Alcohol: Physiological effects

Last modified: Wednesday, 24. December 2008 - 4:01 am

The physical effects of alcohol on the body depend on the person’s size, weight, sex, and age. Additionally, the amount of food present in the body and the amount of alcohol consumed determine one’s physical response to alcohol. The immediate physical effects of alcohol consumption are slurred speech, nausea, lack of coordination, dizziness, and dehydration. Alcohol has no nutritional value, but it can have an effect on a person’s weight. It decreases one’s appetite by filling the body with empty calories and convinces the body it has had enough to eat. People who abuse alcohol run the risk of becoming malnourished.

Harmful side effects

Alcohol can suppress the immune system, making people more susceptible to infections. Because alcohol reduces inhibitions and impairs judgment, those under its influence may be prone to engage in unsafe sexual activity, raising the risks of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol use can interfere with a woman’s ability to become pregnant. It can lower a man’s sperm count and reduce his sexual drive.

There is no safe level of alcohol consumption for a woman at any time during a pregnancy. Every bottle of alcohol bears a warning label that reads: ‘According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.” If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, her baby is drinking alcohol. If she becomes drunk, her baby is drunk.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and serious birth defects such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effect (FAE). FAS is one of the leading causes of birth defects in children and the most preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States. Over 8,000 babies are born each year with fetal alcohol syndrome. It wasn’t until 1973 that FAS was defined. FAS babies have lower birthweight, slower mental and physical growth rates, and abnormal facial features such as droopy eyelids, broad noses, large nostrils, and possible cleft palates. Additionally they can have deformed sex organs, internal problems, skeletal abnormalities, brain damage, and mental retardation. FAS is hard to diagnose because the symptoms can mimic those of other birth defects. Thirty thousand babies are born each year with fetal alcohol effect. FAE babies do not have the obvious facial and/or skeletal abnormalities, nor do they have the same level of brain damage as FAS babies, but FAE babies can have physical and behavioral problems such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and hyperactivity.

Both the mother and father can be responsible for birth defects by drinking alcohol. Miscarriages can be a result of sperm damaged by alcohol. A man’s sperm count can be lowered by alcohol consumption. A breastfeeding mother needs to know that any alcohol she consumes passes from her breast milk into her baby. The simplest way to prevent alcohol problems during pregnancy is not to drink while pregnant and to avoid any alcohol consumption when planning a pregnancy.

Long-term health effects

Prolonged use of alcohol can have serious negative effects on the body. It causes vitamin deficiencies. Alcohol can reduce iron levels, causing anemia, and deplete the body of niacin, causing skin damage. Internally, alcohol can cause inflammation of the stomach, liver, pancreas, and esophagus, causing ulcers, hepatitis, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and several forms of cancer. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that “alcohol-induced liver disease is a major cause of illness and death in the United States.” Long-term alcohol use is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and death.

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