Some of the ways alcohol affects our health are well known, but others may surprise you. Here are six less-known effects that alcohol has on your body, according to gastroenterologist K. V. Narayanan Menon, MD:
- Drinking gives your body work to do that keeps it from other processes. Once you take a drink, your body makes metabolizing it a priority — above processing anything else. Unlike proteins, carbohydrates and fats, your body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol, so it has to move to the front of the metabolizing line. This is why it affects your liver, as it’s your liver’s job to detoxify and remove alcohol from your blood.
- Abusing alcohol causes bacteria to grow in your gut, which can eventually migrate through the intestinal wall and into the liver, leading to liver damage.
- Too much is bad for your heart. It can cause the heart to become weak (cardiomyopathy) and have an irregular beat pattern (arrhythmias). It also puts people at higher risk for developing high blood pressure.
- People can develop pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, from alcohol abuse.
- Drinking too much puts you at risk for some cancers, such as cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast.
- It can affect your immune system. If you drink every day, or almost every day, you might notice that you catch colds, flu or other illnesses more frequently than people who don’t drink. This is because alcohol can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to infections.
When it comes to alcohol, the line between myth and fact can be blurry. Chemical dependency specialist Joseph Janesz, PhD, helps clear up the confusion below.
Myth 1: Drinking perks you up at parties
“Throughout the holiday season, many of us struggle with fatigue and excess stress,” he says. “We may look to alcohol at a holiday party to dissipate that fatigue, enhance our energy level and relieve stress.”
But alcohol is a brain depressant. It first acts by shutting off executive functions like judgment, mood control and natural inhibitions. Some people experience this as elation and excitement. But others experience the opposite: sleepiness, lethargy and even a depressed feeling.
The bottom line: Alcohol interferes with normal brain activity, no matter how you feel when you drink.
Myth 2: A beer before bed helps you sleep
“Drinking a beer before bed may promote your getting to sleep more quickly,” says Dr. Janesz. “However, it interrupts your deep sleep, and you’ll wake later on feeling not rested and ‘hung over.’”
Normally, your body cycles through light and deep phases of sleep. Alcohol inhibits refreshing REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and later on causes “REM rebound,” with nightmares and trouble sleeping.
Repeated alcohol use seriously disturbs sleep and makes it difficult to re-establish a normal sleep pattern. Often, this leads to more drinking or to sedative abuse in the quest for sleep.
Myth 3: An Irish coffee will keep you warm on the slopes
Your body normally stores warm blood in its core to preserve important organ functions. Alcohol artificially dilates blood vessels in your extremities, allowing warm blood to escape from your core into your peripheral circulation, where it cools.
“Alcohol intake may make your skin feel warm. Yet it deceptively lowers the core temperature of your body,” says Dr. Janesz.
The result: your body can no longer keep vital organs warm as your overall temperature drops.
Myth 4: A beer is less potent than a cocktail
Whether you’re drinking an ale or a Moscow Mule, you’re typically consuming the same amount of alcohol.
“Any alcohol beverage you consume will have a similar effect on your body and on your ability to function,” says Dr. Janesz.
Myth 5: Coffee can sober you up when you’ve had a few too many
Coffee has no real effect on your blood alcohol level, which is the major factor in determining your level of intoxication.
“Drinking coffee or other caffeine products after having one too many drinks can trick your brain into making you feel energized and more awake or alert,” says Dr. Janesz.
“The alertness can create the perception that you aren’t as drunk or intoxicated as you actually are, and you may decide to have another drink or to drive home.”
Myth 6: Men and women react to alcohol in the same way
Drinking tends to produce higher blood alcohol concentrations in women because they are generally smaller than men. This leads to a greater degree of intoxication.
“Alcohol disperses in water, and women have less water in their bodies than men,” explains Dr. Janesz. “So if a woman and man of the same weight consume the same amount of alcohol, her blood alcohol concentration will usually rise more rapidly than his.”
But while women may reach the “drunk driving” limit — 0.08 percent blood alcohol — sooner, alcohol can impair driving at much lower blood alcohol levels. So “don’t drink and drive” remains sound advice for everyone.