Some of the ways alcohol affects our health are well known, but others may surprise you. Here are six less-known effects that alcohol has on your body, according to gastroenterologist K. V. Narayanan Menon, MD:
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- Drinking gives your body work to do that keeps it from other processes. Once you take a drink, your body makes metabolizing it a priority — above processing anything else. Unlike proteins, carbohydrates and fats, your body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol, so it has to move to the front of the metabolizing line. This is why it affects your liver, as it’s your liver’s job to detoxify and remove alcohol from your blood.
- Abusing alcohol causes bacteria to grow in your gut, which can eventually migrate through the intestinal wall and into the liver, leading to liver damage.
- Too much is bad for your heart. It can cause the heart to become weak (cardiomyopathy) and have an irregular beat pattern (arrhythmias). It also puts people at higher risk for developing high blood pressure.
- People can develop pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, from alcohol abuse.
- Drinking too much puts you at risk for some cancers, such as cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast.
- It can affect your immune system. If you drink every day, or almost every day, you might notice that you catch colds, flu or other illnesses more frequently than people who don’t drink. This is because alcohol can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to infections.
How your liver breaks down alcohol in your body
When you drink, here’s what happens in your liver, where alcohol metabolism takes place.
Your liver detoxifies and removes alcohol from the blood through a process known as oxidation. Once the liver finishes the process, alcohol becomes water and carbon dioxide. If alcohol accumulates in the system, it can destroy cells and, eventually, organs. Oxidative metabolism prevents this.
But when you’ve ingested too much alcohol for your liver to process in a timely manner, the toxic substance begins to take its toll on your body, starting with your liver. “The oxidative metabolism of alcohol generates molecules that inhibit fat oxidation in the liver and, subsequently, can lead to a condition known as fatty liver,” says Dr. Menon.
Fatty liver, early stage alcoholic liver disease, develops in about 90% of people who drink more than one and a half to two ounces of alcohol per day. So, if you drink that much or more on most days of the week, you probably have fatty liver. Continued alcohol use leads to liver fibrosis and, finally, cirrhosis.
The good news? Fatty liver is usually completely reversible in about four to six weeks if you completely abstain from drinking alcohol. Cirrhosis, on the other hand, is irreversible and likely to lead to liver failure despite abstinence from alcohol, according to Dr. Menon.
If you drink heavily, see your doctor immediately if you notice a yellow tinge to your skin, feel pain in the upper right portion of your abdomen or experience unexplained weight loss.