Side Effects of Giving Up Alcohol, According to Physician
According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there were 138.5 million alcohol users aged 12 and older in the country. Approximately 44% of those users were binge drinkers and more than 12% were heavy alcohol users. In 2020, there was a nearly 25% increase in the number of alcohol-related deaths, with those between the ages of 25 to 44 seeing the largest increase. With the most attention and focus on the astronomical increase in the presence of fentanyl, the record numbers of overdose deaths being seen year after year, and the growing prevalence of substances proven to be more lethal than fentanyl, it seems as though the dangers of alcohol have been overlooked. Worldwide, alcohol is one of the leading causes of deaths, and in the U.S., alcohol is responsible for more deaths each year than opioids. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Your Habits More Than Ever
Alcohol intake has seen a marked increase over the past two years, and it's important to remember that with excess alcohol use comes a host of other health conditions. Increases in mental and behavioral health issues are expected as are transplants for alcohol-related liver disease, instances of cardiovascular disease and diagnoses of cancer, among many other ailments. The influx in drinking is not just an immediate problem and this is not a situation that will be handled in a short period of time. Just like addiction, alcohol use and alcohol-related health issues do not only affect the user – everyone in that person's orbit will be impacted. Whether that's by providing spousal support in the short term or caring for a parent who developed an alcohol-related health problem decades from now, the effects of alcohol use in all ways is something that needs to be understood by people of all ages. Alcohol addiction often has a genetic component that can impact multiple generations, and based on some of the early findings from pandemic-era drinking, the reverberations of alcohol-related health issues can conceivably be felt, in some way, for decades to come. Keep reading to discover the positive health benefits of giving up alcohol.
Decreased Risk of Cancer
The impact that alcohol has on the development of cancer is a public health threat. The relationship between cancer and alcohol consumption is almost linear. Alcohol has long been established as a causative factor in several cancers, including pharyngeal, esophageal, colorectal, oral cavity and breast cancer, and eliminating alcohol can begin to decrease the individual's risk factor to some degree.
An influential component in alcohol's link to cancer development is the first metabolite produced after alcohol metabolism, acetaldehyde, which is much more toxic than the ethanol ingested. Acetaldehyde, a carcinogen, is a highly reactive metabolite that binds to a number of molecules, like DNA and proteins, and disrupts its function. For example, acetaldehyde's interference in DNA replication can irreversibly damage it and promote the development of cancer. Acetaldehyde also causes many other effects in different parts of the body. As for the risk and incidence of cancer, the more acetaldehyde the body is exposed to, the higher the chance of developing cancer.
When alcohol is no longer consumed, the person's risk of developing cancer decreases, though it does take some time to reap this benefit. Cancer is a disease that develops over time, which means it will take a significant period of cessation to decrease the risk of developing cancer to be similar to someone who doesn't drink. One study suggested that it would take 10 years of alcohol cessation to reduce the risk of pharyngeal cancer by 18%, though most of the risk is reduced in the first years of alcohol cessation. Despite the length of time, giving up alcohol will ultimately be a net benefit.
Increased Circulatory Health
Excessive alcohol consumption is an established risk factor for several cardiovascular issues such as hypertension and stroke. Chronic and excess alcohol intake increases activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the flight-or-fight response, and causes blood vessels to constrict. Vasoconstriction in addition to high blood pressure that is regularly seen in those who drink alcohol to excess can trigger intracranial hemorrhage, or a hemorrhagic stroke.
Alcohol use also affects the heart to a great extent. Alcohol-induced dilated cardiomyopathy is one way that heavy alcohol use can manifest. Alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy is a change in the shape of the heart due to chronic drinking and is caused, in part, by acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde by itself can impair the function of the heart and its ability to contract and does so with alcohol-induced dilated cardiomyopathy. This condition of the heart muscle is characterized by dilation of the left ventricle and reduced thickness of the ventricular wall making contractivity less efficient. In addition to alcohol-induced dilated cardiomyopathy, alcohol use can also cause an irregular heartbeat, rapid heart rate and atrial fibrillation, which can lead to the development of blood clots in the heart and cause a cardioembolic stroke.
Fortunately, when alcohol is removed, much of the cardiac damage is reduced and can even disappear. It has been shown that alcohol cessation reverses much of the damage done. Studies have suggested that cardiovascular health returned to baseline in as little as one month after giving up alcohol.
The neurological deterioration caused by alcohol use has been well established. Areas of the brain responsible for decision-making, learning, the reward system, emotional responses, and auditory processing, to name a few, are all negatively affected by alcohol use. Alcohol use also ages the brain. A recent study found that those with an alcohol dependence showed a difference of nearly 12 years between their actual age and the age predicted by the volume of gray matter in the brain.
Individuals who drink, particularly those who drink heavily, have a much higher risk of developing cognitive impairments when compared to others who do not drink. Daily drinking for those over 60 has been associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, which involves altered thinking, memory and behavior due to blood vessels in the brain affected by alcohol use. The reduction of the density of gray matter, integrity of white matter and hippocampal atrophy, which are all indicators of Alzheimer's disease and precursors to significant cognitive decline.
Alcohol use also contributes to the deficiency in Vitamin B1, or thiamine. Thiamine is required for the functionality of many enzymes, including the enzyme responsible for breaking down glucose. The brain, the organ that utilizes the most energy, requires glucose to function properly, and without it, brain decline and dysfunction occur. The most severe condition that arises from alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a condition that can lead to brain abnormalities and further cognitive impairment. Malnutrition among those who drink alcohol heavily is typically seen, and the possibility of a thiamine deficiency is likely.
Many of these neurological conditions do improve, and can reverse, upon the cessation of alcohol. Research has shown that in as little as six months without alcohol, neurocognitive functions improved, as did the volume of cortical gray matter, lateral ventricle (a structure in the brain that holds cerebrospinal fluid), and sulcus (the grooves on the surface of the brain). When the surface area of the brain increases, the brain can perform more functions.
Strengthened Immune System
Alcohol disrupts the innate immune system, impacting immunity in general and the adaptive immune system, which is responsible for immune memory and preventing an infection from happening twice.
Alcohol elicits an inflammatory response that results in inflammation throughout the body, which inhibits the innate immune response of decreasing or reducing inflammatory reactions. As a result, tissues and organs are damaged. Alcohol also blunts the response of T-cells, which limits the body's ability to respond to infections.
Many organisms in the gut microbiome support the immune system, and alcohol intake can damage them. In the GI tract, alcohol damages immune-supporting cells, like mucosal T cells that clear pathogens, the epithelial cells, which line the surface of the intestines and other organs, and neutrophils, which eliminate microbes that invade the epithelial cells. By altering the gut microbiome, there is an overgrowth of bacteria that is not beneficial and the lining of the GI tract becomes permeable, allowing the leakage of microbes into circulation. It is hypothesized that this leakage activates the innate immune system in the liver, which causes the inflammation associated with alcohol-related liver disease.
The most effective way to address the damage done to the immune system by alcohol is to eliminate it completely. Even those who drank lightly were susceptible to a dulled immune response. After a period of time without alcohol, the immune system improves considerably.
Lowered Risk of Liver Disease
Alcohol is a prominent risk factor to the global burden of disease. Many different illnesses and conditions are born from alcohol intake and according to the World Health Organization, is a causal factor in more than 200 diseases and injuries. Alcohol consumption at any rate will likely cause damage and/or disrupt organ function.
Alcohol's effect on the liver is widely known. Excess metabolization of alcohol will impair the liver's function by first leading to fatty liver, which is one of the earliest signs of liver damage. This condition makes the liver more prone to toxins and inflammatory mediators, and can lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis and in some cases hepatocellular carcinoma. More than 90% of those who drink five or more drinks per day will develop fatty liver.
Cirrhosis is perhaps the most commonly known effect of alcohol use. Alcohol-induced liver disease, like cirrhosis, is one of the leading preventable causes of death both in the U.S. and in the world. Eliminating the use of alcohol is the most effective way of recovering from an alcohol-induced liver condition and can lead to improvement regardless of the stage of the liver disease. Drinking alcohol can lead to insulin resistance, increased blood pressure and increased cholesterol. Studies have shown that each condition can change for the better solely by eliminating alcohol.
Lowered Risk of Pancreas Disease and Multiple Organ Failure
The pancreas is another organ significantly impacted by alcohol use. The pancreas secretes insulin to control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and aid in digestion. Alcohol intake impairs those functions and the pancreas instead produces toxic substances, leading to inflammation and the development of pancreatitis. In very severe cases, pancreatitis can lead to multiple organ failure and, in certain circumstances, can prove to be fatal. In some cases, there is a possibility that some of the damage done by alcohol-induced pancreatitis can be reversed, but, if the condition becomes chronic, lifelong medication will be needed.
Lowered Risk of Lung Infection
Lung injury and increased susceptibility to lung infection is also a potential side effect of alcohol use. Alcohol consumption over a period of time desensitizes cells in the upper airway called cilia. When functioning properly, cilia can clear inhaled pathogens. After a lengthy time of alcohol intake, motility of the cilia decreases and is less responsive to stimulation, leaving the individual more susceptible to infection.
What are the Signs You Should Give Up Alcohol
There are many signs and behaviors that indicate a need to address alcohol use. They include:
- Inability to control or limit drinking, even if they wanted to
- A need to consume more to reach the desired effect
- Continuing to drink despite negative consequences, like family problems
- Intense cravings
- Neglecting responsibilities at home or at work
- Risky behavior, i.e. mixing alcohol with medication or driving under the influence
- Legal problems
- Giving up hobbies and/or activities that you once enjoyed
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
What are the Best Ways to Stop Using Alcohol?
Quitting alcohol under the supervision and care of qualified medical professionals in a proper detox setting is highly recommended. Many people who have developed a problematic relationship with alcohol, and even those who haven't, tend to have a different perspective of their drinking patterns than others. Those who meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for a severe alcohol use disorder may classify their drinking as moderate, and if they were to abruptly stop their alcohol use on their own, there is a high likelihood that they'd experience painful withdrawal symptoms and a potentially life-threatening event. Additionally, because everyone has a different medical history, a probable co-occurring mental health condition, and might be on a specific medication, it's best to seek the help of professionals. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Dr. Lawrence Weinstein is a chief medical officer of American Addiction Centers.