How Alcohol Harms Your Health

Posted on 2 December 2019

It’s not just a hangover. Heavy drinking over the holidays can wreak havoc on your body and brain.

For many, the festive season is the perfect time to overindulge in alcohol. But while it might be fun to party hard over the holidays, you already know that drinking too many bottles of beer, glasses of wine, or tots of spirits isn’t good for your overall health.

“The liver is an amazing organ that helps to detoxify chemicals and metabolises drugs,” says Jeske Wellmann, a dietician at Mediclinic Sandton. “It processes over 90% of the alcohol you drink and the rest is lost through urine, sweat and breathing. The more you drink the longer it takes to process/metabolise the alcohol consumed and alcohol that can’t be metabolised circulates in your bloodstream. This is when alcohol affects your brain and heart. Long-term drinking has a destructive effect on the liver cells that can cause liver cirrhosis.”

And it’s not just your liver that suffers.

“Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels,” says Dr Nikola Batev, a GP at Mediclinic Highveld. “Having more than three drinks in one sitting temporarily increases your blood pressure, but repeated binge drinking can lead to chronic hypertension (high blood pressure), which is a risk factor for coronary artery disease.”

In one study published in the journal Atherosclerosis, research found that binge drinking increased the development of atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of arteries), which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Too much alcohol can also affect the lining of your stomach and increase the production of stomach acid, which can cause ulcers. “In some cases, alcohol can also alter your body’s ability to absorb nutrients,” Dr Batev adds.

When you drink too much, your body focuses all its attention on getting rid of the poison, at the expense of other processes, such as the production of glucose and regulating hormones.

“Low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia) can be caused when drinking on an empty stomach,” Wellmann explains. “Alcohol inhibits the production of glucose (gluconeogenesis) and metabolism of glucose (glycogenolysis) and causes a drop in blood glucose. This can also trigger hunger and extreme fatigue. People tend to overeat when blood glucose levels drop quickly.” As Wellmann explains, the opposite can also be true. “Blood glucose levels can rise too high (hyperglycemia) when eating and drinking a lot in one meal.”

Scientists have identified factors that, as a heavy drinker, could increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including mouth and throat, larynx (voice box), oesophagus, colon and rectum, liver and breast. “Your body converts alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can damage your DNA (the genetic material that makes up our genes) and prevent your cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer,” Wellmann explains.

As Dr Batev says, “The less you drink the lower your overall risk of developing health problems including liver cirrhosis, stroke, mouth cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and sexual dysfunction. You’ll also sleep better, look better and feel better. Plus, staying off the booze will also improve your memory and cognitive functioning.”

Published in Emergency

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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