Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Read on to learn more about the health effects of alcohol and some of the common diseases associated with alcohol abuse.
Diseases Caused by Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol misuse is a pattern of unhealthy alcohol consumption that can be harmful to your health and relationships.
People who misuse alcohol to the extent that they cannot control their alcohol consumption, despite the negative consequences may be diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The criteria for diagnosis of an AUD may include:
- The inability to control or cut down on your drinking.
- Continued use despite negative consequences.
- Pre-occupation with using alcohol, including cravings.
- Increased tolerance, which is defined as having to drink more to get the same effect.
Alcohol misuse is the primary contributing factor in certain diseases such as:
- Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscle). Alcohol misuse weakens and thins the muscles of the heart. When your heart muscle is weakened, it can’t pump blood to your organs efficiently. This can lead to shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, and can eventually lead to heart failure.3
- Alcoholic Gastritis. Inflammation of the stomach lining due to alcohol use can potentially result in stomach ulcers.3
- Alcoholic Liver Disease. This includes fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.6
- Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis (acute or chronic). Inflammation of the pancreas that results in abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and if severe enough, diabetes.4
Alcohol and the Heart
High blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes are also linked to excessive alcohol use and contribute to the development of heart disease.
Heavy alcohol use can be a contributing factor to obesity. Alcohol is high in calories with little nutritional value. People often consume alcohol in combination with meals, increasing the calories consumed. Alcohol is also high in sugar, which can contribute to problems with regulating blood sugar or even developing diabetes.6,7 Consuming alcohol outside of meals can significantly raise blood pressure and increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.8
Alcohol and the Liver
One of the long-term effects of alcohol misuse is a high risk of liver disease. Alcohol use is directly responsible for approximately half of the incidents of liver disease worldwide.10 Liver disease often follows a progression of conditions from fatty liver to alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis of the liver, if alcohol misuse is continued:
- Fatty Liver. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by a buildup of fat in the liver, primarily caused by heavy use of alcohol, obesity, or diabetes. It is possible to stop or reverse this condition with continued abstinence from alcohol.11
- Alcoholic hepatitis. Excessive drinking overloads the liver and causes inflammation, which will eventually turn into scar tissue. 11 Alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting bright red or dark (coffee ground appearing) blood are usually the first noticeable symptoms. Mild alcoholic hepatitis can be reversible by stopping alcohol misuse, but if alcohol misuse continues it can progress to severe alcoholic hepatitis which can result in cirrhosis.
- Cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when scar tissue builds up on your liver, causing the liver not to function effectively. Healthy liver tissue makes protein, helps to fight infections, cleans the blood, and helps digest food. Cirrhosis of the liver is irreversible. However, quitting alcohol can stop it from getting worse. If too much scar tissue forms, in some cases, you may need a liver transplant. 11
Alcohol and the Brain
Alcohol can affect the brain in many ways. When you are intoxicated, you may have trouble walking, uninhibited behavior, slurred speech, blurred vision, and blackouts (short-term memory loss). Excessive drinking, over time, can cause long-term damage to the brain that can result in memory deficits and behavioral changes .12
Long-term alcohol misuse can contribute to a severe disorder known as Wernicke -Korsakoff syndrome or ‘Wet Brain’, which may occur due to long-term alcohol misuse or as a complication of severe alcohol withdrawal. A deficiency of thiamine (Vitamin B1) causes Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and approximately 80% of individuals with alcohol use disorder have a thiamine deficiency in their bodies.12 Wernicke-Korsakoff is a disease that consists of two separate symptoms:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This manifests as confusion, paralysis of the muscles around the eyes, and problems with coordination. It is common for individuals to only experience one of these three symptoms, making the diagnosis potentially difficult for physicians. Around 80-90% of people who experience Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also experience Korsakoff’s psychosis.
- Korsakoff’s Psychosis. A persistent mental state that manifests as confusion, forgetfulness, difficulty with walking, and problems with learning. 12 Korsakoff’s Psychosis is a serious condition and causes permanent damage to the brain.
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Mental Health Effects of Alcoholism
Alcohol misuse can also impact your mental health. Anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders are common in people who misuse alcohol. Examples of co-occurring mental health disorders include:
- Anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be described as a feeling of fear or uneasiness. Some people may use alcohol to cope with anxiety. But alcohol misuse can cause anxiety symptoms and worsen pre-existing anxiety. 13
- People with an alcohol use disorder are 2.3 times more likely to experience a depressive disorder.13Symptoms of depressive disorders include poor sleep, problems with appetite, poor concentration, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide.
- Sleep Disorders. Alcohol can disrupt normal sleep cycles resulting in difficulty falling asleep, poor-quality sleep, and not getting enough sleep .15
Find Alcoholism Treatment
There are a variety of treatment options available for alcohol use disorder, from support groups such as 12-step programs to outpatient programs, and inpatient residential treatment.
Medications, behavioral therapy, and support groups are common treatment strategies used for individuals with an alcohol use disorder.
- Many treatment facilities offer medications that assist with managing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
- Behavioral treatments help you develop new skills in managing situations where you might be tempted to drink.
- Mutual support groups can provide peer support and introduce you to people who have successfully quit drinking alcohol for substantial periods of time.16
Alcohol misuse can lead to serious health problems, and as a result, seeking treatment can help resolve some of those issues or prevent them from becoming worse.
- Shield, K. D., Parry, C., & Rehm, J. (2014). Chronic Diseases and Conditions Related to Alcohol Use. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 35(2), 155–171.
- Center for Disease Control. (2021, May 11). Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. Learn the facts
- Gao B, Bataller R. (2011) Alcoholic liver disease: pathogenesis and new therapeutic targets.Gastroenterology.
- Klochkov, A., Kudaravalli, P., Lim, Y., & Sun, Y. (2021). Alcoholic Pancreatitis. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
- Emanuele, N. V., Swade, T. F., & Emanuele, M. A. (1998). Consequences of Alcohol Use in Diabetics. Alcohol Health and Research World, 22(3), 211–219.
- Traversy, G., & Chaput, J.-P. (2015). Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current Obesity Reports, 4(1), 122–130.
- Beilin, L. J., & Puddey, I. B. (2006). Alcohol and Hypertension. Hypertension, 47(6), 1035–1038.
- Roerecke, M., Vafaei, A., Hasan, O. S., Chrystoja, B. R., Cruz, M., Lee, R., Neuman, M. G., & Rehm, J. (2019). Alcohol consumption and risk of liver cirrhosis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 114(10), 1574–1586.
- Torruellas, Cara, Samuel W French, and Valentina Medici. “Diagnosis of Alcoholic Liver Disease.” World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG 20, no. 33 (September 7, 2014): 11684–99.
- Mann, R.E., Smart, R.G., & Govoni, R. (2003). The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease. Alcohol Research & Health, 27(3), 209-219.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.
- Anker, J. J., & Kushner, M. G. (2019). Co-Occurring Alcohol Use Disorder and Anxiety: Bridging Psychiatric, Psychological, and Neurobiological Perspectives. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(1).
- McHugh, R. K., & Weiss, R. D. (2019). Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 40(1), arcr.v40.
- Angarita, G. A., Emadi, N., Hodges, S., & Morgan, P. T. (2016). Sleep abnormalities associated with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opiate use: a comprehensive review.Addiction science & clinical practice, 11(1), 9.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help