The effects alcohol has on your body vary depending on how much, when and how you drink. Your health, body size, age, gender and what you’ve eaten all play a role. Although the effects of alcohol can be felt throughout the body, it affects some organs more than others.
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain works. These disruptions can make you less coordinated, which can lead to accidents. Drinking also stimulates the adrenal glands, which gives you that initial good feeling, making you more relaxed and ultimately more friendly and open. However, alcohol is actually a depressant, which means it slows your nervous system down and your ability to process information. This makes it harder to think clearly and can also affect your judgement – which can lead to you putting yourself in dangerous situations.
Your liver is responsible for breaking down any alcohol you drink. It releases an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) which converts the alcohol into molecules that are either absorbed or eliminated by the body.
People metabolise alcohol at different rates, according to the amount of the ADH enzyme their liver produces. Women typically have lower levels of ADH than men, so they metabolise alcohol more slowly than men, which is why their number of recommended units is smaller. If people have significantly less ADH in their system, drinking can cause reddening of the face and the feeling of uncomfortable heat, sometimes known as ‘the flushing effect’. This is found particularly in people of Asian descent.
It takes your body about one hour to process a unit of alcohol (as stated on DrinkAware, for the UK). There is nothing you can do to speed this process up.
Your liver can only process a set amount of alcohol over a certain time. If you drink faster than this then you can saturate your system, and your blood alcohol content (BAC) will increase. This can lead to acute alcohol poisoning, which can result in unconsciousness, a coma or even death.
Imagine your body is a funnel with your liver at the end. You can continue to fill the funnel, but if you fill it too much the funnel will overflow.
Similarly, if you put too much alcohol in your body, your liver doesn't have time to process it, which means the alcohol stays in your body and your BAC will increase.
Binge drinking can cause high blood pressure, putting you at risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Heavy drinking can cause you to have an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) and over time it can weaken the heart muscles. This is also known as cardiomyopathy and can result in premature death.
However, research has shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol in middle age and older adults is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. You should speak with your health care provider if you have any questions about the effects of drinking on your heart.
Some research shows that compared with women who do not drink, those who consume even moderately have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
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