
The following are some of the negative effects and health conditions that long-term alcohol abuse can cause in the body.
Effects On Weight
Alcohol abuse can cause both weight gain and weight loss, though weight gain is much more common. This is because alcoholic drinks tend to have high sugar and calorie content and also stimulate the appetite.
Weight loss is also a possibility that comes with excessive drinking in the long term. This is partly due to a weakened immune system and frequent illnesses. A person who is drinking heavily on a regular basis may not even feel up to eating properly.
Drinking enough alcohol can also leave a person feeling “full” from the alcohol, and because of this they neglect to eat real food and don’t receive nutrients.
Alcohol Shakes And Tremors
Alcohol shakes and tremors are a sign of withdrawal in someone who has been drinking heavily for a long time. You will notice this symptom mostly in someone’s hands.
Alcohol disrupts the area of the brain that controls muscle movement, which is why you might twitch and shake during withdrawal.
This symptom generally goes away once someone has alcohol back in their system or they are through withdrawal.
Learn why alcohol causes shakes and tremors.
Effects On The Skin
Alcohol allergies or intolerances can cause a red flushing of the skin that can look like a red, sometimes bumpy, rash on the face.
Alcohol-induced rashes tend to be worse with certain types of alcohol — usually drinks with a high alcohol content.
Excessive alcohol use can also cause premature aging. This is due to the way alcohol dehydrates the skin and makes wrinkles and lines look more prominent. In general, it also makes the skin look more lackluster over time.
Because alcohol can also cause liver damage in the form of liver disease and liver cancer, people with health problems related to alcohol use can also develop jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin.
Effects On Sexual Function
When someone first drinks alcohol, their dopamine and testosterone levels rise, which can initially cause a spike in libido. However, this increase in libido is short-lived.
Over time and with extended use of alcohol, a person’s testosterone and dopamine will decrease, potentially causing depression, anxiety, stress, and a decrease in libido. Eventually, they may completely lose all interest in sex.
Furthermore, long-term alcohol use can cause erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness, and makes it difficult for both men and women to have orgasms.
Changes In Bone Density
Healthy bones are in an almost constant state of remodeling themselves to accommodate miniscule changes in a person’s weight and body tension.
In a heavy drinker, this process becomes out of sync and a person’s bones can start to become demineralized.
Heavy drinking on a regular basis can deplete your bone density over time and accelerate osteoporosis. Fortunately, osteoporosis caused by drinking is reversible.
Impaired Immune System
Drinking a lot of alcohol can negatively affect the immune system even after a single instance of drinking heavily.
In this case, alcohol can impair your immune system for up to 24 hours and is considered one of the short-term effects of alcohol.
Heavy drinking in the long term can also weaken the immune system in the long term, and you may find yourself much more susceptible to illness or infection.
Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse On Behavior
The long-term effects of frequent alcohol intoxication are not just physical, and can also affect a person’s mental health and behavioral health.
Withdrawing From Friends Or Loved Ones
Alcohol abuse can cause a person to withdraw from their friends and family members, as heavy alcohol consumption can make it difficult to communicate with other people in general.
A person who is heavily addicted to alcohol may also feel their mental and physical health suffer to the point where they are unable to attend work, school, or other responsibilities.
Secrecy And Other Behavioral Changes
An alcohol use disorder can also cause a person to act secretly about their behavior, especially around people who they perceive to judge them for their alcohol use. They might spend a lot of time drinking alone in seclusion because of this.
On the other hand, it might cause them to socialize with people they might not normally socialize with, simply to find new people to drink with who they feel won’t judge them.
Treatment Options For Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol treatment services will vary at each individual treatment center, but you can expect to be able to put together an individualized treatment plan to suit your needs.
Treatment options for alcohol abuse include:
Find An Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program Today
At Bedrock Recovery Center, we want to help you or a loved one get started with the alcohol addiction or substance use disorder treatment that you need.
We understand that getting treatment for substance abuse can sound intimidating, but our treatment specialists are here to help you on every step of your journey.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to us when you are ready to get started.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School https://www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/alcohols-effects-on-the-body
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body