Alcohol, or more accurately ethanol, is secreted when sugars and starches ferment in the presence of yeast producing carbon dioxide and ethanol. Alcohol has existed for most of human civilization. Alcohol can be made from honey, grain, milk, fruits and spices have all been used to develop meads, ales, beers, wines, liquors and other spirits. We’re not even the only species indulging in drink – some other animals are affected by ethanol, and some even seek it out.
But despite its cultural and historic significance, alcohol is, for all intents and purposes, a poor choice of drink. The body doesn’t react favorably to alcohol, treating it as a dangerous substance, and causing heavy nausea and vomiting when you consume too much. It affects the brain and heavy use damages your organs – yet alcohol’s greatest danger is the fact that consistent use can lead to alcoholism, or alcohol addiction.
Some people get addicted to alcohol faster than others, a matter that is mostly decided by genetics and certain other circumstances. Yet in any case, heavy alcohol use can lead to a series of different side effects, many of which are debilitating and/or painful.
Struggling with Addiction
First and foremost, alcohol use can lead to addiction. This isn’t the case for most people, as a vast majority of Americans have tried or recently had a drink, yet do not struggle with alcohol use disorder. However, what might start as an innocent hobby or a way to reduce stress can quickly turn into a real problem.
Drinking as a way to deal with stress or habitually drinking to maintain a constant buzz are two surefire signs that a person’s drinking is fast approaching addiction or has already arrived at that stage. While emotional and psychological states can affect the rate at which someone gets addicted, addiction is still mostly a biological phenomenon.
Drugs like alcohol cause the brain to develop a craving for the substance, eventually causing distressing symptoms if a person decides to go “dry”. Someone with addiction will also struggle with severe cravings, to the point that they feel overwhelmingly compelled to seek out a fix despite clear negative consequences, including injury, arrest, and jail time. This coupled with the many other side effects of alcohol (including problems with risk-assessment and decreased inhibition) makes addiction the most dangerous part of rampant alcohol consumption.
Damage to the Liver
The most commonly known side-effect of long-term alcohol abuse is liver damage. Think of the liver as the blood’s waste treatment system – as blood passes through the body, the liver sees to it that anything that shouldn’t be there is metabolized and quickly rendered inept and excreted through the endocrine system.
However, every time the liver has to do this, it takes its toll on the organ. On top of that, alcohol is turned into acetaldehyde, a carcinogenic and toxic compound. While the liver is highly regenerative, alcohol overuse can render the organ useless over decades, requiring invasive treatment, including liver transplants.
A Chance of Cancer
Alcohol itself is carcinogenic and is metabolized into a carcinogen every time you consume it. Alongside smoking, alcohol is still considered a leading cause for cancer. Common cancers caused by alcohol include stomach/bowel cancer, throat cancer, larynx cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer.
Alcohol and the Brain
Consuming large amounts of alcohol over years affects cognition, and not just when drunk. Research indicates that heavy drinkers have a shrinking brain with less grey matter. Alcohol use also speeds up memory loss and other cognitive effects of aging, and damages certain pathways in the brain. It also affects people behaviorally – addiction is a brain disease after all, and also heavily correlates with feelings of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.
Mixing with Other Drugs
When you consume ethanol, the substance makes its way to the brain by entering the bloodstream through your intestines after drinking. Due to the size and nature of the substance, it passes through the brain blood barrier and begins affecting your brain’s cells. There, it latches onto receptors in the brain and communicates with them, to increase the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA, and decrease the effects of the neurotransmitter glutamate, as well as increase the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, a function that links most addictive substances together.
The effects of all this is a combination of decreased inhibition and temporarily decreased anxiety, slurred speech, difficulty balancing and coordinating, swimming vision, slugging movement and difficulty thinking. All in all, these effects worsen until alcohol begins to reach a point in your bloodstream where it becomes poison, causing you to vomit in an attempt to evacuate the ethanol, and go into shock as your blood no longer functions the way it is supposed to.
Every time you drink, your liver starts metabolizing the alcohol that filters through it, rendering it inept. Over time, too much alcohol can cause a massive development of fatty tissue throughout the liver, eventually leading to scarring and debilitating liver cirrhosis. Too much alcohol within a short period of time, on the other hand, will render you dead within a much faster time span, without medical attention.
This danger is compounded when you mix alcohol with other substances. Alcohol is a depressant, and while dangerous on its own, becomes much more potent and accentuates the damage other drugs can do when you start to mix and match.
When taken with other depressants such as tranquilizers, barbiturates, depressants, sedatives and anti-anxiety medication, alcohol can be much deadlier, causing you to pass out and stop breathing, or slowing your heart down to the point that it stops. When taken alongside an opioid, the effects can be quite similar, as opioids also cause a slowdown of the heart and respiratory functions, alongside a disorienting euphoria. Alongside stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines, alcohol can heavily stress the heart, cause an irregular heartbeat, and lead to heart damage. Alcohol overuse in and of itself is dangerous enough – don’t take several different drugs together.