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What happens when you drink alcohol?

When you consume alcohol, you don’t digest it. Instead, alcohol will enter your digestive system and pass through your bloodstream, travelling around your body, affecting your brain, kidneys, liver and other organs. The impact that alcohol can have on your body can depend on a few factors, such as your age, weight and the strength of the alcohol you’re drinking.

Around 20% of the alcohol you consume from a single drink will go directly to your blood vessels which will then travel to your brain whilst the remaining 80% will go to your small intestine and into your bloodstream. Finally, the alcohol will be removed from your body through your liver which breaks it down.

Here’s a breakdown of how alcohol affects different parts of your body:

Blood and circulation

Alcohol travels around the body fast as it travels through the bloodstream all around your body. Alcohol will remain in your blood until your liver breaks it down and removes it.

In the long-term - you can increase your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels which can increase your risk of suffering heart attacks and strokes. Drinking too much alcohol over time can also weaken your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to various infections and illnesses. 

Liver

The liver is the organ which breaks the alcohol down. The liver will essentially act as a filter, breaking the alcohol down around 80% of the alcohol to water, energy and carbon dioxide. It can take around an hour for your liver to break down the amount of alcohol in a standard drink (such as one glass of wine or one beer) but this can take longer depending on individual factors such as your age, sex and weight to name a few.

In the long-term - consuming too much alcohol can lead to the development of liver disease which will affect its ability to remove harmful substances from the body and can seriously impact your health, and even lead to death in severe cases.

Kidneys

Your kidneys filter blood, help to manage the amount of fluid in your body and remove waste (through urine). When you drink alcohol, you make it harder for your kidneys to perform its job, and as a result, they will produce more urine. If you drink alcohol, you’re probably familiar with this increased urge to go to the bathroom! 

In the long-term - your kidney’s ability to function normally can be impacted and you could develop kidney disease. 

Heart and cardiovascular system

Alcohol will temporarily increase your heart rate and blood pressure.

In the long-term - drinking too much alcohol can lead to an ongoing increased heart rate and high blood pressure. It can also lead to the development of cardiovascular disease and can weaken your heart muscle. 

Lungs

Alcohol can be evaporated from your blood through your lungs, and eventually will be expelled through your breath (approximately 8% of the alcohol you consume will be breathed out) - alcohol found in your breath is what’s measured with a breathalyser. 

In the long-term - drinking too often can make it more difficult for you to fight off viruses and you could be more at risk of developing some lung infections and illnesses such as pneumonia. 

Stomach

Drinking alcohol may lead to you experiencing bloating, gas and you may even develop stomach ulcers which can be very uncomfortable.This is because your stomach will begin to produce more acid than it typically does. It’s also common to people to vomit or suffer diarrhea after drinking.

In the long-term - alcohol misuse can potentially lead to gastritis (the inflammation of the stomach’s lining which causes sickness and pain) as well as stomach cancer.

Brain 

When you drink alcohol, it reaches your brain very quickly and the effects of alcohol can even be felt in as little as 5 minutes (again, this will vary across people and will depend on the percentage of alcohol in your drink). Alcohol can have numerous effects on your brain and nervous system, including mood changes, inability to think clearly and delayed movements/difficulty to control the body (this is why you often see people stumbling, slurring their speech or acting differently to usual). 

Whilst alcohol can temporarily create a calming effect on your body (you may feel more sociable and relaxed), it can affect your mental health in the long-term. Learn more about alcohol’s effect on anxiety and depression.

In the long-term - as mentioned, alcohol can have a negative impact on your mental health, but over time, alcohol can actually shrink the frontal lobes of your brain. Moreover, drinking too much can cause damage to your central nervous system (if you experience numbness, pain or tinglings on your hands or feet this could be a sign of a damaged central nervous system).

Skin

Alcohol can be absorbed through your skin and some of the alcohol can also evaporate from blood vessels under the skin.

In the long-term - drinking alcohol dehydrates the skin and over time, this can lead to wrinkles and age the skin.

Foetus 

If you’re pregnant, alcohol can harm both you and your unborn child as alcohol can move through the placenta. Essentially, the baby will also be exposed to the same level of alcohol but won’t be able to break it down in the same way which can lead to life-long health issues or complications in the pregnancy which puts the baby at risk. Find out more about pregnancy and alcohol here.

Other long-term effects of alcohol on your body include:

  • Weak/thinning bones and an increased risk of developing osteoporosis
  • Erectile dysfunction and a reduced sex drive
  • Malnutrition as your body becomes less able to absorb essential vitamins and minerals from the food and drink you consume
  • Pancreatitis (the inflammation of the pancreas) which can also harm your lungs, kidneys and heart.
  • Increased risk of developing artery disease
  • Increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and some cancers

How long does alcohol stay in your system?

How long alcohol takes to metabolise in your body will depend on how much alcohol is in your drink, as some beverages will have a higher concentration of alcohol than others (for example, vodka will contain a higher percentage of alcohol compared to beer). Moreover, people can feel the effects of alcohol differently as blood alcohol concentrations can vary (this is the amount of alcohol in your blood compared to water). Factors affecting you blood alcohol concentration include:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • How much alcohol you’re drinking in a given time (i.e. if you’re binge drinking and consuming a lot in a short time)
  • What medications you’re taking (if any)
  • Whether you’re drinking on an empty stomach

Finally, whilst alcohol doesn’t remain in your body for too long, you can develop a dependence on alcohol and suffer from alcoholism - at this point, you will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when it isn’t in your body and it can also affect your ability to carry out tasks (such as work responsibilities) and put a strain on your personal relationships. 

Looking to drink less?

If you live in Dorset and you’re looking for help to drink less, you’ve come to the right place. Get in touch today to find out how our health advisors and coaches can offer you their support or register with us today.

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It's time for me to get my health in order

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How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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