Alcohol is toxic to systems throughout your body, including a part of your nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. If you regularly drink in excessive amounts and develop diagnosable alcoholism, you greatly increase your chances of experiencing serious sympathetic nervous system disorders. When alcohol is the cause of these disorders, doctors refer to the condition as alcoholic neuropathy.
What Is the Sympathetic Nervous System?
Your body has two basic kinds of nerves: voluntary nerves under your conscious control and involuntary or autonomic nerves that function on their own. Involuntary/autonomic nerves control essentially all of your body’s most important processes, including your breathing, the beating of your heart and food digestion. Your autonomic system has two divisions, known as the sympathetic nerves and the parasympathetic nerves. Your sympathetic nervous system controls your involuntary “fight-or-flight” response, while your parasympathetic nervous system controls the function of your involuntary nerves at other times.
Impact of Heavy Alcohol Consumption
If you maintain a long-term pattern of heavy drinking, you can gradually damage the health of both your voluntary and involuntary nerves. This happens for two basic reasons. First, when frequently or constantly present in your system, alcohol can directly degrade the condition of the tissues in your nervous system. In addition, if you drink heavily, you stand a good chance of developing nutritional deficiencies that indirectly harm your nerves.
Sympathetic Nervous System Damage
Alcohol-related nerve damage, or alcoholic neuropathy, typically starts in the voluntary nerves in your hands and/or feet, then gradually progresses to other parts of your limbs. Eventually, as your health worsens, damage spreads from your voluntary nerves to your involuntary nerves. This is where your sympathetic nervous system comes into play. If advancing nerve problems have jumped to your sympathetic nerves and/or your parasympathetic nerves, you may experience symptoms that include:
- Loss of bladder control (while trying to urinate or stop urinating)
- Unusually loose or slow bowel movements (i.e., diarrhea or constipation)
- Low blood pressure when you stand (a condition called orthostatic hypotension)
- A reduced ability to sweat
- Nausea and vomiting (especially when trying to eat)
You will typically notice problems with your voluntary nerves long before you experience any alcohol-related nerve damage in your sympathetic nerves. This means that, in most cases, you can avoid sympathetic nervous system disorders and halt the worsening of your condition if you receive timely and appropriate medical care. Sources: Merck Manual – Consumer Version: Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Alcoholic Neuropathy Mayo Clinic: Peripheral Neuropathy – Symptoms