Alcohol Related Diseases & Disorders

Heavy alcohol use causes numerous diseases that affect the brain, nerves, muscle tissue, heart, stomach, liver, pancreas and other organs. Consuming the substance is a risk factor for several cancers, and it's associated with psychological disorders.
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It doesn’t take long to recover from drinking. A person can take a quick nap to relieve the effects of a few beers. The worst hangovers usually subside in a day. But each drink makes a small amount of hidden damage inside the body. Years of heavy drinking can result in a plethora of long-term illnesses.

Nearly every part of the body is affected by alcohol. When a person drinks, alcohol heads to the stomach, where some of it is absorbed. The liver processes the liquid. Alcohol moves through the brain, the heart and the kidneys. Alcohol in the blood passes through the lungs.

Each part of the body experiences short- and long-term effects of alcohol. Your organs recover from the short-term side effects in hours or days, but they don’t recover from the long-term effects. That damage gets worse each time a person drinks. The risks of permanent damage are increased when a person is mixing drugs and alcohol.

In most people, the liver takes the most damage. Alcoholics are known for liver problems, and several liver diseases are caused solely by long-term alcohol abuse.

“One of the things we believe is a carcinogen is something called acetaldehyde,” Dr. Kenneth Leonard, director of the Research Institute on Addictions, told “Acetaldehyde is one of the metabolites of alcohol. It’s something you will see in the liver. You can also see it in other parts of the body. There are a variety of other kinds of diseases that alcohol has an impact on.”

The brain is particularly vulnerable to alcohol. The substance can hijack brain circuits, making people crave the drug. It disrupts brain operations, causing a number of psychiatric disorders.

A list of diseases that can be caused only by alcohol abuse includes:

  • Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism
  • Alcoholic polyneuropathy (disease of the peripheral nerves)
  • Alcoholic myopathy (disease of muscle tissue)
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (heart disease)
  • Alcoholic gastritis (stomach inflammation)
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Alcohol-induced pancreatitis (pancreas inflammation)
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (birth defects)

Risks of alcohol include the potential to develop other diseases, including:

  • Cancer
  • Depressive disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke

Alcoholism is one of the most well-known diseases caused by chronic alcohol consumption. It’s unique because it makes the body crave a substance that makes the disease worse. Alcohol addiction is a disease that also leads to other diseases. A person does not have to be an alcoholic to experience diseases related to alcohol abuse, but alcoholism drastically increases a person’s risk for alcohol-related illnesses.

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Liver Disease

Unlike many alcohol-related health problems, such as alcohol poisoning, impaired judgement or blacking out, a person doesn’t have to drink a lot in one sitting to develop liver diseases. Alcoholic liver diseases can occur after chronic, moderate drinking, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Genetics play a large role in the development of liver disease. Some heavy drinkers never experience liver problems, but increased alcohol consumption raises the risk of liver disease. Mixing it with medications, such as mixing DayQuil and alcohol, can increase the risk of liver problems. Women may be more susceptible to alcohol-related liver problems than men, but the disease is common in both men and women.

The first symptoms of alcohol-related liver problems include:

  • Low energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Appearance of small, spider-like blood vessels on the skin

Symptoms of severe liver disease include:

  • Fluid buildup in the legs and abdomen
  • Yellow skin
  • Red palms
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Impotence or shrinking testicles in men

Symptoms may appear suddenly or gradually depending on the health of the liver. They tend to worsen after an episode of heavy drinking. Liver disease usually begins with fatty liver disease. After prolonged drinking, alcoholic hepatitis can occur. Alcoholic cirrhosis is the final stage of alcoholic liver disease.

Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease refers to the buildup of fat on the liver. It can occur after a short period of heavy drinking, such as a few days or a weekend of consistent alcohol consumption. It’s difficult to diagnose because it usually doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms. Fatty liver can be cured if a person stops drinking alcohol for multiple days or weeks.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis occurs if a person continues to drink regularly for a long period of time. It’s usually associated with heavy drinking, but it can occur in people who never get drunk. Alcoholic hepatitis can vary in severity. Some people do not experience symptoms. In others, it can result in liver failure.

Most people experience early symptoms, such as weight loss, stomach pain or nausea. Hepatitis can be reversed by a long period of abstinence. In severe cases, doctors may recommend never drinking again. There are also other steps you can take to recover from alcohol liver diseases, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising.

Liver Cirrhosis

The final stage of alcohol-related liver disease is liver cirrhosis. At this point, the liver has become scarred. Cirrhosis has many symptoms that are similar to alcoholic hepatitis. The scarring is not treatable or reversible. In most cases, people must stop drinking or they risk permanent liver failure.

Brain Damage

Chronic alcohol consumption causes noticeable problems in the brain. In addition to craving alcohol, people who regularly consume alcohol may have short-term memory problems or have difficulty processing visual information, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

Medical scans show that the brains of heavy drinkers shrink. Alcohol kills gray brain cells that are responsible for spatial processing. The substance also kills white brain cells, which help people process visual cues.

Most of these problems are solved by abstaining from alcohol. With abstinence, the brain returns to a normal size and resumes functioning normally. In less severe cases, a period of low to moderate drinking can allow the brain to return to normal function. It may take longer to recover from brain damage caused by alcohol and other substances, such as the damage caused by mixing alcohol with Xanax.

Some alcohol-related brain diseases are permanent.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (Wet Brain)

One of the most debilitating brain diseases for alcoholics isn’t a direct effect of alcohol. Long-term alcohol use causes thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused by a lack of thiamine in the brain. It causes confusion, muscle incoordination and vision problems. Most people who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy develop Korsakoff’s psychosis when the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy go away.

“Alcohol produces what is known as ‘Wet Brain’ which is basically symptoms of dementia. When it gets to that point, it is very difficult to be reversed.”

Richard Molina, Head Therapist, The Recovery Village

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include learning difficulties, memory loss and hallucinations. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes called wet brain. The syndrome refers to the common occurrence of Korsakoff’s psychosis after Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The symptoms are not reversible, but abstinence and medical treatment may prevent symptoms from worsening.

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Hepatic encephalopathy is another indirect result of alcohol consumption. The liver is responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood stream. When alcohol damages the liver, some toxins remain in the bloodstream and make it to the brain. Hepatic encephalopathy occurs when the brain is damaged by toxins in the blood. Symptoms include drowsiness and slurred speech. Severe brain damage can cause a coma.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

The brain is more vulnerable to alcohol when it’s growing and developing. Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to experience alcohol-related problems later in life than teens who abstain. The most vulnerable brains are those of unborn children.

When women drink during pregnancy, alcohol can disrupt the development of the baby’s brain. Children born to mothers who drank during pregnancy often develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. FASDs include a range of birth defects caused by alcohol, including small brain size, reduced number of brain cells, and learning and behavior problems.

Heart Disease

Alcohol contributes to several risk factors for heart disease. For example, side effects of chronic alcohol consumption include high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes and obesity. People who drink heavily are also more likely to have an unhealthy diet and to exercise less. Each of those side effects is a risk factor for heart disease, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Alcohol also causes direct damage to the heart. When it passes through the heart, it does a small amount of damage to muscle cells. Drinking a lot of alcohol for a long period of time can weaken the heart, making it work harder to pump blood. Mixing energy drinks and alcohol or other caffeinated products with alcohol, may increase the risk of heart problems.

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, also known as alcoholic heart disease, occurs when the heart becomes large and thin. This increases the risk of heart failure. Symptoms usually don’t occur until the heart begins to fail.

Symptoms of heart failure caused by alcoholic heart disease include:

  • Swelling of the feet or ankles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased alertness
  • Lower urine output
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeat

Some studies suggest that drinking small amounts of red wine reduces the risk of heart disease. Researchers are also examining whether small amounts of alcohol increase healthy cholesterol. However, no studies have proven that alcohol causes health benefits.

The American Heart Association does not recommend drinking to reduce bad cholesterol or to lower the risk of heart disease. The AHA recommends a healthy diet and moderate exercise to achieve the same health benefits.

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Heavy drinking can cause pancreas inflammation that eventually leads to scarring of the pancreas, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Pancreatitis usually begins with a temporary condition called acute pancreatitis. Symptoms include stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. Acute pancreatitis is a single episode of pancreatic inflammation, but it can reoccur. Multiple episodes of acute pancreatitis can contribute to other conditions, such as diabetes.

Chronic pancreatitis occurs when inflammation has been reduced but the pancreas remains damaged. Symptoms include digestive problems and diabetes.

Some people develop alcohol-related pancreatitis after drinking a few alcoholic beverages a day for an extended period of time. Others develop the disease only after drinking heavily, such as five or more beverages a day for multiple weeks. Abstaining from alcohol can reduce the likelihood of future episodes of acute pancreatitis, and it can make symptoms of chronic pancreatitis more controllable.

Cancer Risk

Alcohol contributes to the development of several types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The more a person drinks, the more likely they are to develop several types of cancer.

“Heavy drinking is associated with almost every cancer,” Leonard said. “If you look at the percentage of deaths that are attributable to alcohol it varies by one kind of cancer to another, but virtually every cancer is associated with heavy alcohol use.”

Experts believe that alcohol contributes to cancer risk by:

  • Creating molecules and chemicals that can harm DNA, proteins and fats
  • Disrupting the way the body absorbs nutrients that prevent cancer
  • Increasing estrogen levels (associated with breast cancer)

Some alcoholic beverages may contain cancer-causing toxins that are introduced during the fermentation process.

The most common types of cancer caused by alcohol include:

  • Head and neck cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Experts have researched a link between alcohol and cancers of the pancreas, bladder, prostate, stomach, uterus and ovaries. However, they have not found definitive evidence that alcohol contributes to those cancers.

They have found evidence that alcohol decreases the risk of kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Experts are not sure how alcohol reduces the risk of those cancers. Despite evidence that a chemical in red wine called resveratrol has cancer-fighting properties, no studies have found proof that resveratrol actually prevents cancer.

In general, cancer risk decreases when a person stops drinking alcohol. It may take several years of abstinence for the risk to decrease in people who have a long history of alcohol abuse.

Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of several diseases. One does not have to be an alcoholic to develop alcohol-related diseases. So-called high-functioning alcoholics and people who drink regularly in moderation may develop diseases caused by alcohol.

Many alcohol-related diseases are debilitating, and some are life-threatening.

Abstinence is the common treatment for all diseases caused by alcohol. In most cases, abstaining from alcohol can relieve symptoms or prevent symptoms from worsening. In other cases, alcohol causes permanent damage that is irreversible. The best way to prevent alcohol-related diseases is to abstain from alcohol or to limit drinking to moderate amounts on infrequent occasions.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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