Physical Effects of Alcoholism

Alcohol is a potent substance that can cause damage to some of the most sensitive organs in the body.  While there are many therapies that can help people who are dealing with alcohol-based symptoms, the best long-term solution for alcoholism is rehab and abstinence. Taking the important first step towards treatment, means the body and mind can begin to heal.

Alcohol and the Liver

When a person takes in alcohol, the liver has a significant amount of work to do. This organ quickly and efficiently processes the alcohol and removes the potent chemicals through the kidneys and out with the urine. Over time and with regular use, alcohol damages tissues that make up the liver.

In the early stages of alcohol-related liver disease, the liver becomes swollen and inflamed. If a person continues to drink, the liver can develop scar tissue as it attempts to heal. This can lead to severe scarring and cirrhosis of the liver. According to the U.D National Library of Medicine[i], cirrhosis is irreversible and cannot be adequately treated. The damage is permanent, and the only way to return the body to a normal state is to undergo a liver transplant.

Not everyone who drinks will develop liver damage, but those who drink very large amounts of alcohol are at higher risk. According to the article, “Alcoholic Liver Disease,” by Nicolas T. Orfanidis, MD for Merck Manuals, intakes of more 1 ½ ounces of alcohol per day puts drinkers at higher risk of developing liver disease.[ii] Basically, the more alcohol consumed the higher the risk of liver damage. Researchers suggest that the risk is dose-dependent, and that it remains stable over time.

Alcohol-Related Bleeding

As the liver becomes scarred and damaged, it is not able to process blood as quickly as needed. The backed-up blood begins to pool in the surrounding tissues, and the pressure builds.

Scans of this process show blood cells stacked on top of one another like cars on a crowded freeway. The blood cells wait for the blockage to clear so the traffic can resume. Over time, the blood begins moves through other tissues on a regular basis, avoiding the liver as much as possible. This causes the veins of the esophagus to become engorged with blood. The large volume these small vessels must hold due to alcohol-related liver problems is more than they can handle. They swell and buckle and even break open.

Alcohol and Ascites

As the liver begins to fail, the body is unable to manage the fluid it would normally process through the liver and out of the kidneys.

This fluid begins to leak out of the vessels and gather in the spaces between cells. There is no real holding vessel for this fluid, so it tends to float loose in the abdomen. This fluid is called ascites. Ascites can make breathing difficult, as the fluid pushes on the lungs and makes their expansion almost impossible. The condition can make it difficult for people to eat or drink because the stomach also has no room to expand.

Alcoholism and Metabolic Disorders

Malnourished people who drink heavily can develop alcoholic ketoacidosis, in which a large number of ketones are present in the blood. Ketones are a form of acid that develops when the body breaks down fats and uses them for energy.

At high levels, ketones can cause:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Irregular breathing patterns
  • Vomiting
  • Thirst
  • Light headedness

As with diabetes, alcoholic ketoacidosis is sometimes treated with insulin. It is possible that both conditions develop due to pancreas damage caused by alcoholism. The pancreas is normally asked to secrete juices that are used during digestion, but alcohol abuse causes the pancreas to swell and shut down. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that alcoholism is responsible for about 70 percent of acute pancreatitis cases in the United States each year.[iii]

Alcoholism and Cancer

Alcoholism can trigger a cascading effect of organ failures and damage, but it can also work directly on tissues and cause independent damage. Each time a tissue is damaged the body works to repair it, and in the process can make small errors in the genetic code. These errors can lead to cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, alcoholism has been linked to cancers of the:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice box
  • Esophagus

Alcohol also increases the risk of liver, colon and rectal cancer, as well as certain types of breast cancer.[iv]

Time for Healing

Many of the conditions connected with alcoholism can be effectively treated if a person stops drinking. At The Canyon, we help you through the alcohol detox process and develop individualized treatment programs to help you control alcohol cravings. Our aftercare programs provide you with the support needed to continue on the road to recovery. We are here for you. Call us today.

Signs of Alcoholism


[i]  Subodh K. Lal, MD. “Cirrhosis,” MedlinePlus/U.S. National Library of Medicine, August 14, 2015. Accessed January 9. 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000255.htm

[ii] Nicholas T. Orfanidis, MD. “Alcoholic Liver Disease,” Merck Manuals, 2106. Accessed January 9, 2017. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/liver-and-gallbladder-disorders/alcoholic-liver-disease/alcoholic-liver-disease

[iii] Subodh K. Lal, MD. “Acute Pancreatitis,” MedlinePlus/U.S. National Library of Medicine, October 27, 2015. Accessed January 9, 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000287.htm

[iv] American Cancer Society. “Alcohol Use and Cancer,” February 12, 2014. Accessed January9, 2017. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/dietandphysicalactivity/alcohol-use-and-cancer

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