Young man suffering from alcohol abuse.

The effects of alcohol on the body

Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed legally-available drugs in the world, along with nicotine and caffeine.

Although archaeological evidence suggests humans consumed alcohol at least 10,000 years ago, alcohol was only introduced to Australia during the colonial period. Today, drinking is seen as a fundamental part of Aussie culture.

Alcohol is a drug that interacts with the body. The surest way to prevent alcohol having any effect on a person is not to consume it. As with most legally-available drugs, consuming alcohol is safer when done in moderation. A glass of wine over dinner, raising a toast in celebration, or a quiet drink after work (purchased as part of the ubiquitous shout) are generally regarded as socially acceptable forms of alcohol consumption.

Drinking to excess and losing control — being sick, engaging in violence, passing out, etc. — are obviously not regarded as socially acceptable. Excess alcohol consumption can result in harm to oneself and others. It is the fourth-largest disease burden1 in Queensland, behind heart disease, cancer of the digestive system and stroke.

Fortunately, most people do not experience long-term harm from consuming alcohol, especially if they drink in moderation.


What are the effects of alcohol on the body?

Alcohol is a chemical that affects people in different ways and which has a complex series of effects on the body. The physical effects of alcohol affect the entire body including the brain, the gut, the heart, sleep and sexual functions2.

How alcohol affects us mentally and emotionally varies significantly from person to person. There are a variety of factors that influence this: how much we drink, how long we have been drinking for, whether we are on medication or other drugs, whether we have a pre-existing mental illness, and others.

It is known that people with depression and/or anxiety are more likely to turn to alcohol as a means of coping. This is when some people use alcohol and drugs to ‘cover’ their symptoms or to help make them feel better, not realising that it can leave them feeling worse.

According to the 2014 global status report on alcohol and health published by the World Health Organization (WHO), the harmful health effects of alcohol abuse rank among the top five risk factors for disease, disability and death throughout the world.


Can alcohol alter brain chemistry?

Our brains rely on a fine balance of chemicals and processes to process information. Alcohol is a depressant which means it affects the chemical messaging processes in your brain.

While initially, you may get a relaxed feeling after your first drink, over time it can contribute or exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety.

Alcohol can also lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels, both of which help regulate mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can make a depressed person more depressed. Alcohol can also leave you feeling, anxious, agitated, flat, unmotivated, moody or angry. These symptoms can persist during the period of alcohol withdrawal. Additionally, regular use can affect your overall health and affect your relationships.


Alcohol and sleep

Alcohol is known to interrupt your circadian rhythm and block rapid eye moment (REM) sleep, which is often considered the most restorative type of sleep.

While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it can also contribute to poor quality sleep. As the body tries to eliminate the alcohol by extracting water from cells, it flushes out the toxins through the kidneys and bladder. This results in disrupted sleep due to more frequent visits to the bathroom.


Alcohol as a habit

It is easy to fall into bad habits. This is one reason why behaviour change and trying to give them up can be so hard.

Reducing and changing your consumption of alcohol can take time as you form new habits. Some immediate and relatively easy strategies that can help you include:

  • Avoid keeping alcohol in the house.
  • Not drinking alcohol alone.
  • Limit drinking to meal times only.
  • Use exercise and relaxation techniques to manage stress, as an alternative to alcohol.

Changing your behaviour is usually not a single event, but something that occurs over time. It also rarely takes place in a linear way. We often move back and forth, and you should expect frequent lapses. With perseverance and support, you will notice positive changes in your health and wellbeing.


Got a concern about alcohol? Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.