What alcohol really does to your body

From heart to liver and brain to kidneys, a night on
the tiles makes demands on us that we don't fully
realise. Peta Bee reports 
Published: 20 November 2005 


6pm One Unit: It's been a long day... 

BRAIN: From the first sip, alcohol is absorbed into
the bloodstream and reaches the brain. Although you
won't be aware of it, there is an impairment of brain
function, which deteriorates further the more you
drink. Cognitive abilities that are acquired later in
life, such as conduct and behaviour, are the first to
go. Early on you will experience mild euphoria and
loss of inhibition, as alcohol impairs regions of the
brain controlling behaviour and emotion. Most
vulnerable are the brain cells associated with memory,
attention, sleep and coordination. Sheer lack of mass
means that people who weigh less become intoxicated
more quickly, and women will feel the effects faster
than men. This is also because their bodies have lower
levels of water.

HEART: Your pulse quickens after just one unit.
Alcohol is a vasodilator - it makes the peripheral
blood vessels relax to allow more blood to flow
through the skin and tissues, which results in a drop
in blood pressure. In order to maintain sufficient
blood flow to the organs, the heart rate increases.
Your breathing rate may also speed up.

8pm Five Units: Whose round is it then?

DIGESTIVE SYSTEM: The Government advises men to drink
no more than three to four units a day and women no
more than two to three, so after two pints of
normal-strength beer (four units) or a large glass of
red wine (3.5 units) we have already exceeded our
healthy guidelines. The alcohol is absorbed through
the stomach and small intestine and if you are not
used to it, even small amounts of alcohol can irritate
the stomach lining. This volume of alcohol also begins
to block absorption of essential vitamins and

SKIN: Alcohol increases bloodflow to the skin, making
you feel warm and look flushed. It also dehydrates,
increasing the appearance of fine lines. According to
Dr Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist, even five
units will lead to an unhealthy appearance for days.

11pm 10 Units: Sorry, what was your name again?

LUNGS: A small amount of alcohol speeds up the
breathing rate. But at this level of intoxication, the
stimulating effects of alcohol are replaced by an
anaesthetic effect that acts as a depressant on the
central nervous system. The heart rate lowers, as does
blood pressure and respiration rates, possibly to
risky levels - in extreme cases the effect could be
fatal. During exhalation, the lungs excrete about 5
per cent of the alcohol you have consumed - it is this
effect that forms the basis for the breathalyser test.

1am 15 Units: Let me tell you about my ex...

LIVER: Alcohol is metabolised in the liver and
excessive alcohol use can lead to acute and chronic
liver disease. As the liver breaks down alcohol,
by-products such as acetaldehyde are formed, some of
which are more toxic to the body than alcohol itself.
It is these that can eventually attack the liver and
cause cirrhosis. A heavy night of drinking upsets both
the delicate balance of enzymes in the liver and fat
metabolism. Over time, this can lead to the
development of fatty globules that cause the organ to
swell. It is generally accepted that drinking more
than seven units (men) and five units (women) a day
will raise the risk of liver cirrhosis.

3am 20 Units: Where am I? I need to lie down

HEART: More than 35 units a week, or a large number in
one sitting, can cause 'holiday heart syndrome'. This
is atrial fibrillation - a rapid, irregular heartbeat
that happens when the heart's upper chambers contract
too quickly. As a result, the heartbeat is less
effective at pumping blood from the heart, and blood
may pool and form clots. These can travel to the brain
and cause a stroke. Atrial fibrillation gives a person
nearly a fivefold increased risk of stroke. The effect
is temporary, provided heavy drinking is stopped.

BLOOD: By this stage, alcohol has been carried to all
parts of the body, including the brain, where it
dissolves into the water inside cells. The effect of
alcohol on the body is similar to that of an
anaesthetic - by this stage, inhibitions are lost and
feelings of aggression will surge.

The morning after: Can you please just shut up...

BRAIN: Alcohol dehydrates virtually every part of the
body, and is also a neurotoxin that causes brain cells
to become damaged and swell. This causes the hangover
and, combined with low blood-sugar levels, can leave
you feeling awful. Cognitive abilities such as
concentration, coordination and memory may be affected
for several days.

DIGESTION: Generally, it takes as many hours as the
number of drinks you have consumed to burn up all the
alcohol. Feelings of nausea result from dehydration,
which also causes your thumping headache.

KIDNEYS: Alcohol promotes the making of urine in
excess of the volume you have drunk and this can cause
dehydration unless extra fluid is taken. Alcohol
causes no damage or harm to the kidneys in the short
term, but your kidneys will be working hard.

One year on: Where did it all go wrong?

REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS: Heavy drinking causes a drop in
testosterone levels in men, and causes testicular
shrinkage and impotence. In females, menstrual cycles
can be disrupted and fertility is affected. Studies
have shown that women who drink up to five units of
alcohol a week are twice as likely to conceive as
those who drink 10 or more. It is thought it may
affect the ability of the fertilised egg to implant.

BRAIN: Over time, alcohol can cause permanent damage
to the connection between nerve cells. As it is a
depressant, alcohol can trigger episodes of
depression, anxiety and lethargy.

HEART: Small amounts of alcohol (no more than a unit a
day) can protect the heart, but heavy drinking leads
to chronic high blood pressure and other heart

BLOOD: Alcohol kills the oxygen-carrying red blood
cells, which can lead to anaemia.

CANCER: Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an
increase in the risk of most cancers. Last week,
Cancer Research UK warned how growing alcohol use is
causing a steep rise in mouth cancer cases.

PANCREAS: Just a few weeks of heavy drinking can
result in painful inflammation of the pancreas, known
as pancreatitis. It results in a swollen abdominal
area and can cause nausea and vomiting. 


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