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The Biological Effects of Alcoholism

Much is written about alcoholism (alcohol addiction) and how it affects a person’s mental status, job performance, personal relationships, and mood. We also hear many stories about what happens to a person’s behavior when he becomes intoxicated, from driving under the influence to being involved in rowdy bar fights.

However, it would be dangerous to lose sight of the fact that the alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethanol (grain alcohol). This is the same substance that can power cars. Alcohol is toxic to the human body and, if one ingests enough alcohol, can even be deadly. Alcohol can kill quickly, as with alcohol poisoning, or over the course of many years, as with cirrhosis. Only a chronic alcoholic who is blessed with incredibly good genes will avoid having health problems from alcohol abuse at some point in their lifetimes.

Malnourishment and Alcoholism

Alcoholic drinks are largely water, ethanol, and sugar. They are considered “empty calorie” beverages because they contain none of the essential nutrients that the body needs to survive. Any caloric energy provided by alcohol comes from carbohydrates (sugar) and alcohol, which gives off its own specific type of energy.

Studies have shown that a calorie from alcohol has less value to the body than a calorie from carbohydrates. In one study, half of the subjects received half of their calories in the form of carbohydrates while subjects in the other group received the same number of calories from alcohol. With all other things being equal, the subjects in the alcohol group actually lost weight. When researchers increased the amount of alcoholic calories in the alcohol group, the increase in caloric intake did not cause the subjects to gain weight.

So, where do the calories go? It is hypothesized that the energy derived from alcohol is used by the body’s metabolic processes to break it down in the liver, leaving no remaining energy to be used or stored by the body.

Moderate drinkers of alcoholic beverages, those who drink no more than two beverages per day, often have no problem getting the proper amount of essential nutrients from their food diet and do not need to derive calories from the alcohol.

However, many hard-core alcoholics suffer from malnourishment either because they fail to eat a balanced diet for the essential nutrients the body needs to survive (primary malnutrition), or because alcohol prevents these essential nutrients from being properly absorbed, digested, and used by the body (secondary malnutrition). Many alcoholics suffer from both primary and secondary malnutrition. Those addicted to alcohol often have protein and vitamin deficiency, especially vitamin A, which can contribute to liver problems.

Liver Damage and Alcoholism

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 from 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 chronic type of alcohol hepatitis. 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 effect treatment, by far, has been liver transplantation.

Posted on June 15, 2010 and modified on July 15, 2019

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