The Biological Effects of Alcoholism

When discussing alcoholism, it’s easy to talk about the negative effects that alcoholism can have on a person’s life and relationships. However, it’s important to also understand the biological effects of alcoholism, what happens when a person undergoes alcohol detox, and how these effects can complicate recovery from alcoholism. Long-term alcohol addiction can cause several health problems and may also be co-occurring with a mental health disorder, resulting in dual diagnosis for the person who’s abusing alcohol. Learn more about the biological effects of alcoholism below.

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol, as an intoxicating substance, tends to have harmful effects, especially on young and developing brains. Chronic alcoholism from a young age can lead to diminished grey and white matter in the brain, which is essential for cognitive function. In addition to problems with learning or retaining information, alcohol can damage parts of the brain that regulate emotion, leading to more pronounced mood disorders or other mental health issues. Drinking is also known for lower inhibitions, leading to questionable decision-making skills while under the influence. This can lead to increased risk-taking behavior, such as drinking and driving, or getting into alcohol-induced confrontations, which may lead to brain injuries, among other issues that can complicate brain function.  

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Liver Damage and Alcoholism

One of the most well-known biological effects of alcoholism is liver damage. When the liver metabolizes alcohol, the enzyme dehydrogenase and enzyme system microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system (MEOS) create toxins. The toxins interfere with the proper metabolism of other essential nutrients, such as lipids, and cause damage to liver cells. Most liver injuries caused by alcohol are a direct result of the toxin acetaldehyde. Not all people who drink alcohol will develop liver problems; the likelihood of chronic liver damage often depends on the length of the history of drinking, combined with the quantity of alcohol typically consumed. Liver disease caused by consumption of alcohol can be categorized in three ways – acute hepatitis, fatty liver, and cirrhosis. Fatty liver develops in almost all heavy drinkers; however, it is largely innocuous and can be reversed if the patient discontinues drinking. More seriously, 25 percent of all heavy drinkers will develop chronic hepatitis and 15 percent will develop cirrhosis.


Hepatitis that develops in long-term, heavy drinkers causes the liver cells to die and the liver to become inflamed; the bile duct will also become blocked. It typically takes approximately fifteen years of heavy drinking to develop this biological effect of alcoholism. Once hepatitis develops from long-term drinking, the mortality rate is quite high – approximately 50 percent. Sadly, most hepatitis patients that discontinue drinking once they are diagnosed will be too late to reverse the damage the long-term drinking has caused. Further, this type of hepatitis frequently leads to full-blown liver cirrhosis.


Alcohol is responsible for almost half of all liver cirrhosis-related deaths in the United States annually and is the most serious of all alcohol-related liver diseases. Less than 50 percent of all cirrhosis patients will live more than five years from diagnosis.

Treatment of Liver Disease

Unfortunately, there is presently no cure for severe liver disease. Some patients will experience improvement once they stop drinking, depending on how far advanced their condition is. If the patient has suffered malnutrition in addition to liver disease, improved nutrition help reduce the chance of infection going forward. The most effective treatment, by far, has been liver transplantation.

Increased Risk of Cancer

In addition to liver health, alcohol can affect other aspects of physical health as well. Heavy drinkers are more vulnerable to develop various forms of cancer, including oral, esophageal, liver, colorectal, and breast cancers. Continued alcohol use may make these risks greater, so seeking alcohol addiction treatment is a great first step towards reducing your risk of developing cancer or other health issues in advanced age.

Increased Risk of Heart Disease or Stroke

Drinking is linked to increased blood pressure, which can be a strong determining factor in risks for heart problems or stroke. High blood pressure or hypertension can cause irregular heartbeat and cardiomyopathy (sagging or stretching of the muscle tissue around the heart), which can lead to trouble with pumping blood through the body, and the development of blood clots which leads to further cardiovascular problems. With such pronounced effects on the cardiovascular system, these health risks are some of the most pronounced when thinking about the long-term biological effects of alcoholism.

Stop the Biological Effects of Alcoholism by Seeking Help

The only way to halt or reverse the biological effects of alcoholism is to stop drinking. This can seem like a daunting task when drinking has become habitual or a regular part of your life. Getting sober might pose a challenge, but the licensed and compassionate staff at Promises in Austin, Texas can help you begin your journey towards recovery. For more information, contact us online or give us a call at 844.875.5609 today.

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