Alcohol Use Disorder: Long-Term Health Effects and How to Reverse Them
Alcohol abuse wreaks havoc on nearly every system in the body. After detox from alcohol—which should be done under the supervision of a medical professional—the body starts to heal. With long-term alcohol abstinence, depending on the level and length of abuse, much of the damage can be reversed.
What Happens to Your Body When You Drink?
After it is consumed, alcohol is absorbed into the blood through the stomach and the intestines. If the stomach has food in it, alcohol stays there longer and the stomach’s enzymes break down more of the alcohol before it enters the intestines. The alcohol then moves from the intestines into the bloodstream and throughout the whole body. As the body has no way to store alcohol like it does proteins, carbohydrates and fats, metabolizing alcohol becomes the priority. It’s the liver’s responsibility to remove alcohol from the blood. But when too much alcohol has been ingested for the liver to process, it takes a toll on the body—starting with the liver, but eventually moving to just about every organ.
Effects of Alcohol on The Liver
One main function of the liver is to get rid of toxins from the blood. Chronic abuse of alcohol puts a significant strain on the liver and can cause liver disease. The three main types of liver disease are:
This is the accumulation of a large amount of fat inside liver cells, making it more difficult for the liver to do its job. It is an early stage of alcohol-related liver disease and is common among heavy drinkers—90-100% of heavy alcohol users have it. However, this can be reversed after at least two weeks of alcohol abstinence.
Alcohol Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, often with significant cell death in the liver as well. About 35% of heavy drinkers have Alcoholic Hepatitis. Alcoholic Hepatitis can be reversed with sustained alcohol abstinence, but it can vary depending on the severity. Some people show normal blood work after two years of abstaining from alcohol.
This is the most serious form of liver damage—when the functional liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue. This condition is life-threatening and occurs in 10-20% of chronic heavy drinkers.
Effects of Alcohol on the Cardiovascular System
Chronic heavy drinking can lead to high blood pressure. This may thicken the arteries, significantly increasing the risk of heart failure or a stroke. Long-term alcohol abuse weakens the heart muscle, a condition called cardiomyopathy. 42% of people diagnosed with cardiomyopathy who continue to drink after being diagnosed die within three years. However, even this most severe level of heart damage may be reversible with alcohol abstinence. After six months of alcohol abstinence there may be noticeable improvement in the heart’s left ventricle. A complete recovery may be possible after about a year and a half.
Effects on the Immune System
Alcohol has numerous and significant effects on the immune system. As the gastrointestinal tract is the way alcohol enters the bloodstream, alcohol affects microbes in the gut linked to immune system functioning. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to increased risk of pneumonia. Alcohol can also cause or exacerbate allergies. Immunoglobulin E (IgE)—antibodies produced by the body to fight allergens— are increased in people with Alcohol Use Disorder. Alcohol abstinence can reverse these effects after about six months, depending on the severity and length of drinking.
Increased Risk of Cancer
According to the CDC, the body breaks alcohol down into a chemical called Acetaldehyde, which damages DNA and prevents the body from repairing that damage. When DNA is damaged, cells can grow out of control and form a tumor. Consequently, alcohol abuse increases the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, such as: -Mouth and throat -Larynx (voice box) -Liver -Breast -Colon and rectum -Esophagus
Alcohol and the Brain
Chronic alcohol abuse affects the brain directly, but also indirectly through poor nutrition. 80% of alcoholics have a deficiency of thiamine, which is important for brain function. Excessive and prolonged drinking also destroys brain cells, contracts brain tissue, and depresses the central nervous system. A study by Harvard Researchers found that the amount of shrinkage in the brain’s hippocampus—which is associated with memory and reasoning skills—increased the more people drank. People who drank four or more drinks per day had almost six times the risk of hippocampal shrinkage than non-drinkers. The areas of the brain most affected by alcohol use are the frontal lobe—affecting higher-level cognition and behavioral control—and the cerebellum, which helps control muscle movement. However, alcohol abstinence can repair the brain. The amount of time it takes depends on the severity and length of drinking. Some changes may begin happening in the brain as early as two weeks of quitting drinking, and within a few years the brain may heal significantly.
Alcohol and Mental Health
People may use alcohol to temporarily quell anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders. However, chronic alcohol use negatively affects mental health. Long-term alcohol abuse decreases dopamine in the brain. It also rewires the brain, making it harder to recover from traumatic experiences. Treatment for mental health disorders isn’t effective until you remove substances. Alcohol Use Disorder and mental health disorders need to be treated together.
What Happens to the Body During Detox?
As alcohol is a depressant, it slows brain function and alters the way nerves send messages. With chronic alcohol abuse, the body adjusts by producing naturally stimulating chemicals, such as serotonin, to keep the brain active. According to Harvard Health, “If the alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, the brain is like an accelerated vehicle that has lost its brakes. Not surprisingly, most symptoms of withdrawal are symptoms that occur when the brain is overstimulated.” Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include tremors (commonly called “the shakes”), hallucinations, anxiety, and seizures. The most serious symptom is delirium tremens, which severely impacts the body’s breathing, circulation and temperature control. It is crucial for people not to detox on their own. A medical professional will be able to administer the proper care to keep the person safe and comfortable.
There is Help at Amatus Recovery Centers
If you are struggling with alcohol use or a co-occurring mental health disorder, Amatus Recovery Centers is here for you. Our facilities across the country offer the full continuum of care, from Medical Detox to Outpatient Programs. Treatment with us will help safely rid your body of the toxic substance while helping you work through the core issues that caused you to use alcohol. When you leave our care, you will have the tools to build a healthy life and thrive in long-term recovery. Your body will thank you! To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.