How does alcohol affect me?
Alcohol’s impact is significant and far-reaching, from our physical health and mental wellbeing to our relationships, work environment and wider society. If you drink alcohol, it’s likely that you have experienced some of the effects detailed below.
Keep in mind that many alcohol-related health problems can take many years to develop. This means that how much and how often we drink now can have affect our health in the future. There are many positive actions we can take to reduce our risk of experiencing alcohol-related harms. And a great first step is to get to know the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines.
Alcohol is a depressant that disrupts how the brain functions and affect our thoughts, feelings and actions.1 The morning after drinking alcohol, you may notice you’re feeling down or anxious. Alcohol has an effect on various chemicals in your brain including serotonin and dopamine. These changes can make you feel good while you’re drinking but once the effect has worn off, feelings of anxiety or depression are common. In Ireland, this is colloquially referred to as “the fear”.
Drinking to improve your mood is an unhelpful coping strategy that can lead to more serious problems, as well as making it more difficult to deal with existing problems in a healthier way. Read more about alcohol and mental health
Alcohol reduces your kidney’s ability to function properly. It is a diuretic, so it causes your body to produce more urine. As a result, your kidneys and body may feel the need to urinate more often and this can lead to dehydration.
Alcohol is a sedative that disrupts the sleep/wake cycle (our internal 24-hour clock) and suppresses melatonin which regulates the sleep cycle. Once the initial sedative effects wear off and as the body reacts to the effects of alcohol, sleep quality is reduced.
This is mainly due to the effects on Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is generally acknowledged to be the “restorative” component of sleep, so a lack of REM sleep can reduce concentration and focus the next day. Read more about alcohol and sleep
Alcohol dehydrates the body because it is a diuretic. This can lead to the headache often associated with a hangover.
Injuries and accidents
Alcohol use can increase your risk of experiencing or causing accidents (including car accidents), falls and burns. Responsiveness to danger is reduced and decision-making skills are affected when you drink alcohol. And because alcohol can reduce inhibitions, it may lead to more violent behaviour in yourself or others. Futhermore, people who binge drink are more likely to experience or cause accidents, injuries or violence.2
When you drink alcohol, you can feel more relaxed and can lower your inhibitions. This might cause you to do things you wouldn’t consider if you were sober because your ability to make safe decisions is reduced. This can include taking more risks which could lead to experiencing or causing injuries or accidents. It can also result in saying or posting something online that you might later regret.
Lack of concentration
Alcohol has a sedative effect which can last long into the following day. This can cause slower reflexes which is especially dangerous if you are driving or operating machinery. It can also disrupt your focus, making ordinarily simple tasks more difficult to complete.
When you drink alcohol, more acid is produced in the stomach than normal and this results in feelings of nausea. The lining of the stomach can become inflamed, contributing to stomach pain or reflux (heartburn).
Reduced sports performance
It is advised against working out if you are experiencing the effects of drinking alcohol the following day. Alcohol is a sedative that can delay your reactions and response times and because it impairs your judgement you may take unnecessary risks.3
In addition, your body uses sugar for energy and when you exercise, sugar is released from your liver as part of this process. Alcohol can affect the enzyme involved in the release of this sugar. The liver has to work harder than usual to remove the toxins from alcohol, which means it is less able to complete other functions such as releasing sugar.
Alcohol is a modifiable risk factor for at least seven types of cancer – bowel, breast, liver, mouth, voice box (larynx), oesophagus (foodpipe) and throat (pharynx).4 Bowel and breast cancers are among the most common in Ireland. Even a few of drinks a day can cause an increased risk of some of these cancers. Every year in Ireland, 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and 500 die as a result. Read more about alcohol and cancer
Alcohol is a depressant.5 Drinking can contribute to depression due to the various psychological eﬀects of alcohol and impacts on mental health. Alcohol affects the levels chemicals in our brain. For example, serotonin, which regulates happiness. The enjoyable effect of alcohol is temporary, and you may even feel worse after drinking. Attempts to cope with the feelings and symptoms of depression may lead some people to drink more to cope. This can become a cycle. Read more about alcohol and mental health
Heart disease and stroke
Regularly drinking more than the low-risk guidelines raises your blood pressure. This means that your heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. High blood pressure is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in Ireland.6 Alcohol intake is also associated with cardiomyopathy (a weakening of heart tissue). This can contribute to problems with blood circulation. Read more about alcohol and heart health
Alcohol impairs the immune system.7 More specifically, alcohol affects how white blood cells function. White blood cells are an essential part of the response to inflammation. In effect, they are “first responders” in the body. Chronic alcohol misuse therefore reduces your ability to fight infection. Read more about alcohol and the immune system
One of the roles of the liver is to get rid of toxins from the body. This means that drinking alcohol puts extra pressure on the liver. The byproduct of alcohol are toxins that can damage the liver.8 The liver can break down one standard drink of alcohol per hour (this is a guide only; there are many factors that means this will vary from person to person). The type of alcohol, how fast and how much you drink can prevent the liver from working properly. Regularly drinking more than the low-risk weekly guidelines can increase the risk of fatty liver (steatosis), inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) and cirrhosis (scarring of liver tissue).
Excessive alcohol use can cause the pancreas to produce toxins which cause pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be either acute (sudden onset) or chronic (develops over time). Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening and can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.9
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The most serious FASD is foetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol can damage the developing brain and body by passing from the mother’s blood into the baby’s blood through the placenta.10 The HSE advises that there is no safe amount and no safe time for alcohol during pregnancy.
Drinking alcohol irritates your digestive system. This causes your stomach to produce more acid than usual. This can result in gastritis, which is the inflammation of the stomach’s lining. Symptoms include vomitting, heartburn and loss of appetite. If left untreated, gastritis can lead to ulcers.11
1 HSE – How Alcohol Affects Your Mental Health https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/mental-health/how-alcohol-affects-your-mental-health.html
2 O’Dwyer, C., Mongan, D., Millar, S.R. et al. Drinking patterns and the distribution of alcohol-related harms in Ireland: evidence for the prevention paradox. BMC Public Health 19, 1323 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7666-4
3 HSE – Alcohol and Sports Performance https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/physical-health/sports-performance.html
4 World Cancer Research Fund – Alcohol and Cancer https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/exposures/alcoholic-drinks
5 HSE – Alcohol and Depression https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/mental-health/depression.html
6 Irish Heart Foundation – Alcohol and Your Heart https://irishheart.ie/news/excessive-alcohol-consumption-harms-your-heart/
7 Szabo, G., & Saha, B. (2015). Alcohol’s Effect on Host Defense. Alcohol research : current reviews, 37(2), 159–170. Available here
8 HSE – Alcohol’s Effect on Liver Disease https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/physical-health/alcohols-effect-on-the-body/the-liver.html
9 HSE – Alcohol’s Effect on Pancreas https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/physical-health/alcohols-effect-on-the-body/the-pancreas.html
10 HSE – Alcohol during Pregnancy https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/child-health/alcohol-during-pregnancy.html
11 HSE – Alcohol and the Stomach https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/physical-health/alcohols-effect-on-the-body/the-stomach.html