Cart 0

Alcohol Health Problems

Posted by Brady Bunch on

Eamonn Brady is a pharmacist and the owner of Whelehans Pharmacy, Pearse St, Mullingar. If you have any health questions e-mail them to

Alcohol is safe if drank in moderation. Alcohol releases endorphins in the brain which is why it makes us feel good (and why it is so addictive); it also affects the area of the brain that causes inhibition which is why it makes us talk more and feel more relaxed.

Tonic or poison?

Alcohol can be described as both a tonic and a poison. The difference between “tonic and poison” lies in the dose. Moderate levels of alcohol can be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system, and may protect against diabetes and gallstones. However excessive alcohol intake can cause many health problems and premature death. While alcohol is an enjoyable social lubricant, we must also remember that alcohol is drug. The drug in alcohol is “ethanol” which affects the brain, heart, stomach, liver and gallbladder. It affects many other common functions including inflammation, coagulation (blood’s ability to clot), cholesterol and insulin levels. It also alters mood, concentration, and coordination. These affects lead to serious health problems if used in excess. As alcohol is a drug, it also interacts dangerously with many medicines, including paracetamol and other painkillers, antidepressants, epilepsy drugs and sedatives. Alcohol is very addictive and your tendency to become addicted is also thought to be hereditary (ie) those with a family history of alcohol problems are more at risk.

How do you know if you’re drinking too much alcohol?

You could be drinking excessively if: You feel you need to cut down on drinking. You feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking. Other people are critical of how much you drink. Sometimes have memory loss of drinking sessions. You need a drink first thing in the morning to settle nerves or ease a hangover. Drink at least a few drinks every day. Regularly go binge drinking. Not doing as expected due to drinking (eg) missing an appointment or work due to being drunk or hungover.

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse

Abuse of alcohol can cause 63 different diseases to our body; I will just discuss the more common ones.


Excess drinking reduces the number of red blood cells which carry alcohol around the body and can cause red blood cells to become extremely low. This is called anaemia and can cause many symptoms like fatigue, lightheadedness and shortness of breath.


Many studies show that continual heavy drinking increases cancer risk. One of the reasons for increased cancer risk is that the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Areas where alcohol is known to increase cancer risk include the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), oesophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region. Cancer risk rises even further in heavy drinkers who also smoke.

Cardiovascular disease

Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking makes platelets more likely to stick together to cause blood clots increasing risk of heart attack and stroke. Excessive drinking can also cause cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition where the heart muscle weakens and can eventually fail. Excessive alcohol can cause heart rhythm problems such as atrial and ventricular fibrillation both of which lead to the heart not pumping properly and can lead to clots and death.


Alcohol can cause damage to liver cells if overused over a prolonged period of time. Heavy drinkers can develop cirrhosis, a sometimes lethal condition where the liver is so heavily scarred that it cannot function properly.


As a person ages, the brains shrinks at an average of approximately 2% per decade. However heavy drinking accelerates the shrinkage of key areas in the brain leading to memory loss and other symptoms of dementia. Heavy drinking can also lead to mild but potentially debilitating problems including a person’s ability to plan, make judgments, solve problems and perform complex tasks.


Heavy drinking is often associated with depression. It has often been debated which comes first, the drinking or the depression. One theory is that depressed people use alcohol to ease emotional pain. But many studies are showing that is more likely the other way around (ie) it is heavy drinking that leads to depression more than the other way round.


Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can trigger seizures even in those that do not have epilepsy. Alcohol can also interfere with the effect of epilepsy medications used to prevent convulsions.


Gout is an inflammatory condition that is more common in men and often affects the big toe. An acute attack of gout is very painful. Gout is caused by uric acid crystals forming in the joints. Although gout is often hereditary, alcohol and other dietary factors often play a role. Alcohol aggravates existing cases of gout.

High blood pressure

Alcohol disrupts the sympathetic nervous system which has a role in controlling the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature and exertion. Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking can cause blood pressure to rise. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.

Infectious disease

Heavy drinking suppresses the immune systems which can lead to infections. Studies show that heavy drinking increases the risk of tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Nerve damage

Heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage called alcoholic neuropathy leading to problems such as painful pins-and-needles and numbness in the extremities (eg. fingers, toes) as well problems like muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation and erectile dysfunction. Alcoholic neuropathy arises for two reasons, alcohol is toxic to nerve cells and because nutritional deficiencies (especially vitamin B1 deficiency) thus inhibiting nerve function.


Oesophagus and stomach

Alcohol has a direct effect on the oesophagus relaxing the lower oesophageal sphincter (valve leading to the stomach) which means “acidic” stomach contents are more likely to come up leading to oseophagitis which can cause symptoms like heartburn in the chest area. Alcohol can also delay gastric emptying which can also lead to heartburn and indigestion.

Effect on nutrition

Excess alcohol consumption reduces the level of many important nutrients. This includes thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency which can cause nerve damage (described above). Serious vitamin B1 deficiency is common in chronic alcoholics and can lead to a serious condition called Wernicke-korsakoff which is a serious acute condition characterised by confusion, vision changes, lack of coordination and impaired memory. Many people recovering from excessive alcohol consumption require thiamine supplement. Alcohol can also cause vitamin B12 deficiency (leading to symptoms like fatigue) and reduced calcium absorption (leading to brittle bones especially in women).



As well as causing stomach irritation (gastritis), alcohol can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can restrict digestion, causing severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhoea. Unfortunately this damage is sometimes irreversible. Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by gallstones, but up to 60% of cases are due to excessive alcohol consumption.

I will discuss options to help beat alcohol addiction in the coming weeks in my Health Blog

This article is shortened for this health blog. More detailed information and leaflets is available in Whelehans or


Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →