Alcohol is among the most popular abused substances in both the United States and around the world. Over 80% of American adults have had at least one drink, while 70% have had a drink in the last year and over 50% in the last month.
Unlike other substances that can be highly addictive and prone to substance use disorders, like cocaine or heroin, alcohol is legal in all 50 states for those over the age of 21. This has played a substantial role in normalizing alcohol. Many aspects of pop culture revolve around alcohol, from drinking-related references in music and movies to the popularity of post-work happy hours to blow off steam.
Despite its legality, alcohol isn’t a healthy habit. Drinking too much for too long can have a serious effect on overall health, impacting everything from cognitive function to liver health. Even moderate drinking can affect the body, increasing the risk of things like heart disease or some forms of cancer.
For those in recovery who have embraced sobriety, it’s only natural to be concerned about the potential for lasting consequences. However, not all damage from heavy drinking lasts forever. In some cases, it is possible to reverse the effects of alcohol by remaining sober. This is not true in all instances, so the sooner abstinence can become a reality, the better.
The Reality of Alcohol Damage
Many substances, including alcohol, are largely fine in moderation, but in high doses, problems can arise. Drinking heavily over a prolonged period of time can have an impact on virtually every system throughout the body, some of which can prove fatal if not addressed. These are the most notable ways in which alcohol negatively affects physical health.
It’s clear that alcohol affects the brain while intoxicated, but the cognitive complications of alcohol go well beyond slurred words or stumbling in the moment. Heavy drinking can have negative effects that include:
- Damaged neurons in the brain
- Inhibited general cognitive functioning
- Altered neural pathways
- Increased likelihood of neurological conditions such as seizures, dementia and strokes
In some cases, depending on the severity of use, research does indicate that some level of damage will self-correct after several months to a year. However, there may be no way to fully regain or change long-term effects caused by an alcohol use disorder.
Heart-related complications are common for those who drink heavily over a substantial amount of time. Some symptoms associated with drinking aren’t necessarily life-threatening and can be reversed quite quickly with ongoing sobriety, while others are more dangerous.
Consequences of drinking on the heart include:
- High blood pressure, also known as hypertension
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a condition that weakens the muscles of the heart and leads to symptoms such as shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, fatigue and swelling in the lower extremities
- Arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeat rhythms
- Heart attacks
- Chronic heart disease
For most people, high blood pressure can be easily resolved with the cessation of alcohol in conjunction with a healthier lifestyle. The same can be true for cardiomyopathy and arrhythmias, depending on how far symptoms have progressed. The risk of heart attack diminishes notably in the first year of sobriety, but those with a history of heavy drinking are at an elevated risk of heart attacks later in life. Alcoholics with a long history of ongoing abuse may show at least some signs of heart disease forever.
Some medical research has indicated potential benefits to cardiovascular health associated with mild drinking. However, other studies have concluded the opposite. There is no concrete evidence for claims that drinking can positively affect heart functioning.
Liver complications are among the most common side effects of alcohol abuse due to the role the liver plays in filtering alcohol from the body.
The liver is an organ in the digestive system that filters toxic substances. Alcohol is considered toxic within the body, so any alcohol consumed must pass through the liver as a part of the elimination process. Metabolizing large amounts of alcohol requires significant effort, which can erode overall liver functioning over time. In severe cases, this can result in scar tissue and fatty deposits within the liver.
Cirrhosis of the liver is among the most serious side effects that can occur from prolonged heavy drinking. This condition occurs when scar tissue accumulates to the point that normal functioning is impossible. Generally, cirrhosis is not curable, even if an alcoholic stops drinking. Mild liver disease may show signs of reversal after a period of sobriety, but the only treatment for cirrhosis is a liver transplant.
Other Health Problems
There are other health problems that are associated with ongoing alcohol abuse. These are less common and, in some cases, less dangerous, but they can still negatively impact health. These additional potential health problems include:
- Digestive problems
- Increased likelihood of numerous forms of cancer, including mouth, esophagus, brain and colon cancer
Nonphysical Effects of Alcohol Abuse
The physical effects of alcohol damage are serious, but damage to the body is not the only way alcohol can affect health and wellness. Prolonged alcohol abuse can also affect other important parts of life, including platonic, familial and romantic relationships. Behavior patterns associated with substance use disorders can be very damaging to relationships of all kinds — and the ramifications of these behaviors on relationships don’t just vanish after completing a treatment program.
It’s not uncommon for addictive behaviors to lead to estrangement, breakups, divorce and even job loss. Many activities common among those with substance use disorders, like lying, stealing, and failing to meet expectations, can burn bridges in a way that may not be repairable.
Making amends is a common part of 12-step programs and recovery programs of all kinds. However, this process is not instant or even guaranteed. Emotions like distrust and anger that contributed to the deterioration of relationships can take effort to overcome. Time can heal some wounds, both physical and emotional — including relationships with others — but positive end results are never guaranteed.
Alleviating Health Issues from Alcohol
There’s no magic pill that can reverse the effects of alcohol. Committing to sobriety is the only true way to see any improvements. After health issues begin to develop, even drinking in moderation can be problematic. In order to prevent as much permanent damage as possible, those working through addiction are encouraged to enter into a treatment program to reduce the likelihood of relapse.
If you or someone you love is living with an addiction to alcohol, getting help is imperative. Contact FHE Health today to learn more about our comprehensive step-down treatment programs for substance use disorders of all kinds.