The Initial and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

The purpose of this guide is to inform readers about the psychological, physiological, and physical effects that alcohol has on an individual and not to provide medical advice. Always consult with a physician or addiction treatment specialist if you have concerns about alcohol use or addiction.

Initially, alcohol acts as a stimulant, making drinkers open to risk-taking or more energetic. When an individual continues to drink, they may have slurred speech, a stumbling gait, and memory lapses. The reaction time to stimuli becomes longer, and the ability to react is diminished. Alcohol may also affect the libido – while sexual desire may increase, an individual’s ability to perform or to achieve orgasm may diminish.

Further consumption of alcohol results in black-outs, where the individual cannot turn short-term memories into long-term ones. The depressive effects of alcohol also induce sleepiness and may slow breathing. Too much alcohol may cause an individual to cease breathing altogether. Alcohol also causes long-term damage to the lymphatic system in the body, which is responsible for removing toxins, and can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver or kidney failure. Long-term alcoholism can result in hypertension and an increased risk of stroke.

Alcohol's Effects on the Brain

Alcohol works on the brain by acting on the neurotransmitters that send signals throughout the body, specifically the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. The GABA receptor is responsible for inhibiting excitability in your brain. GABA proteins react with the receptors, producing feelings of calm, reducing anxiety, and decreasing feelings of fear and stress. The GABA receptors are associated with the “reward center” of the brain; drinking can inhibit the natural reward reactions of GABA, as the alcohol mimics the effects of GABA, and causes the drinker to need alcohol to produce the same effects that GABA will. Due to alcohol’s inhibitory effect, it is considered a central nervous depressant.

Alcohol also causes the brain to produce more positive hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine. Consuming large amounts of alcohol leads to larger amounts of serotonin, which communicates to the drinker that they’re happy and relaxed. The brain gets conditioned to the elevated levels of serotonin, and when the individual is not drinking, serotonin levels drop. This leads to alcohol withdrawal-induced depression symptoms, including anxiety, stress, and agitation.

Essentially, to maintain the same mental state as a non-drinker or non-alcoholic, the drinker will need alcohol to force a contented state of mind. This cycle of drinking and withdrawal from the alcohol produces a persistent depressive state. For those who have clinical depression, self-medicating with alcohol can make depression more severe. In addition, as alcoholism progresses, the individual may develop a higher tolerance for alcohol, meaning that they’ll need to drink more to achieve the same results.

Alcohol also reduces the amount of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases brain activity and energy levels. Lower levels of glutamate result in slowed thinking and reaction time, as the neural pathways in the brain aren’t functioning at the fastest levels.

Alcohol also produces psychological effects, including:

  • Increased anger and aggression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased depressive tendencies, including major depressive episodes
  • Increased memory loss
  • Increased poor judgment
  • Decreased alertness and concentration
  • Decreased rational thinking
  • Decreased inhibitions

The Physical Effects of Alcohol on the Body

While the initial effects of alcohol may be pleasant to the drinker, the addictive nature of the substance means that the drinker needs more and more alcohol to reach that same state of relaxation. Unfortunately, alcohol has a physical effect on many systems of the body and can, over time, lead to irreversible damage.

Alcoholics are at a higher risk of contracting certain cancers, such as colon, intestinal, mouth, and throat cancers. Heavy drinkers also have a higher risk of stroke due to hypertension or persistent high blood pressure. This can lead to heart disease and eventually congestive heart failure. The liver is especially sensitive to the ravages of alcohol, as it’s responsible for processing the substance. Cirrhosis of the liver is common in alcoholics, and can eventually lead to liver failure.

The physical effects of alcohol can include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased reaction time
  • Decreased breathing rate
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased motor skills
  • Decreased ability to feel pain
  • Decreased functioning of senses, including vision
  • Increased fatigue or decreased ability to sleep
  • Unsteady gait
  • Alcohol-related conditions and diseases
  • Risk of alcohol poisoning, which can result in seizures, coma, and death

The Connection Between Alcohol and Depression

Persistent alcohol abuse can lead to depression. The chemical changes in the brain that long-term alcoholics experience depress the brain’s ability to self-police — that is, the alcohol makes permanent changes in the brain’s chemistry, leading to depression. In a study by NCBI, titled The Association between Alcohol Dependence and Depression before and after Treatment for Alcohol Dependence, there is a correlation between alcohol abuse and depression. The study also notes comorbidity between alcohol and depression, noting that individuals with underlying depression have a reduced motivation to resist drinking. In these cases, the study notes that both environmental and genetic factors may play a role in alcohol addiction as a self-medication therapy for depression, suggesting that the more a person drinks, the more likely they are to develop depression.

An additional study on self-medication with alcohol for mood disorders notes that individuals may not be diagnosed with depression — as in, they may not realize that they have depression, and tend to use alcohol to self-medicate and alleviate the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety associated with depression. Several states of depression, including seasonal depression, clinical depression, and situational or post-traumatic stress depression, all were noted to result in the sufferer’s self-medication with alcohol.

Using alcohol to treat the symptoms of depression further disrupts the brain’s chemistry and the natural, hormonal mood regulators it produces. When the alcoholic isn’t actively drinking, they’re in a state of alcohol withdrawal, symptoms which include anxiety and feelings of depression and lethargy. The drinker then drinks to make the bad feelings “go away” and the alcohol that they imbibe works on the reward centers of the brain, instead of the normal hormones of serotonin or dopamine, or GABA. This spirals into a circular pattern of abuse, resulting in even more disrupted brain chemistry. It’s a difficult pattern to break without professional help and hard work on the part of the person in recovery.

If you or someone you love is suffering from an addiction to alcohol, there is hope. Professional recovery centers can work with you to medically detoxify the body and give you the psychological and emotional tools needed to break the cycle of depression and drinking.

The purpose of our guide is to give you the information you need to understand the psychological, physiological, and physical effects that alcohol has on an individual and not to provide medical advice. Please make sure to consult with a physician or addiction treatment specialist if you have concerns about alcohol use or addiction.