Feb 3, 2023

The Physical Effects of Alcoholism 

Alcoholism can have serious physical effects on the body, including liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, and cancer risk. Learn about the physical effects of alcoholism and how to get help for alcohol addiction. 

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol is addictive because of how the body adapts to high consumption levels. The more a person drinks, the higher their tolerance to alcohol becomes. As a result, it takes more to reach that same feeling. As a person drinks more, their body adapts to increasingly high levels of alcohol in the blood. 

When the body, particularly the brain, reaches a stage where it cannot function without a certain amount of alcohol present, removing alcohol from the system leads to withdrawal symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

The signs of alcohol abuse you might notice first are often behavioral. People may drink more often and at unusual times, such as before work or school. They tend to become irritable or forgetful and spend significant time obtaining and drinking alcohol. They may also consume excessive amounts.

All the symptoms a person experiences when abusing alcohol may not always be obvious. Alcohol abuse can lead to insomnia and other sleep problems, make them feel hazy, and impact appetite and weight. 

The Physical Effects of Alcoholism

Even moderate drinking can have lasting effects on the body. Heavy consumption and binge drinking make those effects of alcohol more obvious much more quickly than infrequent moderate drinking. The physical effects of long-term alcoholism impact almost every system in the body, not just the liver and brain.

Digestive and Endocrine Glands 

The digestive system is one of the first places alcohol goes. Many associated endocrine glands can suffer damage from chronic alcohol consumption, including the pancreas. The pancreas is sensitive to what a person consumes and any inflammation it creates. 

This inflammation can cause pancreatitis when digestive enzymes are released abnormally and damage surrounding tissues. This condition can lead to serious complications if it becomes chronic.

Inflammatory Damage

The liver does much of the heavy lifting to get alcohol processed into a form it can eliminate from the body. Because of this, heavy drinking takes a toll. It can lead to inflammation in the liver that impacts its other functions. Also, abnormal storage of compounds, such as fat, prevents proper functioning. 

It can also cause fibrosis, where the body uses connective tissue to keep the liver together. In severe, chronic cases, fibrosis can lead to cirrhosis, or scarring, that prevents the liver from filtering out toxins and producing important proteins for the body. 

Sugar Grades

The pancreas and liver are essential in regulating glucose, or sugar, levels in the body. The pancreas produces insulin that drives glucose into the cells after a meal. The liver converts glucose into glycogen, then converts glycogen back to glucose when needed. Depending on the damage type and severity, you could experience hyper- or hypoglycemia, both of which can become deadly if not addressed promptly.

Central Nervous System

Alcohol acts as a central nervous depressant, which slows down how it functions. It can also prevent some functions from working correctly at any speed. This leads to the characteristic slurred speech, incoordination, brain fog, and blackouts associated with drinking. With chronic consumption, this effect can cause problems with decision-making and social interactions, leading to permanent memory problems.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Despite lowering inhibitions, alcohol can significantly negatively impact sexual and reproductive health. For example, it decreases libido, alters menstrual cycles, interferes with appropriate hormone function, and even leads to infertility. 

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Alcohol use during pregnancy affects the unborn child as well as the mother. Because developing body systems are highly sensitive to alcohol, it can lead to miscarriages, stillbirths, and prematurity. Even if the baby is born at the expected time, it can still have disabilities and developmental problems that are present at birth. It can also have lifelong health problems due to exposure to alcohol in the womb.

Skeletal and Muscle Systems

While not commonly considered, alcohol can impact the musculoskeletal system. Chronic use can lead to bone thinning, leading to bone fractures that are slow to heal. Heavy drinking can also cause cramping and weakness that may progress to muscle atrophy.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System?

The impact of alcoholism on the immune system might not be one of the health risks that many people consider, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. On the contrary, it can cause a significant weakening of the immune system. Those suffering from chronic alcoholism are more prone to infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and many others. 

Alcohol and the Microbiome

The presence of alcohol can alter the microbiome of your digestive tract, often killing off large numbers of bacteria. While this might sound good, there is a delicate balance between these bacteria and proper immune function. Helpful bacteria can produce compounds that keep harmful bacteria in check. The alcohol can also create enough damage that bacteria can escape from the gut and multiply in other body parts, creating even more inflammation.

Alcohol can also interfere with antibodies, the main way the immune system identifies anything that doesn’t belong. The cells in the immune system that produce these antibodies are sensitive to alcohol, and they decrease in number even with moderate drinking. Heavy drinking never gives these cells a chance to increase in numbers again. 

Getting Help for Alcohol Use Disorder

The best place to get help for an alcohol use disorder is a rehab facility or addiction center, such as Massachusetts Center for Addiction. These centers offer support for detoxing from alcohol safely to minimize the effects of withdrawal and manage any effects from chronic alcohol consumption. They also provide treatment and individualized care plans to continue recovery after the initial detox.

The best addiction centers have a variety of ways to access care, such as intensive outpatient care for those that don’t need hospitalized treatment. They also offer support for mental health concerns that may occur alongside the alcohol use disorder. Well-appointed IOPs can provide a dual diagnosis and an appropriate treatment to go along with the diagnosis.

If you or a loved one are seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out today for the information and support you need.

MCA Staff
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