What are the Health Impacts of Alcoholism?
Government guidelines for sensible drinking limits are:
21 units per week – spread over the week with at least 2 days of not drinking
14 units per week - spread over the week with at least 2 days of not drinking (One pint of normal strength lager = 2 units, one 175ml glass of wine = 2 units)
Experience has shown that men and women who consistently drink over recommended weekly allowances will inevitably experience negative consequences to their mental or emotional health, financial and social wellbeing.
Approximately one in four 16 to 74 year old drinks to hazardous levels.
Alcohol consumption has risen considerably on the last 15 years.
Excessive drinking can lead to the following health problems:
- Liver cirrhosis
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Fertility problems
- Neurological disorders
- Mental Health problems
- Sexually transmitted diseases
Alcohol misuse can affect every part of the body; it can impact the following organs:
- The liver
- The digestive system (stomach, oesophagus and pancreas)
- The heart and circulatory system
- The bones, skin and muscles
- The brain and nervous system
Other effects include:
- Mental health problems
- Sexual heath problems
- Infectious diseases
- Development of the foetus in women
The Liver - Excessive alcohol consumption is the major cause of liver disease in western industrialised countries. The liver is responsible for metabolising alcohol, if the liver has to break down too much alcohol, its other functions are adversely affected and the organ can become damaged. There are three stages of damage: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Fatty liver – symptoms are not always apparent at this stage and fatty livers can only be diagnosed by liver tests. At this stage it is possible to reverse damage to the liver by stopping drinking. A fatty liver is very common amongst heavy drinkers but is also found in individuals drinking just above the recommended limits.
Alcoholic hepatitis – about a third of people with fatty liver will develop alcoholic hepatitis. The onset of symptoms may be sudden and severe, symptoms include: loss of appetite, vomiting, severe abdominal pain and jaundice. Complete abstinence and a good diet may lead to full recovery in mild to moderate cases. Very severe cases can be fatal.
Alcoholic cirrhosis – Cirrhosis is the result of continuous liver damage, normally when the liver is damaged it can regenerate itself. In cirrhosis the process of healing fails and scar tissue develops, preventing the liver carrying out its normal functions. There is no cure for cirrhosis but suffers who manage to stop drinking altogether have a much better chance of survival. Those who continue to drink will go on to develop liver failure or liver cancer within about 6 months.
Mental health problems - Heavy drinking is closely linked to the development of mental health problems. As a depressant drug, research has suggested that alcohol increases the likelihood of individuals developing anxiety and depression; alcohol abuse can also accelerate or uncover mental health problems that individuals were unaware of having. Common mental health problems include: paranoia, hallucinations, panic attacks, memory loss. Alcoholism is commonly misdiagnosed by health care professionals. Individuals are often treated for years for conditions that alcoholism has exacerbated. Depression and anxiety being the most common. These conditions are commonly treated with anti-depressants or benzodiazepine, this medication temporarily masks the real problem of alcoholism which continues to manifest itself in other areas.
Gender differences - Alcohol affects men and women differently. Women cannot process alcohol and the same rates that men can. Women’s bodies have a lower water content and contain 10% more fat than men’s which means women’s blood alcohol concentration is much higher even at lower levels of consumption. Women have less tissue to absorb alcohol and also appear to have lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (AHD) in their stomachs; this means that alcohol stays in their system longer before being metabolised, leading to longer lasting effects. There has been a significant rise in women drinking to excess in the last 2 decades.