the most commonly used and widely abused psychoactive drug in the
country. Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is present in varying amounts
in beers and wines, and in distilled liquors such as whiskey, gin,
and rum. When a person consumes alcohol, the stomach and intestines
rapidly absorb it. From there alcohol travels in the blood throughout
the entire body, affecting nearly every tissue. Moderate and high
doses of alcohol depress the functions of the central nervous system,
including the brain. The higher the alcohol level is in the blood,
the greater the impairment.
As blood passes through the liver, enzymes break down alcohol into
harmless byproducts, which are eliminated from the body six to eight
hours later. But the rate at which alcohol accumulates in the body
may be faster than the rate at which the body eliminates it, resulting
in rising alcohol levels in the blood. Consequently, alcohol remains
in the body, producing intoxicating effects hours after the last
drink was swallowed.
Small amounts of alcohol may relieve tension or fatigue, increase
appetite, or produce an anesthetic affect that numbs pain. Larger
quantities inhibit or depress higher thought processes, bolstering
self-confidence and reducing inhibition, anxiety, and guilt. As
a person becomes intoxicated, painful or embarrassing situations
appear less threatening and, as drinking progresses, speech may
become loud and slurred. Impaired judgment may lead to incautious
behavior, and physical reflexes and muscular coordination may become
noticeably affected. If drinking continues, complete loss of physical
control follows, ending in stupor, and possibly death.
What are its short-term effects?
When a person drinks alcohol, the alcohol is absorbed by the stomach,
enters the bloodstream, and goes to all the tissues. The effects
of alcohol are dependent on a variety of factors, including a person's
size, weight, age, and sex, as well as the amount of food and alcohol
consumed. The disinhibiting effect of alcohol is one of the main
reasons it is used in so many social situations. Other effects of
moderate alcohol intake include dizziness and talkativeness; the
immediate effects of a larger amount of alcohol include slurred
speech, disturbed sleep, nausea, and vomiting. Alcohol, even at
low doses, significantly impairs the judgment and coordination required
to drive a car safely. Low to moderate doses of alcohol can also
increase the incidence of a variety of aggressive acts, including
domestic violence and child abuse. Hangovers are another possible
effect after large amounts of alcohol are consumed; a hangover consists
of headache, nausea, thirst, dizziness, and fatigue.
What are its long-term effects?
Prolonged, heavy use of alcohol can lead to addiction (alcoholism).
Sudden cessation of long term, extensive alcohol intake is likely
to produce withdrawal symptoms, including severe anxiety, tremors,
hallucinations and convulsions. Long-term effects of consuming large
quantities of alcohol, especially when combined with poor nutrition,
can lead to permanent damage to vital organs such as the brain and
liver. In addition, mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may
give birth to infants with fetal alcohol syndrome. These infants
may suffer from mental retardation and other irreversible physical
abnormalities. In addition, research indicates that children of
alcoholic parents are at greater risk than other children of becoming
While some studies have found that moderate use of alcohol has
beneficial health effects, including protection from coronary heart
disease, heavy and prolonged intake of alcohol can seriously disturb
body chemistry. Heavy drinkers lose their appetite and tend to obtain
calories from alcohol rather than from ordinary foods. Alcohol is
rich in calories and can provide substantial amounts of energy.
However, if it constitutes the primary source of calories in place
of food, the body will lack vitamins, minerals, and other essential
Prolonged use of large amounts of alcohol may cause serious liver
damage. In the first stage of liver disease caused by alcohol, fat
accumulates in the liver. This stage of the disease is known as
fatty liver. Most people do not notice symptoms of fatty liver,
although in some people the liver becomes enlarged and tender. Some
people with fatty liver develop hepatitis, which inflames and kills
liver cells. Hepatitis is marked by jaundice, which gives a yellowish
tint to the eyes and skin. Others may develop cirrhosis, an irreversible
condition in which normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue.
The scarring prevents blood from traveling freely through the liver,
building blood pressure in the veins that run from the intestine
to the liver. Consequently, the liver can no longer process toxins
efficiently, causing poisons to build up in the blood. This buildup
can be fatal.
Heavy drinking also damages heart muscle. Nearly half of all cases
of cardiomyopathy are caused by alcohol abuse. In this heart disease,
the heart muscles, particularly the right and left ventricles, enlarge
and become flabby, reducing the heart's blood-pumping efficiency.
This inefficiency reduces the flow of blood through the kidneys,
which normally filter excess salts and water out of the blood. Eventually
the blood volume rises, causing a potentially fatal backup of fluid
in the lungs.
Alcoholics tend to have high blood levels of the hormone epinephrine
and deficiencies of the mineral magnesium. This combination produces
severe arrhythmias, or heartbeat irregularities, a common cause
of sudden death in heavy drinkers. Chronic drinkers typically develop
hypertension, a leading cause of stroke.
In some cases, alcohol withdrawal may lead to delirium tremens (DTs),
which produces increasing confusion, sleeplessness, depression, and
terrifying hallucinations. As this delirium progresses, the hands
develop a persistent and uncontrollable shaking that may extend to
the head and body.
Women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol while pregnant run
a high risk of having a baby born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS),
the leading known cause of birth defects. FAS results in a combination
of mental and physical defects, such as retardation, a small head,
and poor muscle tone. Some babies exposed to alcohol during fetal
maturation develop fetal alcohol effect (FAE), which produce more
subtle symptoms, including behavioral problems, difficulty paying
attention, or the inability to think abstractly.
Source: National Institutes of Health,
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism