I often see patients with complications of alcohol drinking coming into my clinic. As a specialist in addiction, I can say that all people with alcohol problems have some kind of complications.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) as it’s now known is continuous or excessive use of alcohol. However, the British neuropsychopharmacologist Dr David Nutt says there is no safe level of social alcohol drinking (1).
The physical complications
These are wide and varied including fatty liver, liver failure, kidney failure, brain damage, loss of concentration, early senile dementia, stroke, heart disease, vascular failure, pancreatitis, diabetes, birth defects in a foetus, damage to sperm, erectile failure in men, premature ejaculation, development of breasts in men, malnutrition, and a range of different cancers, particularly bowel cancer.
The reality is alcohol is a poison. Think about how we use it to sterilise wounds and kill unwanted bacteria. So what do you think it’s doing to your insides? Medically we use it in very small doses when delivering herbs, but recreational use is far higher quantities.
So why don’t you fully realise these side effects?
The fact is the alcohol manufacturing lobby has trillions of dollars behind it in lobbying politicians to give you very few public warnings.
Doctors are also not allowed and educated enough to really confront you about your alcohol use, even when they are prescribing medications. I believe it is the duty of a healthcare practitioner to address your possible addiction issues if they appear obvious when you present in clinic.
Your liver is the chemical factory of your body. It’s truly an incredible organ, and we don’t yet fully understand all its functions. What’s clear is alcohol creates damage to and reduces the liver’s functions, and it is the primary site of alcohol processing (2). This equals a reduced lifespan and quality of life.
The major complication that occurs is alcohol-induced fatty liver. Even drinking alcohol for half the week can lead to a large build-up of fat in the liver. In some people drinking just once a week can cause the same problems.
It can lead to yellowing in the whites of the eyes, vomiting, nausea, confusion, loss of energy, reduced cognitive ability, high blood sugar, swelling in your legs, weight loss or gain, susceptibility to infection and poor wound healing.
This can lead to liver failure and early death. You may be lucky and get a liver transplant, but the waiting list is so long you might not get it in time, or the transplant could fail.
Kidney failure in alcohol use
Drinking four to five standard drinks can initiate sudden kidney failure at any age (3). Your kidneys filter alcohol to expel it from your body, but as it fails the alcohol saturation rises dramatically. This induces compound kidney damage.
Alcohol kidney failure dehydrates the body which means all your organs are unable to work properly. You go into system failure.
Your kidneys filter so many unwanted toxins from your body. As they fail, your body is suddenly overwhelmed by toxins that damage other organs. You go into toxic shock. Any medications you are taking become concentrated, and instead of healing you, they begin to damage you.
Alcohol-induced kidney failure is unpredictable and can happen to anyone at any time without warning. Not only can it happen at just two drinks, and your blood pressure goes up, but it’s not reparable once it has happened. There are cases of kidney failure in young people who drank for the first time.
The heart starts beating before birth and when it stops you die; it’s that simple. Your body and cells need constant oxygen. Any damage to your heart, no matter how small, interrupts the oxygen flow.
Alcohol use increases the risk of cardiomyopathy, making it harder for the heart to pump blood (4). This creates fast heartbeat, breathlessness, swelling in the lower limbs, fluid accumulation in the midriff, fatigue, dizziness, weakness, coughing when horizontal, chest pain and a heart attack.
Alcohol produces excess hormones that tighten and constrict veins and arteries, causing vascular damage throughout the body.
Excess alcohol drinking is associated with damage to the small vessels in the extremities of the body. This leads to Raynard’s disease that can necessitate amputation of arms and legs in time, because they no longer have a good blood supply.
Alcohol-related brain impairment (ARBI) can be gradual (chronic) or sudden (acute). When it happens, it leads to changes in the signals in the body, so your different organs become confused and stop working well (5).
We can see how alcohol brain damage particularly happens in younger people (up to 25) because their brains are still developing. This causes what is called cerebral atrophy (small brain syndrome) so your brain doesn’t develop to the size to which it is supposed to grow.
Alcohol consumption also leads to frontal lobe damage which reduces your cognitive processes, abstract thinking and problem solving. At any age alcohol drinking reduces your intelligence because it reduces the efficiency of your brain.
Alcohol poisoning also induces Wernicke’s encephalopathy with B1 deficiency, causing movement disorders, foggy brain, and problems with your eye sight. It can lead to permanent brain damage. There is also Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome when you can’t remember information and find it different to learn new things.
Alcohol abuse also initiates peripheral neuropathy when you lose feeling in the extremities of your body such as your limbs. I’ve had a patient who came to stop drinking who can no longer walk, and that kind of damage may end up being permanent.
Nausea and gastrointestinal problems
Remember I said alcohol killed bacteria. The thing is, your body has a whole host of natural bacteria that are friendly, and it depends on them for your health. In fact, a large part of your body is made up of bacteria.
There are good bacteria and not good bacteria in your gut (the microbiome), and we must keep the balance to be well. There is around an estimated 39 trillion bacteria in your gut and alcohol kills them (6).
Your gut makes 95 % of your serotonin and is a large contributor to your immune system. If you damage it, you are in a permanent state of ill health.
Alcohol is also a large contributor to all gastrointestinal and bowel cancer. All types of alcohol contribute to GI tract cancer. According to an article in the American Journal of Epidemiology (Park, 2019), alcohol contributes to GI tract cancer across all ethnic populations (7).
Damage to fertility
People using alcohol delay the ability to conceive a child (8). Considering that 15% of the population struggle with having a child, and 10% are unable to conceive, alcohol is a major contributor to infertility.
What men don’t realise is that alcohol consumption also damages sperm. Constant exposure can corrupt the DNA you pass on through your sperm, contributing to birth defects.
To conceive, the womb’s PH balance needs to be around 3.5 to 4.5. For the foetus not to abort, the PH balance of the womb has to remain around 4.5. If it doesn’t, unwanted bacteria can cause a spontaneous abortion. Alcohol affects that PH balance of the womb in a damaging way.
Also, alcohol corrupts the development of the foetus in the womb, causing birth defects. The classic lifelong damage for a child is foetal alcohol syndrome, but there can be other brain and developmental damage.
Nutrition problems from alcohol
We need to consume macronutrients including carbohydrates, lipids and amino acids to create proteins, and water. Equally as important are micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and particular natural body-altering chemicals.
Failure to get the right balance of micro and macronutrients results in malnutrition where our body begins to fail and shut down (9). Too much of one nutrient also causes the body to dysfunction and causes disease.
Excess alcohol use produces vitamin deficiencies causing:
B12 – permanent neurological damage
B1 – a deranged state of mind, shaking and then ultimately leads to death
B3 – onset of dementia and pellagra, ultimately leads to death
A – eye damage and lack of immunity
D – weakening the immune function, causing depression and bone fractures
E – poor reflexes, anaemia, creating oxidative stress, skin damage, heart damage
C – oxidative stress, poor immunity, bone and connective tissue weakness, anaemia
Drinking alcohol begins to upset a finely balanced mineral level that our body requires to function properly. There is an excessive loss of calcium magnesium and zinc and it can lead to heavy metal poisoning.
Weight gain and blood pressure
Alcohol is what we call empty calories, meaning it has lots of calories but no nutritional value. In other words, it is not a food but increases your weight because it severely disturbs your body’s sensitivity to glucose.
With the increase in weight, the heart needs to grow bigger to account for increased circulation. However, it’s a catch 22 situation, because the more weight you gain, the less your body can handle glucose, so you eventually develop type 2 diabetes.
With that comes an increase in blood pressure that puts pressure on your vascular system. The higher your blood pressure (alcohol induced hypertension), the greater the risk of heart attack and stroke (11).
Mental complications of alcohol abuse
Let’s remember again that alcohol is a poison, and it kills the conductive end (dendrites) part of the nerve cells. This means your neurons (nerve cells) can’t talk to each other properly. It’s like having a really poor internet connection that keeps dropping out.
If the cells of your brain and neurons don’t communicate with each other well you become delusional, hallucinate, develop bad judgment, anxiety, depression, aggression, and paranoia. In short you develop mental illness.
What’s also clear is that drinkers have smaller brains with less grey and white matter (12). If you drink young, you end up with a small brain and if you drink later, it shrinks your brain and you become less intelligent.
There is no biological upside to drinking alcohol and brain function. All consumed recreational alcohol damages neurons. Excess or prolonged alcohol drinking can cause permanent irreversible mental capacity.
Fast way to stop drinking alcohol
As an addiction specialist I use clinical hypnotherapy with patients to help you stop drinking. It’s by far the quickest method I’ve found over 50 years of being around addicts and treating more than 10,000 addicts and alcoholics for substance use disorder.
Since I am also a clinical naturopath, my aim is to take your body into recovery and restore health as quickly as possible. Health is the most important thing in your life and stopping alcohol goes a very long way to helping restore and strengthen yours.
There comes a point when you realise your drinking is harming you. When that happens, reach out for help straight away, don’t wait.
At my clinic I always use clinical hypnotherapy. We have used hypnosis, over the decades, as that is the fastest and most successful treatment for substance use disorder.
(1) Nutt, D. (2020, December 22). Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health Paperback. https://www.amazon.com/Drink/dp/1529398010
(2) Osna, N., Donohue Jr, T., & Kharbanda, K. (2017). Alcoholic Liver Disease: Pathogenesis and Current Management. Alcohol Res., 38(2): 283–288. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28988570/
(3) Varga, Z., Matyas, C., Paloczi, J. & Palcher, P.(2017), Alcohol Misuse and Kidney Injury: Epidemiological Evidence and Potential Mechanisms. Alcohol Res.,38(2): 283-288. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28988579/
(4) Piano, M. (2017). Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol Res, 38(2):219-241. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28988575/
(5) Topiwala, A., Allan, C., Valkanova, V., Zsoldos. E., Filipppini, N., Sexton, C., Mahmood, A., Fooks, P., Singh-Manoux, A., Mackay, C., Kivimaki, M., & Ebmeier, K. (2017). Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study. https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2353
Van Heertum, K. & Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28702207/
(6) Van Heertum, K., Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much? National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28702207/
(7) Sender, R, Fuchs, S., & Milo, R. (2016). Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. National Library of Medicine, 14(8). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27541692/
(8) Park, S., Wilkens, L., Setiawan, W., Monroe, K., Haiman, C., & Marchand, L. (2018, September 15). Alcohol Intake and Colorectal Cancer Risk in the Multiethnic Cohort Study. American Journal of Epidemiology. https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/188/1/67/5098396
(9) Van Heertum, K., Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much? National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28702207/
(10) Salz, A. (2014). Substance Abuse and Nutrition. Today’s Dietitian, 16(12). https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/120914p44.shtml
(11) Husain K, Ansari RA, & Ferder L. (2014) Alcohol-induced hypertension: Mechanism and prevention. World J Cardiol, 6(5): 245-252. https://www.wjgnet.com/1949-8462/full/v6/i5/245.htm
(12) Crews, F. (2008). Alcohol-related neurodegeneration and recovery: mechanisms from animal models. Alcohol Res Health, 31(4): 377-88. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23584011/
Dr Tracie O’Keefe DCH, BHSc, ND is an addiction specialist and published author. You can consult her in the office or by Zoom from anywhere in the world.
Call our central booking for your FREE telephone consultation with Dr Tracie O’Keefe DCH. Phone 0403 398 808. Health funds.
About Dr Tracie O’Keefe DCH
Dr Tracie O’Keefe DCH, BSc, ND, is one of the most highly qualified and experienced clinical hypnotherapists, psychotherapists, counsellors and mental health professionals practising in Australia today. She has received worldwide recognition and praise for her research, development of clinical procedures and teaching in addiction recovery. She is the author of nine books and hundreds of articles and papers.