Priory Group’s Dr Niall Campbell, one of the UK’s leading experts in alcohol addiction, warns of the effect that such heavy drinking can have on a person’s health: ‘When a person drinks harmful levels of alcohol, they are in danger of damaging their whole body. Alcohol has a particularly toxic effect on the liver and brain, as well as on the heart, stomach and pancreas. It can seriously impact a person’s mental health too.
‘At this moment in time, people are consuming more alcohol and are drinking earlier in the day to relieve stress and boredom, which isn’t sustainable in terms of people’s physical health as well as their mental, relationship and work health.’
Dr Niall Campbell has outlined the effects that heavy drinking can have on the body. For Dry January, he has also outlined the health benefits of persisting with an alcohol-free month and how a drinking hiatus can people to readdress their relationship with alcohol.
The effects of alcohol on the body
- Brain. Alcohol lowers our brain activity and energy levels, which slows our thoughts, speech, and movements down. Alcohol also impairs our memory – the more a person drinks, the less they are likely to remember.
- Eyes. Alcohol slows the communication between the body and the brain, which can lead to distorted or double vision. Excessive drinking can also reduce pupil reaction time, impairing a person’s ability to see contrasting colours or different shades of the same colour. A person may also get red or bloodshot eyes as alcohol causes the blood vessels in the eyes to swell.
- Skin. Drinking alcohol causes blood vessels to widen, which increases blood flow and causes facial flushing. As alcohol is a diuretic, drinking heavily can also lead to dehydrated and dry skin. Over time, it can also result in the permanent reddening of the face, spider veins and psoriasis, particularly on the fingers and hands.
- Mouth. Alcohol decreases the production of saliva, which reduces a person’s defences against bacteria and plaque. This can lead to oral cavities and gum irritation or disease.
- Oesophagus. Heavy drinking can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Over time, this can damage the tissue within the oesophagus, making it painful and difficult to swallow, and causing chest pain.
- Stomach. When we drink, the stomach produces more acid than usual, which can inflame and damage the stomach lining, causing stomach pain, nausea, bloating and vomiting.
- Gut. A single episode of heavy drinking can result in intestinal erosion and bleeding. Alcohol interferes with our natural digestion process. It irritates the gastrointestinal tract, inflames the stomach, interferes with the body’s absorption of water and speeds up digestion through the large intestine, which can lead to diarrhoea.
- Heart. Binge drinking can lead to blood pressure spiking and temporarily cause an irregular heartbeat. This can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, particularly in older adults.
- Liver. A fatty liver can appear after a single drinking session but is reversible. Over time, chronic heavy drinking can lead to alcohol-related liver damage, which can include a fatty liver, alcohol hepatitis and alcohol cirrhosis.
- Kidneys and bladder. Heavy drinking can result in back pain as alcohol damages the functioning of the kidneys by overwhelming them with a build-up of waste products. This can then cause the bladder to fill up with more fluid. As this urine is typically more concentrated – and because alcohol is high in sugar – this can irritate and inflame the lining of the bladder, increasing the risk of a urinary tract infection.
- Pancreas. Heavy drinking produces toxic substances and can increase the risk of pancreatitis. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it can cause severe abdominal pain, which can lead to nausea and vomiting.
- Lungs. Alcohol vapour within the airway can damage the lungs, nasal passages and sinuses, as the nasal passages and sinuses become inflamed and unable to fight off infection effectively.
Heavy drinking can also affect people’s mental health, as it can be linked to depression arising from the guilt and shame of drinking. People’s relationship health can also be greatly impacted.
For people who have been drinking heavily, Dr Campbell explains how Dry January may help: ‘Quitting alcohol for the month gives you time to think clearly about your recent drinking habits.
‘During an alcohol-free month, you will start to notice the benefits of reducing your alcohol consumption. You will sleep better, feel more hydrated, have fewer headaches and have more energy throughout the day. You may also start to lose weight, reduce your blood pressure and start to improve your liver function.
‘As you continue through January, and reflect upon the harmful effects drinking has previously had on your body, mind, work, finances and relationships, this can then help you to determine how you want to change your relationship with alcohol going forward.’