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The Effects of Alcohol on the Mind, Body, and Society
Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is one of the world’s most popular drugs. It has been for thousands of years, in fact, with the discovery of alcoholic fermentation dating back at least to the Neolithic era. People worldwide now spend over £800 billion on alcoholic beverages every year.
Residents of the United Kingdom number among the world’s most devoted drinkers. With only around two dozen other nations ranking higher, the U.K. accounts for around ten litres of pure alcohol consumed per adult person annually, according to the Institute for Alcohol Studies.
Much of this drinking is of a casual, controlled-seeming kind. Because alcohol is a psychoactive substance that can foster dependency and which affects the body in many different ways, though, even light drinking can be problematic, both in the short term and over longer periods of time.
Being familiar with the effects of alcohol on the body can therefore be helpful for anyone. Whether for use in guiding a person’s own drinking decisions or providing others with helpful perspective, effort put into understanding the effects of alcohol will rarely be wasted.
A Depressant that Acts Directly on the Nervous System
The various pleasant effects that many people associate with alcohol can mostly be traced to its ability to depress a number of functions of the nervous system. Many people enjoy drinking alcohol insofar as it can lead to positive feelings like:
- Warmth and openness toward others
- Increased empathy
- Reduced inhibition
Alcohol can encourage these feelings and others through its inhibition of the functioning of various nervous-system processes that run throughout sober, everyday life. Someone who regularly experiences anxiety in social situations, for instance, might discover that alcohol takes the edge off that negative feeling, making it easier to enjoy the company of others. Another person might find that alcohol relaxes habitual inhibitions, possibly leading to exciting experiences that would be less likely to arise when sober.
While feelings of these kinds can be positive, they can also lead to the formation of a psychological dependency on alcohol. Coupled with the way that the body can also become physically dependent on alcohol, this can make alcohol addiction one of the most challenging forms of dependency to address. The fact that the consumption of alcohol is not just socially acceptable but often seen in a positive light can raise the bar even higher, making alcohol addiction still more difficult to grapple with.
Alcohol’s effects on the nervous system can also produce problems of more immediate kinds. Even consuming a relatively small amount of alcohol can lead to issues like:
- Reduced coordination and balance
- Difficulty speaking
- Anger and aggression toward others
- Failures of judgement
- Impaired vision
Negative effects of these kinds and others might not always cause problems in and of themselves, but they can easily lead to trouble. There is also the issue of alcohol withdrawal for people who develop a dependency on alcohol. Severe cases of alcohol withdrawal can even lead to death. Being aware of the possibility of such issues and ready and able to stop drinking before they can become problematic should be regarded as a top priority for anyone who plans to consume alcohol.
Other Effects of Alcohol on the Body
An occasional glass of wine, beer, or spirits is not likely to cause much direct physical harm to the average person. As the rate of long-term consumption rises, though, it inevitably takes a toll on the body. That is true of a number of the body’s most critical organs and systems, as with the effects of alcohol abuse on the:
- Liver: The liver is tasked with breaking down various forms of alcohol with the use of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. When it does so, it creates as a by-product a carcinogenic chemical known as acetaldehyde. The effects of alcohol on the liver also damages the tissues of the liver directly over time, potentially resulting in health conditions like cirrhosis or alcoholic hepatitis.
- Heart: Heavy drinking can also harm the heart. Although there is some evidence that an occasional alcoholic drink may produce minor cardiovascular benefits, this should never be taken as a reason to drink irresponsibly. Drinking too much for too long can lead to heart-related problems ranging from sagging of the heart muscles themselves to arrhythmia and high blood pressure.
- Pancreas: Habitual, heavy alcohol consumption is also associated with pancreatitis, a condition that can lead to digestive problems and other issues. In some cases, simply refraining from drinking can reduce or reverse the symptoms of pancreatitis.
- Brain: As the source of many positive feelings associated with alcohol consumption, the effects of alcohol on the brain is long-term damage. Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol can result in drastic changes to the brain’s basic functioning, with the substance’s mood-altering effects creating new neurological baselines over time. This is an important reason why alcohol addiction can be so difficult to work through. Long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to a fatal stroke when a damaged cardiovascular system fails to provide the brain with enough blood.
- Other Parts of the Body: Alcohol also contributes directly to health problems of many other kinds. From cancers of the mouth, throat, and stomach caused by excessive consumption to generalised weakening of the immune system, the effects of alcohol abuse are wide-ranging and harmful in purely physical terms.
Finally, excessive consumption of alcohol through binge drinking on even a single occasion can result in outright death. When enough of the substance has been consumed, alcohol poisoning sets in as the depressed nervous system begins to shut down.
Symptoms can include vomiting, loss of consciousness, major lapses of memory, seizures, and increasing, generalised numbness. Eventually, the respiratory system may stop functioning altogether or a coma may ensue. Seeking immediate alcohol poisoning treatment should always be the top priority.
The Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Dependency
Even among those who escape these many possible negative effects of alcohol on the body, problems of other kinds regularly arise. The National Health Service figures that about one in ten adult men in the United Kingdom are dependent on alcohol, but only around one in a hundred actually seek help in a given year.
In addition to directly causing health problems and elevated mortality rates, the effects of alcohol abuse include increased crime rates, significant economic harm, damage to personal and professional relationships, and many others. U.K-based non-profit Alcohol Concern estimates that a single pound spent on the treatment of alcohol dependency returns an average of five pounds in savings on other public spending.
While responsible consumption of alcohol can be a positive, pleasant thing, it is therefore important to remember that the substance is one inherently fraught with dangers. Whether for putting one’s own patterns of abuse into perspective or helping others better understand the issues, knowing about and respecting the effects of alcohol is always worthwhile.
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