How alcohol impacts your health

Alcohol is the most widely used and socially acceptable drug in Australia, with many of us enjoying a tipple every now and then. While alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle, when it is used in moderation and in conjunction with a good diet and regular exercise, it can have a serious impact on people’s physical health in both the short-term and long-term.

Those taking part in Dry July this month will already have felt some of the health benefits of reduced alcohol consumption, including better sleep, improved concentration and a decrease in blood glucose, cholesterol and liver fat.

In this month’s blog, we thought we’d take a closer look at how alcohol impacts on our health.

How does the body process alcohol?
As you drink alcohol, it passes into your blood through the walls of the stomach and small intestine and travels to all parts of the body, including the brain. Around 20 percent of the alcohol consumed is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach.

The majority of the remaining alcohol is absorbed by the small intestines. 

Any alcohol that has not been metabolised leaves the body through sweat, urine and saliva.

Once alcohol reaches the bloodstream, it goes to the liver to be processed or metabolised. This is done through enzymes produced in the liver that break down the alcohol molecules. In general, the liver can process up to an ounce of alcohol every hour.

When alcohol is consumed quickly, the liver cannot process all of the alcohol at the same rate, so it remains in the body.

What impact does alcohol have on the body?

Alcohol can impact your body straight away. However, the effects may be different from one person to the next, due to a range of factors.

These include:

  1. Age – alcohol tends to stay in the liver longer the older a person is.

2. Gender – alcohol will generally take longer to process in women than men, due to women, on average, having a higher percentage of body fat than men.

3. Size – a person with lower weight and/or a smaller body frame will be more affected by alcohol than someone who is heavier and/or larger in size.

4. Food – the presence of food in the stomach can affect the body’s rate of alcohol absorption, with a full stomach helping to significantly slow down alcohol absorption.

5. Medication – certain medications can affect how the body processes alcohol, including antibiotics and those used to treat anxiety, depression, allergies and diabetes.

6. Amount & Frequency of Consumption – as the liver is only able to process a certain amount of alcohol every hour, someone who drinks a number of alcoholic beverages in quick succession is more likely to experience stronger effects in a shorter amount of time.

Short-term effects of alcohol
A healthy person drinking a moderate amount of alcohol may experience:

  • Feeling relaxed
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Slower reflexes
  • Increased confidence and talkativeness
  • Feeling happier or sadder, depending on your mood

If you consume a larger amount of alcohol, you may experience:

  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Clumsiness
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
  • Death

In the short term, drinking too much alcohol can also lead to:

  • Accidental injury to yourself and/or others
  • Being in a road accident
  • Deliberately harming yourself or others
  • Unprotected or unwanted sex
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Hangovers

Remember that the more drinks you have, the more time you will need for your body to absorb the alcohol. And despite the urban myths, alcohol cannot be removed from your blood by vomiting, having a cold shower or drinking coffee!

Long-term effects of alcohol

Drinking more than two standard drinks a day can have serious and long-term health effects.

These include:

  • Mental health issues.
  • Alcohol addiction and dependency, especially if you suffer from depression or anxiety.
  • Increased risk of diabetes.
  • Weight gain.
  • Impotence and fertility issues.
  • Increased risk of a number of cancers, including stomach, bowel, breast, moth, throat, oesophageal and liver cancer.
  • Brain damage and an increased risk of brain-related conditions, such as stroke and dementia.
  • Heart issues, including high blood pressure, heart damage and heart attack.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure.

This video from DrinkWise gives a good overview of the main effects of alcohol on your body>>

Australian Guidelines

In 2009, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published a set of guidelines to help reduce the health risks of drinking alcohol for Australians. 

While there is no level of alcohol consumption that can be guaranteed to be completely safe, these guidelines can help you to make informed choices and minimise your risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, death and diseases both in the short and long-term.

The four key guidelines for alcohol consumption recommended are:

  1. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

  2. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

3. Children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important. For young people aged 15−17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.

4. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy, or breastfeeding,
not drinking is the safest option.

Reducing or quitting alcohol

Reducing or quitting alcohol altogether can provide you with a range of health benefits.

These include:

  • Improved mood
  • Better sleep
  • Increased energy
  • Improved relationships
  • Better productivity and performance at work and home
  • Lowering your risk of long-term health problems, such as cancer and heart disease
  • Saving you money

So, if you’ve been inspired by the Dry July initiative or just want to reduce your alcohol consumption, then make sure you book an appointment with your GP first. This is especially important if you are a regular or heavy drinker, as it can be dangerous to reduce or quit alcohol on your own.

Your GP can give you medical advice about the best way to go about it, based on your health situation, and will help monitor your progress, address any withdrawal symptoms and link you to support services, as required.

To discuss any questions or concerns you have about alcohol and its impact on your health, book in with one of our GPs online or contact us on (08) 9208 6400.