Alcohol abuse is estimated to be the world’s 3rd largest risk factor for disease and disability. This is part of the reason why doctors ask about alcohol and drug use during routine health screenings. In 2019, almost 55 percent of people over 18 had an alcoholic drink in the past month. Almost 26 percent admitted to binge drinking in the last month. It’s estimated that 95,000 people die from alcohol related causes annually. More than 10% of US children live with a parent that has alcohol problems.
In this article we will go over:
- How humans process alcohol
- Negative effects of alcohol on the body
- Are there truly any health benefits to drinking alcohol?
What Happens When We Drink
To follow the pathway of alcohol, first take a sip and swallow. The drink travels down the esophagus to the stomach. This is part of what we call the upper gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), where Gastro- means relating to the stomach and -intestinal refers to intestines.
Alcohol Has Three Main Effects
First inflammation or irritation of the tissues throughout your mouth, esophagus, and rest of your gastrointestinal tract occurs. Second, alcohol affects the movement of stuff through your esophagus by inhibiting muscle cells. The esophagus and intestines move food through the GI tract by what is called peristalsis. This is the act of squeezing and pushing at the same time, in a circumferential and forward motion. Third, alcohol alters the output of gastric acid. Your stomach produces acid which is what breaks down our food. Alcohol increases that output. The alcohol then travels into the lower gastrointestinal tract.
Here it gets absorbed and it gets moved into the blood. This is how most of our nutrients get into our body from our food. The blood then transports it where it needs to go. So the alcohol that you drank is now in the bloodstream. What next? What does this have to do with the liver? That’s a great question, let’s dive in.
Introduction to The Liver
With a line straight down through your belly button and a line straight across, you’ll have roughly outlined the four quadrants of the abdomen. Your liver is located in what is called the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. It has over 500 functions, with the primary function being filtration of blood coming from your GI tract. Once alcohol is in the blood, the next stop is the liver. Your liver also has functions in metabolism (how we get energy from food), acts as storage for nutrients, and helps in immunity.
After Hepatitis C, alcohol is the most common cause of chronic liver disease. The duration and amount of alcohol consumed are the primary risk factors.
Alcohol and The Liver
Alcohol actually describes a group of molecules that all have a certain characteristic. Any molecule with an oxygen and hydrogen bound together, that is then bound to a carbon atom. The primary alcohol in drinks is ethanol.
When we talk about alcohol in the bloodstream, we are talking about ethanol. After having a drink, this ethanol molecule is now in the liver. The liver tries to pull as much ethanol out of the blood as possible. The liver cells then turn it into a different molecule called acetaldehyde. Some of the acetaldehyde gets turned into a different molecule called acetate. Acetaldehyde irritates the liver. This causes inflammation and as a result, the liver starts making this fibrous material that builds up in the liver tissue. This is called fibrogenesis.
Ethanol also affects the liver another way. When the ethanol comes into the liver, it hands off some electrons. Usually that’s great, however it creates a higher oxygen demand in liver cells. Oxygen is a great electron acceptor (because you can’t just have electrons hanging out). This results in hypoxia in other parts of the liver, which is a lack of oxygen. This is because oxygen distribution is prioritized to the cells breaking down the alcohol.
But the blood can’t stop in the liver while it’s filtered can it? Blood has to constantly be moving, so it doesn’t just hang out in the liver til it’s all clean. Instead, it makes multiple passes, being filtered more each time. What the liver can’t filter then goes through the body and to the brain. Alcohol blocks the messages from the brain cells and as a result you feel drunk.
Alcohol also travels to all the other organs too. Some diseases directly caused by alcohol include:
- Cardiomyopathy (heart disease)
- Alcoholic myopathy (muscle tissue disease)
- Gastritis (stomach inflammation)
- Neuropathy (nerve disease)
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of pancreas)
Over time, the liver eventually catches up to clear alcohol. Some of the alcohol also gets excreted by sweat, urine, and stool. Additionally, alcohol can cause:
- Brain damage
Can drinking have health benefits?
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol may provide:
- Reduced developing and dying of heart disease/reduce heart risk
- Possibly reduce risk of stroke
- Possibly reduce risk of diabetes
According to a 2009 WebMD article about Alcohol and men’s heart health risks:
- Light drinking reduced risk by 35%
- Moderate drinking reduced risk by 51%
- High and very high levels of drinking reduced risk by 54% and 50%.
This sounds fine and dandy, however, they blatantly ignore the other health risks associated with alcoholism, which far outweigh the benefits.
According to CDC, alcoholism can lead to the following long term health problems:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
- Learning/memory problems
Alcohol abuse is a serious issue all over the world. This article followed the path of alcohol through the body, and the effects it has. We explored the vast sea of negative health effects associated with alcoholism. We also explored the possibility of positive health effects.
If you know somebody who is struggling with an addiction, you can get help here:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a national hotline: 1-800-662-HELP, 1-800-662-4357
- Alcohol Addiction Center Hotline: 1-866-464-2869