Enjoying a beer or glass of wine in the evenings or on the weekend with friends or family is socially acceptable. However, when it moves beyond one or two drinks a night or starts interfering with everyday life, it enters the realm of a substance use disorder and becomes a problem.
What are some of the long-term health effects of alcoholism, and how can people seek help for a drinking problem?
Diminished Gray and White Matter in the Brain
Heavy drinking can be dangerous for several different reasons. One study that followed young adults with a history of heavy drinking over a decade found that this sort of consumption leads to diminished gray and white matter in the brain. In addition to physically damaging the brain, this loss of tissue can lead to various memory and learning problems, up to and including dementia.
Weakened Immune System
An immune system is essential to keep yourself healthy. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can depress the immune system. A diminished immune system can leave you more vulnerable to all sorts of different bacterial and viral infections, and make it more challenging to recover from injury and surgeries. Despite numerous studies, we don’t understand precisely why or how alcohol disrupts the immune pathways. Still, researchers have observed that chronic drinkers and those living with alcoholism experience various immune-related conditions directly correlated to alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol consumption also negatively affects your physical appearance as it impacts your internal organs and mental health. Many people find that drinking in excess causes the skin to dehydrate, increasing lines, wrinkles, age spots, and other imperfections.
Flushed cheeks are also a common side effect of drinking, and can become permanent as the dilating capillaries in the face begin to burst. While this damage isn’t life-threatening, the body doesn’t naturally heal it, leaving individuals seeking medical treatment such as laser therapy to repair the broken blood vessels.
Mental Health Issues
While alcoholism doesn’t necessarily cause mental health problems, the two conditions often go hand in hand. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around one-third of individuals with alcoholism live with at least one mental illness. This dual diagnosis often happens when people use alcohol or other substances in a misguided attempt to self-medicate and cope with their mental illness symptoms. Excessive alcohol consumption also has various adverse effects on a person’s mental state due to its depressive qualities, even without an official diagnosis.
Liver disease is the most prevalent long-term effect associated with alcoholism. The liver plays a crucial role in filtering alcohol and other toxins from the bloodstream, but it can only handle so much before it begins to fail. Liver disease can take various forms, but in general, someone with alcoholism will progress through cirrhosis and liver cancer, eventually reaching full liver failure and requiring a transplant. People with chronic alcoholism might not even be eligible to receive a transplant, making liver disease a long-term and even fatal diagnosis.
Cardiomyopathy and Heart Disease
While most people associate liver disease with alcoholism, the substance affects the entire body in various ways. In both men and women between the ages of 35 and 50, heavy or excessive drinking for long periods increases the risk of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This condition weakens the heart muscle, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.
This chronic condition generally emerges after five to 15 years of heavy drinking. For women, that’s more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week, and for men, that’s more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks a week.
How and When to Get Help
It can be challenging to know when to seek help for alcohol addiction. If you drink daily, experience frequent blackouts, hide how much you drink or find your habit is damaging your personal and professional relationships, it might be time to enter a treatment program.
Alcoholism is a disease, and as it progresses, it becomes challenging or even impossible to abstain from drinking on your own. Seeking alcohol addiction treatment is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s a sign of strength because asking for help is often the hardest thing to do.
Start by admitting that you have a problem. Then, research treatment options available in your area. You might be surprised how many free or low-cost solutions you have at your fingertips and how many more you might be able to access with assistance from your health insurance. Alcoholism doesn’t only cause you to pass out, behave irresponsibly, or forget things you said or did. Excessive drinking can have a range of long-term adverse effects on your physical and mental health. You only get one body, so take care of yourself and make a fresh start.