What Alcohol Does to Your Body

By Jim Harvey

Some years ago, an Oklahoma corn farmer drove his Ford Mustang across the Utah salt flats, reaching a speed of 252 miles per hour and setting a new world record. What was special about this, is that the car had a bit of a tipple before the record attempt – it was running on 85% alcohol.

The anesthetic ether is basically alcohol – it was originally employed for surgical anesthesia, but then doctors discovered it could actually knock people out, and it became a general anesthetic.

Alcohol is also used as a disinfectant. At 70% proof, it will nuke enough germs, bacteria and other undesirable microorganisms to be widely used in hospitals to sterilize surgical instruments. And it is also present in the hand sanitizer we have come to know so well. In short, alcohol is a powerful substance.

In all of the above, the type of alcohol in question is either ethanol or a close derivative. And yes, you guessed it, ethanol is the alcohol contained in every alcoholic beverage.

Now, you may say that nobody would drink any of the above substances (and you’d be wrong – when an alcoholic is sufficiently desperate for a drink, they risk downing anything they can lay their hands on, but that too would be another topic). “A little alcohol is good for you,” people say – they take a sip of wine, sigh with satisfaction, and the alcohol immediately sets to work causing inflammation, irritation, and over time more serious damage to the lining of their stomach.

Once alcohol is imbibed, it is metabolized by the liver. This results in the production of acetaldehyde – itself a nasty chemical and a potential carcinogen. If we were fully aware of all the damage that alcohol does to our bodies (not to mention our minds), the only thing that would appear crazier to us than picking up a drink would be eating parts of an aeroplane. (And yes, there was a man who really did this[1]. During the course of his life, he also ate 18 bicycles, seven TV sets, two beds, 15 supermarket trolleys, a computer, a coffin (handles and all), a pair of skis and six chandeliers. And died aged 57. But I digress, so let’s get back to our topic.)

What Drinking Alcohol Does to Your Body

Digestive System

When you take a sip of alcohol, a little of it is absorbed directly by the tongue and mucosal lining of the mouth. Then, it goes down your esophagus, and into your stomach, where it passes directly into the bloodstream through the stomach lining. A study in the UK found that alcohol is a contributing factor to almost a third of mouth and throat cancers.

If this sounds unconvincing, think of the burning sensation you get in your mouth, if take a swig of, say, Jack Daniels, and swill it around a bit, like a wine taster. And of the same burning feeling in your throat and gut. It can’t be good, can it? Although the impressive feats performed by sword swallowers and the like might suggest otherwise, the esophagus is actually highly sensitive. You will know this if you’ve ever experienced bad acid reflux. It objects to aggressive substances passing through it.

The stomach is no happier about alcohol, nor are the healthy bacteria in the gut which are necessary for our health, in particular good digestion and strong immunity. Alcohol makes acidic gastric juices flow. Since these are designed to digest food, not swill around in your empty stomach, they start to attack your stomach too. This can cause gastritis, and, over time stomach ulcers. Ulcers can heal if a person stops drinking, but they are exceedingly painful in the meantime.

Internal Organs

The liver: since the liver cleans the blood, which then goes on to irrigate every cell in the body, it is one of the most important organs we have. The liver bears the brunt of the onslaught of alcohol. It is the main alcohol-processing unit, and it has to break the alcohol down so the body can eliminate it. Heavy drinking means the liver is so busy dealing with the booze that it can’t perform other functions normally. One of these functions is breaking down fats – these end up accumulating in the liver, causing a condition known as fatty liver. This, in turn, inhibits liver function further.

A heavy binge can cause the liver to swell. This is called alcoholic hepatitis, and it is potentially serious, even fatal. Thankfully, if a person stops drinking, the condition is reversible. The liver can also become scarred. Certain chemicals in the body normally break down scar tissue, but alcohol interferes with those too. (There are, in fact, very few bodily functions that alcohol, and particularly heavy drinking, do not interfere with). If too much scar tissue builds up in the liver, it begins to look like the skin of someone who has been severely burned – all knotted and waxy. This stage of liver damage is known as cirrhosis. However, cirrhosis does not happen overnight – it can take years or even decades to develop, and there are warning signs to help you stop drinking before it’s too late. Cirrhosis is not reversible, but there are ways to manage the condition, particularly thanks to a healthy lifestyle.

The pancreas: too much alcohol can cause the pancreas to cease producing insulin properly. This can lead to type 2 diabetes, which is reversible in some cases, less so when pancreas damage is too advanced. Deregulated insulin production means the pancreas releases toxic chemicals, which are harmful to it and the surrounding tissues. These chemicals inevitably end up in the liver – the body’s detox unit – giving it more work to do.

Alcohol can also cause pancreatitis, a swelling of this internal organ. Here again, the cure is to stop drinking entirely.

The kidneys: the kidneys filter blood. Too much alcohol makes them work overtime, which, in the long run, weakens them. It also prevents them from filtering other substances efficiently. As a result, toxins end up circulating freely around the body. The kidneys also regulate the amount of water in the body. When alcohol has sufficiently weakened them, the body will start to retain fluids. Certain body parts begin to swell, and the accumulated liquid may have to be drained out by doctors. But even this condition often corrects itself with total abstention from alcohol.

The Heart: alcohol can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure every time it is consumed. In the long run, the heart gets sick of working harder than it normally would, and becomes weaker. Alcohol interferes with the electrical signals that travel along the nerves and regulate the heartbeat. This can cause it to become irregular (arrhythmia) or to start racing (tachycardia). Alcohol also stops the heart from getting the nutrients it needs – minerals, vitamins, and oils – to function properly. In the long run, this can cause permanent damage.

The Brain

There is a common misconception that alcohol kills brain cells. It doesn’t. But it does obstruct the production of new brain cells – which more or less comes to the same thing. Heavy drinking affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain that governs memory and reasoning. A blackout often leaves the drinker with no memory of what occurred the night before. Loss of short-term memory is another common consequence of regular drinking. Alcoholic drinking can lead to gaping holes in a person’s memory of their entire past. Stopping drinking usually allows memory capacity to return, but memories that are lost may never return.

The Immune System

The role of white blood cells is to fight off harmful bacteria and viruses. Alcohol basically gets them “drunk”. They become sluggish, and unable to do their job properly. This is why heavy drinkers can be prone to diseases healthy individuals rarely get, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.

The human body is extraordinarily resilient, and can recover from almost anything. This is not to say that it does not do so at great cost, drawing on its reserves of life force, energy and healing power.

That being said, we should never underestimate the potential damage alcohol can do. Alcohol attacks – directly or indirectly – almost every single part of the body. It’s also quite likely the most addictive substance legally sold, and among the most addictive of all substances available, legal or otherwise. In short, alcohol abuse can be life-threatening.

Kembali Recovery Center can Help

If you’re worried about your levels of alcohol intake, or the drinking habits of a loved one, please reach out. At Kembali, our mission is to make sure all of the above conditions become irrelevant to anyone who chooses recovery with us.


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