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Understanding The Effects of Alcohol Abuse On Health

Alcohol is by far the most widely abused substance in Canada. Around a quarter of the Canadian population engages in heavy drinking at least once a month, and about 10% of Canadians are concerned enough about their alcohol consumption to talk to their doctor about it. The Centre for Addictions & Mental Health (CAMH) estimates that around 15,000 Canadians die every year from alcohol-related causes.

Alcohol abuse is one of the most difficult societal problems to solve because of how socially acceptable it is to drink – even to drink heavily. It can be argued that in some social settings, this is not merely acceptable but expected. Most of us have, at some point, attended gatherings where the drunkest person was proclaimed to be the “life of the party”, or where people who chose not to drink alcohol were mocked or pressured into accepting an alcoholic beverage.

This can have the effect of people not realizing that their alcohol consumption is a problem. The oft-tragic result is that by the time they seek help, they have already suffered long-term damage to their physical or mental health.

Knowing When There Is a Problem

But what does it mean to “drink heavily”?

The short answer is that it depends. The key thing to know is that if your alcohol consumption outpaces your liver’s ability to metabolize – or process – the alcohol, you can suffer some ill effects. How efficiently your liver metabolizes alcohol depends on several factors, such as your body weight, whether you have any medical conditions, and whether you are using other substances including prescription drugs.

A Question of Enzymes

The metabolization of alcohol is a complicated process, but it hinges largely on two enzymes: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). The levels of these enzymes vary from person to person – those with higher levels of the enzymes can metabolize alcohol faster than those with lower levels, resulting in them being able to have one or two more drinks before starting to feel the effects of inebriation. People assigned female at birth tend to have lower levels of ADH than those assigned male at birth. Additionally, there are genetic variations in the enzymes from one ethnic group to the next.

Everyone is Different

What all of this means is that while there are broad guidelines in place as to what constitutes heavy drinking, there are individual differences that should be considered. The guidelines are generally reliable, but you should seek medical advice before drinking if:

  • You are suffering from any physical or mental health conditions
  • You are using any other substances, including prescription drugs
  • You have a history of alcohol use disorder
  • You have ever had adverse reactions to alcohol

The Guidelines

According to Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines:

  • People assigned female at birth should consume no more than ten drinks per week and not exceed two drinks a day.
  • People assigned male at birth should consume no more than 15 drinks per week and not exceed three drinks a day.
  • There is no established safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
  • Alcohol should not be consumed by people below the legally stipulated minimum age. Those under 25 should limit consumption to one or two drinks once or twice a week.

during pregnancy

How Alcohol Abuse Can Damage Your Health

Whether you drink too much on one occasion or drink heavily over a period of time, alcohol abuse can have significant impacts on various aspects of your health.

The One-time Drinking Binge

The effects of drinking too much on a single occasion are amplified with each excessive drink. As the liver tries and fails to metabolize the alcohol that is being taken in, your body starts to react to the excessive alcohol in your bloodstream.

The first signs of impairment include feelings of relaxation or sleepiness, difficulty paying attention, and trouble with balance and coordination. As you drink more, these effects become more pronounced. Your speech may become slurred, and you may start to become aggressive or agitated. At this point, your ability to drive safely is compromised and you are prone to accidental injury.

As you become more severely impaired, your reflexes, speech, coordination, and memory are severely impaired. You are unable to drive safely or make sound decisions. You may start to vomit and experience blackouts. Eventually, you may lose consciousness. By now, you are experiencing life-threatening alcohol overdose. Your heart rate and respiration slow down and you are at risk of losing your life.

safe level of alcohol

The Long-term Term Decline

If you drink large quantities of alcohol on a regular basis, various aspects of your health will decline over time, and you will be at increased risk of some serious conditions.

The Liver

Because the liver is primarily responsible for how alcohol is metabolized, it is often the first organ to suffer. You may experience liver conditions such as fatty liver disease, hepatitis (inflammation of liver tissue), and cirrhosis (scarring that replaces healthy tissue).

The Heart

Because excessive alcohol consumption interferes with normal functioning of the heart, you are at risk of cardiac complaints not only over time, but on every single occasion on which you abuse alcohol. Risks include cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), irregular heartbeat, stroke, and high blood pressure.

The Pancreas

The pancreas plays an integral role in the digestive process. When it is trying to process too much alcohol, it produces toxins that can cause pancreatitis, or inflammation. This can lead to abdominal pain, nausea, fever, and excessive weight loss.

The Brain

In both the short- and long-term, overuse of alcohol affects how the brain works. You may suffer from a variety of cognitive symptoms, such as poor memory, inability to think clearly, and mood swings.

Cancer Risk

Much research is being done in this area, but so far, studies show that excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers, as well as cancer in the mouth and throat.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy can result in the baby being born with a lifelong condition called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Symptoms include:

  • Low bodyweight
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Speech, language, and learning disabilities
  • Sleep deficits
  • Impaired vision or hearing
  • Heart, bone, or kidney problems
  • Small stature and head size
  • Hyperactivity

sleep deficits

Getting Help for A Drinking Problem

If you are concerned about a loved one’s excessive drinking, call Intervention Rehab. We will connect you with an intervention specialist who will facilitate the process of helping your loved one understand that they have a problem – and that there is hope for them in the form of help. Once your loved one accepts help, we can help get them into the right treatment program right away. Call us for more information.

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