It’s no secret that alcohol abuse has the potential to disrupt your life emotionally and physically in terms of broken family relationships, criminal activity, assaults, suicide, accidental overdose, and a long list of other immediate effects.
But what happens when the abuse isn’t so obvious? For example, your partner may drink several glasses of wine, beer, or hard seltzers daily after work, but they are rarely ‘drunk.’ Their reasoning? They just need to unwind and de-stress. Or perhaps you binge-drink almost every weekend with your besties, but you’re never abusive or violent, and your group always has a designated driver. You’re simply drinking socially and enjoying quality time with your friends.
Alcohol dependence may not always manifest itself in blatant ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not damaging your health and overall quality of life. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) defines heavy drinking as four or more drinks a day for men and three or more drinks a day for women. That’s not necessarily a lot when you think about a typical after-work happy hour. After a few beers and a cocktail or two, suddenly, you’re at the threshold of ‘heavy drinking.’
Heavy drinking over months, years, or decades can devastate mental and physical health. Our counselors have witnessed the long-term effects of alcohol abuse and dependence on themselves and others. They recommend sobriety as the best path for a longer and healthier life.
Some of the more ruinous conditions caused by excessive alcohol use include:
Physical changes in brain matter lead to memory degradation, trouble learning, loss of attention span, and other critical brain operations. One 2022 study of more than 36,000 middle-aged and older European adults found that drinking alcohol, even a moderate one-to-two drinks daily, negatively impacts regional Gray Matter Volume (GMV) and White Matter (WM) microstructure. These changes cause brain atrophy and neuronal cell death.
According to the study, the most significant volume changes occurred in several critical structures, including the brain stem, putamen, and amygdala. The brain stem regulates breathing, heart rate, and other automatic functions, while the putamen is a critical part of learning and motor control, including speech articulation and cognitive function. The amygdala is the body’s threat detection and activation system often referred to as its ‘fight or flight’ response.
Alcoholic hepatitis is liver inflammation caused by alcohol consumption. Although it’s usually associated with heavy drinkers, the disease sometimes shows up in moderate drinkers, as well. With liver inflammation comes scarring, known as fibrosis, and subsequent negative changes in the anatomical structure and function of the liver. Medical professionals grade fibrosis on a scale of 0 to 4, with stage four (cirrhosis) being the most severe.
Alcoholic hepatitis develops over time, so doctors can sometimes reverse the damage it causes with proper medical care and the patient’s complete abstinence from alcohol. Once at the cirrhosis stage, however, a liver transplant is usually the only option to restore liver function.
Liver steatosis, or ‘fatty liver disease,’ results from an accumulation of fatty deposits in the liver. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a healthy liver contains a small amount of fat, usually well under 5%. If that level rises to between 5% and 10%, you put yourself at risk for developing hepatitis and fibrosis.
Alcohol has no nutritional value and contains significant amounts of incredibly-dense calories, often from carbohydrates and sugars. It also stimulates the appetite, which can lead to overeating.
Negative cardiovascular issues include high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). Drinking a glass of red wine a day was once considered ‘good’ for your heart, but new evidence suggests that any benefits of alcohol consumption are slight compared to the severe risks. One reason is that even moderate drinking can exacerbate cardiovascular issues you may already have, like an arrhythmia. In addition, since alcohol is so heavily marketed as an every-occasion drink, much like soda or water, the lines between moderate and heavy drinking are easily blurred.
Heavy drinking elevates your blood pressure, putting increased strain on your heart. This pressure, in turn, can put you at considerable risk for a heart attack or stroke. Alcohol can also affect your heart muscles (cardiomyopathy), causing them to stiffen and enlarge, making it more challenging to pump blood throughout your body.
Cancers of the liver, throat, mouth, larynx, esophagus, colon/rectum, and breast are often a natural by-product of heavy drinking over many years. The CDC states: “All alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, and liquor, are linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.”
Choose Specialized Care for the Best Results
Excessive alcohol use is becoming a universal problem among males and females, but men still lead the pack in heavy alcohol use. The Centers for Disease Control found that in 2020 roughly 21% of men reported regular binge drinking compared to only 13% of women. Overall, 13% of men were diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder compared to 9% of women.
This difference highlights the need for more gender-specific treatment programs, such as alcohol rehabs for men. These centers consider male-specific concerns, such as decades of targeted alcohol marketing and intense peer pressure to fit in with ‘the guys.’ Men’s alcohol and drug rehab clinics also provide a safe space where male substance abusers can open up without worrying about any social or cultural constructs that often come with having opposite genders in one group.
Regardless of your sex, heavy drinking seriously impacts your health and increases your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder that will require much more physical and emotional effort to beat. So before you take that next drink, consider the words of the 19th Century poet Martin Farquhar Tupper: “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.”