Drinking alcohol affects almost all parts of your body. The more you drink, the greater the effect it has on your body. Moderate drinking shouldn’t be a cause for concern, but if you drink a lot over a long period of time it can have a significant impact on your health.

What effect does alcohol have on your liver?

Your liver is the largest internal organ in your body. It carries out over 500 functions, including breaking down and removing toxic substances from your body — like alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol has both short and long term effects on the liver.

In the short term, your body will struggle to get rid of the alcohol straight away. It takes the liver about an hour to remove one unit of alcohol from your body, so if you consume more than 8 units in one go, it’s likely you’ll wake up with a hangover.

In the long term, drinking too much can lead to alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). This can be summarised in three stages.

Stage one: fatty liver disease

This happens when you drink a lot of alcohol over the course of a few days. A build-up of fat starts to form in your liver.

Fatty liver disease isn't serious and doesn't really have any symptoms. Stopping drinking for around two weeks gives the liver enough time to process the fats and reverse the condition.

Stage two: alcoholic hepatitis.

This happens over a long period of time (and isn't related to infectious hepatitis). Alcoholic hepatitis has the potential to be more serious than fatty liver disease. But, alcoholic hepatitis is also reversible if you stop drinking alcohol permanently.

Stage three: cirrhosis

Drinking too much causes strain on the liver, which in turn can result in inflammation. This can lead to scarring — called cirrhosis. The scar tissue damages the liver, making it harder for it to remove the toxins (like alcohol) from your body. This, in turn, can lead to permanent damage.

Are there any symptoms for ARLD?

You'll often not notice any symptoms for an alcohol-related liver disease until your liver is severely damaged. If you drink a lot of alcohol, it's worth regularly checking your liver function, which can be done through your GP. Or you can test your liver function with a home blood test.

Initial symptoms of liver disease can include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach pains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Late-stage symptoms of liver disease can include:

  • Bleeding in the gut
  • Jaundice
  • Bruising easily
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting blood
  • Itchy skin
  • Swollen ankles
  • Weakness

Is liver disease curable?

As mentioned, your liver is very effective at repairing itself, replacing the damaged cells with new ones. The best way to reverse the effects of ARLD is to either stop or reduce how much you drink. Stopping drinking for about two weeks gives your liver time to regenerate itself, breakdown the excess fat, and reverse the damage caused by liver disease.

How does alcohol affect your heart?

Drinking can cause damage to your heart in two ways:

What effect does alcohol have on your lungs?

Alcohol doesn’t directly impact your lungs. But, heavy drinking can lower your immune system and leave you more exposed to lung diseases like pneumonia.

What effect does alcohol have on your digestive system?

Alcohol consumption can affect your digestive system. In the worst-case scenario, it can damage your intestines, making it harder for them to digest food and nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition.

More immediate effects include:

  • gassiness
  • bloating
  • a feeling of fullness in your abdomen
  • diarrhoea or painful stools

How does alcohol affect your brain?

One of the most noticeable effects of alcohol on your body is its impact on your brain. After just a few drinks you’ll start slurring your speech. This is because alcohol is a substance known as a depressant — it slows the communication between your brain and your body.

Because of this, drinking also affects your balance, decision making and emotions. After a few drinks, you might notice that you start speaking quicker, you become more relaxed and more confident. That’s because part of the brain we associate with inhibition is being ‘depressed’ by the alcohol.

But, drinking has been linked to more negative emotions — like anger, anxiety and, in the long-term, depression.

Why do you get hangovers?

The simple answer is dehydration. Ethanol is toxic and acts as a diuretic — a substance that increases urination. Excess urination can increase the risk of dehydration and loss of vital electrolytes.

Drinking water before going to bed can reduce the risk of developing a hangover. Food can also help slow down how quickly your body absorbs alcohol, which is why you might feel the effect of alcohol quicker when drinking on an empty stomach.

How many units can you drink?

Alcohol units were first introduced in the UK in 1987 to help the public keep track of their alcohol consumption. Simply, units explain the amount of pure alcohol that is present in a drink. The size of the drink and the strength of alcohol can affect the number of units.

Some tips to follow include:

  • Men and women shouldn’t consume more than 14 units in a week
  • You should spread your drinking across the week — preferably over 3 days or more
  • Cut down your alcohol consumption by having a few drink-free days in the week

How many units in my drink?

What’s binge drinking?

Drinking over 8 units for men and 6 units for women in a single session has been classified as binging by the Office of National Statistics. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can make you more susceptible to accidents and harm — your body is only able to process 1 unit of alcohol a hour.

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Cesare Attuoni

Written by Cesare Attuoni

24th Jun 2021 • 6 min read