person in need of detoxMore than half of Americans over the age of 12 reported being current alcohol drinkers in the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Alcohol is legal for those over age 21, readily available, and quite often included in regular social interactions and situations. Drinking in moderation is not generally considered an issue. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men, and none for those under the legal drinking age. Problems may arise when drinking amounts increase from moderate levels to excessive levels.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines excessive drinking as episodes of binge or heavy drinking, or drinking by those underage or women while pregnant. Binge drinking is consuming four or more drinks in a two-hour period for a woman and five or more for a man. It is considered heavy drinking if a woman consumes eight or more drinks a week or a man consumes 15 or more drinks a week.

A standard drink is 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This means that a 5-ounce beer that has an alcohol content of 5 percent is considered a drink, as is one 5-ounce glass of wine with an alcohol content of 12 percent and a drink of distilled 80-proof spirits is measured as one drink per 1.5 ounces with a 40 percent alcohol content. Chronic abuse of alcohol above the recommended limits may lead to health concerns or even addiction. The medical diagnosis of problem drinking is defined as an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. In 2012, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that 17 million Americans over the age of 18 suffered from an AUD.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Central Nervous System

The central nervous system includes your spinal column and brain, and it is responsible for vital bodily actions, including heart rate regulation, blood pressure, body temperature regulation, and respiration as well as cognitive and mental functions. The brain uses chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, to send and receive messages throughout the body. These neurotransmitters are either inhibitory, meaning they slow things down, or excitatory, which are stimulating. Gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that alcohol stimulates, which results in sluggish movement and slurred speech. Alcohol also depresses the production of glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is responsible for energy levels and brain activity.

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant and slows down both physical and mental functions. Conversely, alcohol also stimulates the reward center of the brain by increasing the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces pleasant feelings or euphoria.

Initial side effects of alcohol use may include:

  • Loss of motor control
  • Lack of coordination and balance
  • Impaired and slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Loss of hearing
  • Impaired judgment
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Lack of inhibitions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Surge of confidence
  • Memory loss or blackouts
  • Impaired mental functions
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Mood swings
  • Intense emotions

Alcohol may affect people differently, depending on several factors as well. For example, a woman typically becomes intoxicated faster than a man due to hormonal and physical differences as well as body weight. Alcohol is absorbed partially through the stomach and mostly through the small intestine, so someone who is heavier is more likely to absorb more alcohol before it enters the bloodstream.

Genetics may play a role, as well as general health and other biological factors. For instance, Brown University reports that as many as 50 percent of those of Asian descent may experience issues metabolizing alcohol, increasing the odds for an adverse reaction. Family history is important also, and many researchers are studying the potential link between genetics and alcohol consumption and dependency.

The liver breaks alcohol down. If you consume too much alcohol too quickly, it is unable to break down the toxins, and your blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, will rise rapidly. BAC is the ratio used to determine the level of intoxication. All 50 states currently cite a BAC of 0.08 as being legally intoxicated and the legal limit for driving under the influence (DUI), although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently recommended lowering the BAC level to 0.05, arguing that this is the level at which vision becomes slightly impaired. Levels of physical and mental impairment increase as BAC levels increase.

Physical Side Effects of Chronic Alcohol Abuse

guy with addiction has a headacheAbusing alcohol not only has short-term side effects, but it also brings a variety of health concerns for chronic abusers. Excessive drinking over a long period of time is hard on the body, especially on organs like the heart and liver. Alcohol disrupts the heart’s natural rhythm, and both binge and chronic drinkers may experience irregularities in heart rate, or arrhythmia.

Chronic alcohol abusers may suffer from many forms of cardiovascular disease, including alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of the heart muscle that can cause a shortage of blood flow to vital organs. Heavy drinkers who drink excessively are at a greater risk for heart failure also, as cited in Alcohol Research & Health. Additionally, alcohol consumption may increase blood clots, which may prevent blood from reaching the brain, causing a stroke. Binge drinkers are 39 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than their peers who don’t binge drink, as reported by the NIAAA.

Blood pressure may also be elevated in binge or chronic drinkers, causing hypertension. Excessive alcohol abuse damages the liver, which detoxifies the body. Alcoholics often develop liver disease or scarring, which may lead to cirrhosis of the liver. The NIAAA further estimates that as many as one in four heavy drinkers will develop cirrhosis, while one in five will develop dangerous inflammation called alcoholic hepatitis.

Chronic drinking can also lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes due to insulin resistance, jaundice, anemia, and even may increase the risk factors for head and neck, esophageal, liver, and breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that people who consume an average of 3.5 drinks per day have a two to three time greater risk of developing head or neck cancers. For women, three drinks a day may increase the risk of breast cancer up to 1.5 times over that of nondrinkers.

Alcohol not only suppresses the central nervous system but also the immune system, which is what fights off bacteria and infection, potentially leaving chronic drinkers with fewer defense mechanisms than their abstinent peers. Alcohol can also affect sexual performance and fertility as well as increase the risks for risky sexual behaviors and therefore sexually transmitted diseases.

Potential Brain Damage

Alcohol abuse can also damage the brain with both immediate and long-term effects. Large quantities of alcohol can cause someone to suffer from a blackout, during which the person appears normal, although they will have no recollection of events or circumstances surrounding the episode. Social drinkers and college students may be the most susceptible to blackouts, considering the amounts of alcohol consumed rather quickly, with a survey in the Journal of American College Health finding that over half of the students questioned (51 percent) admitted to suffering from a blackout at some point in their lifetime. A blackout should not be confused with passing out, however. If someone loses consciousness due to excessive drinking, they most likely are suffering from alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening and needs immediate medical attention.Impaired cognition and memory lapses may be resolved after the alcohol is purged from the body; however, researchers debate the possibility that some of these effects may be more long lasting.

Drinking alcohol drains the body and brain of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Alcohol is a diuretic, for example, meaning that it dehydrates the body by diverting water from the brain and sending it to other organs instead.Alcohol consumption also causes a drop in blood sugar. The NIAAA reports that as many as 80 percent of alcoholics are deficient in thiamine, for instance, and this deficiency can potentially lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS is a serious brain disorder that can cause permanent and rehabilitating learning and memory issues. Repeated episodes of binge or heaving drinking may also lead to more permanent brain damage and the increased odds of developing dementia later in life, although studies are as of yet inconclusive.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Another potential risk factor for drinkers who persist in repeated episodes of binge or heavy drinking is the potential for developing a dependence on alcohol. Over time, the brain and body acclimate somewhat to the presence of alcohol in the system, and a tolerance may develop. Someone who is tolerant to alcohol will need to consume more and more each time in order to feel its effects. By increasing the dosage each time, a chronic drinker is likely to become both physically and mentally dependent on alcohol in order to maintain a feeling of normalcy, increasing the risk for raising BAC to toxic levels.

Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease. Around 17 percent of men and 8 percent of women are likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence in their lifetimes, as published by the CDC.


An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is considered a mental health disorder, and diagnosis depends on meeting at least two of the following criteria, as outlined by the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) published by the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Failed attempts to stop or reduce drinking
  • Drinking for longer or more than intended
  • Alcohol-related home, job, or school problems
  • Excessive time spent obtaining, consuming, or recovering from alcohol
  • Continuing to drink regardless of social, family, and/or peer issues
  • Discontinuation of activities previously enjoyed in order to drink
  • Drinking regardless of health concerns or problems
  • Drinking-induced risky behavior on more than one occasion
  • Increased tolerance to alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is removed

The number of symptoms present determines the severity of the AUD. For example, those with one or two symptoms are considered to have a mild AUD, while four to five symptoms are considered to have a moderate AUD. When six or more symptoms are present, someone is considered to have a severe AUD.

Chronic or heavy drinkers, as well as those with an AUD, may suffer from withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is removed. These symptoms include psychological side effects, like agitation, irritability, depression, nightmares, anxiety, and mood swings as well as physical side effects, such as insomnia, tremors, sweating, nausea and vomiting, headaches, rapid heart rate, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

A more serious form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens (DTs). Someone with DTs may experience seizures, fever, agitation, severe confusion, and hallucinations. DTs is potentially life-threatening, and proper medical care is vital.

Risk Factors

The presence of certain factors may increase the risks for someone developing an AUD as well. These factors may include the age someone starts drinking, family history or genetics, as well as environmental factors. Adolescents and young adults have brains that haven’t finished developing, which may increase the likelihood of poor judgment calls, susceptibility to peer pressure, and increased risk-taking behavior. This can include episodes of underage drinking, or binge drinking. The CDC published an estimate stating that young adults who start drinking before the age of 15 were five times more likely to develop an alcohol abuse or dependence in their lifetime than their peers who waited until the legal drinking age to take their first drink.Researchers hotly debate whether genetics or environmental factors play a bigger role in the potential for developing an AUD, with the most current research agreeing that both play an equal role, as reported by the National Institute of Health (NIH). Alcoholism does tend to run in families, and research indicates that a family history of an AUD may increase the potential risk for someone developing an AUD in the future. Environmental factors, such as socioeconomics, familial support, and stress levels, can all lead to the onset of an AUD as well.

Gender may also be a factor, as men seem to be more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, including episodes of binge drinking. According to the CDC, men who reported drinking in the past month were twice as likely as women to engage in episodes of binge drinking, for instance. Binge and heavy drinking increase the risks for developing an AUD.

Getting Help

Obtaining the proper care and treatment for an AUD can significantly increase quality of life and decrease health risks. That being said, only about 8.4 percent of American adults who needed treatment for an AUD in 2012 received the care they needed at a specialized facility, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Alcohol treatment often starts with detox, which is the process of safely purging toxins from the body, sometimes with the use of pharmaceuticals to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Orlando Recovery Center offers state-of-the-art detox, providing medical care 24 hours a day. Patients will learn coping mechanisms and new life skills in group and individual therapy sessions during the psychotherapeutic portion of treatment. The road to recovery starts with a simple phone call. Pick up the phone and contact us today.

Medical Disclaimer: Orlando Recovery Center aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.