Whether it's one night or a regular habit, heavy drinking can do a number on your body, experts said. Medical symptoms of alcoholism.
The physical effects of alcohol consumption range from irritating to serious to fatal, as alcohol is a risk factor in developing certain cancers or cirrhosis of the liver, experts said.
"Drinking too much on a single occasion or over time can take a serious toll on one's health," said Dr. Gail Basch, assistant professor and director of Rush Addiction Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center.
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Chronic drinkers have a lot more health problems than occasional drinkers, said Dr. Jon Grant, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "When people have chronic alcoholism, it can really negatively affect every part of the body," he said.
It's important to keep in mind that the effects of alcohol can vary depending on the person who is drinking.
"Alcohol affects everybody a little differently depending on gender, size and their previous exposure to alcohol, and somewhat genetics," said Dr. David Zich, emergency medicine and internal medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Medical experts described head to toe some of the physiological consequences of alcoholism or otherwise, someone with a severe alcohol use disorder. If drinkers stop consuming alcohol, the body can recover from or halt the negative progression of some effects, but not all, such as organ failure, they said.
There's a misconception that alcohol can help people feel better, feel less anxious and get a good night's sleep. But experts said the opposite happens.
Although people might feel a buzz at first, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Sleep problems can occur at any level of alcohol use. While alcohol might help somebody go to sleep, it keeps that person in a light—not restful—sleep. Can't remember what happened the night before? No surprise.
Medical causes of alcoholism
Part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in forming and retrieving memories, can be affected by alcohol when used in high doses or chronically used in fairly high doses. Alcohol can disrupt the neurotransmitters in the brain to the point where people have difficulty with their memory.
Drinking excessively over time can cause alcohol-related dementia. That's because chronic excess use of alcohol leads to shrinking of the brain, which can cause memory loss and personality changes. While people older than 65 are more at risk for developing dementia, people who have chronic alcohol issues can start showing significant memory problems even earlier because parts of the brain are damaged.
Chronic drinkers also can develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome due to poor nutrition in which they become deficient in thiamine. Symptoms include severe confusion, agitation and difficulty with coordination and eye movement.
The adage is drinking can be good for your ticker. But not heavy drinking, experts said.
The guideline is for women to drink no more than one drink a day and men no more than two drinks a day for moderate alcohol consumption.
Drinking a lot over time, or even too much on a single occasion, can damage the heart. Because alcohol has a toxic effect on the heart muscle, drinkers can develop dilated cardiomyopathy. It's a condition in which the heart becomes weak and can lead to heart failure.
An arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat, can range from harmless to serious to life threatening. It can cause the heart not to pump enough blood to the body, which can result in a lack of blood flow that can damage the body.
Heavy drinking can affect the electrical impulses in the heart, which may result in cardiac arrhythmia that could be fatal. Also, heavy drinking over time can lead to an enlarged heart, which affects how the heart works and makes it less effective.
Binge drinkers can get diagnosed with a condition called "holiday heart" or atrial fibrillation. It's a heart rhythm disturbance that makes it feel like your heart is racing after drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Chronic drinkers can have problems with hypertension. Heavy drinking can bring out the release of stress hormones that constrict blood vessels, causing high blood pressure.
Ugh, it's cold and flu season. Throwing back drinks can weaken the immune system.
Chronic drinkers can catch pneumonia and tuberculosis more easily. Having one night of heavy drinking can make one more susceptible to getting a cold or the flu for up to 24 hours.
That can be because of a number of factors including the combination of the toxic effects of alcohol on the blood, nutritional deficiencies and a less healthy lifestyle.
The liver's job is to filter toxins from the blood. The more you drink, the more difficult it can be for the liver to process the alcohol, damaging the liver. Heavy drinkers can get a fatty liver in which fat builds up and makes it harder for the liver to work. Liver damage can progress to liver inflammation known as alcoholic hepatitis. Scar tissue can build up in the liver, leading to cirrhosis, which is considered the most serious type of the liver disease. Cirrhosis of the liver can be fatal, cause liver failure or require a liver transplant.
The pancreas has two functions: to help digest food and to release hormones such as insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
Consuming alcohol excessively over a long time can inflame the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, and can interfere with proper digestion and be life threatening.
Since the pancreas produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels, alcohol can cause blood sugar problems. Chronic pancreatitis can cause severe abdominal pain and lead to diabetes.
Pancreatitis also can be a risk factor in developing pancreatic cancer.
Medical symptoms of alcoholism
We've heard of the beer belly. It's no secret alcohol has calories, which can lead to weight gain, and carbonated drinks can cause bloating. Heavy drinking can hinder the body from burning fat, leading to more weight gain.
But alcohol also can be a gastric irritant and cause nausea, cramping and diarrhea, which can lead to bloating and abdominal discomfort.
Alcoholics who develop cirrhosis have fluid build-up in the abdomen to the point where they can have trouble breathing and need the fluid drained. Severe alcoholics can develop nutritional deficiencies that can cause ab muscles to weaken and the belly to protrude.
Sources:Dr. Jon Grant, Dr. David Zich, Dr. Gail Basch, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health
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