Effects of alcohol on your health
Alcohol can affect a number of body systems, including:
- heart – raised blood pressure and triglycerides (especially after binge drinking), damage to the heart muscle and stroke
- brain – brain damage, tremors, dementia and nerve damage. Alcohol is a depressant drug and affects your coordination, self-control, judgement and reaction times
- stomach – stomach inflammation (gastritis) and bleeding
- liver – cancer, hepatitis (inflammation), fatty changes, cirrhosis and liver failure
- hormones and fertitlity – problems controlling blood sugar, loss of sex drive and reduced fertility
- nutrition – malnutrition (alcohol displaces nutrients from your body) and obesity
- breast cancer and other gynaecological problems – women who drink alcohol are at a higher risk than non-drinking women.
How the body processes alcohol
Alcohol gets into the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine. If a person has food in their stomach, it will slow down the rate at which the alcohol is absorbed, but it will not stop a person becoming drunk. Eventually, all the alcohol that was consumed will reach the bloodstream.
Most of the alcohol in the body (about 91 percent) is broken down by the liver. A small amount also leaves the body in urine, sweat and the breath. Since the liver can only break down about three quarters of a standard drink an hour, sobering up takes time.
Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process.
Binge drinking can be dangerous
Binge drinking is the name commonly used to describe drinking heavily over a short period with the intention of getting drunk. This can be very harmful to a person’s health and wellbeing.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol can result in confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control, nausea, vomiting, sleep, coma or even death.
It can also impair a person’s judgement and decision-making ability, which can increase the risk that they may do silly things and put themselves in dangerous situations.
Alcohol and driving
Alcohol can impair coordination and judgement, and is a major cause of road injury in New Zealand. There is no set number of drinks that you can have to stay under the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 400 mcg (for breath) and 80 mg (for blood). The legal drink drive limit for drivers under 20 years of age is a BAC of zero.
The rate of alcohol absorption in the body varies depending on body size, gender, body fat and amount of food in the stomach. The same person can drink the same number of drinks on different occasions and have different BAC levels.
It is safest to avoid drinking alcohol if you need to drive or operate heavy machinery. If you do drink and drive, it is important to keep your BAC under the legal limit for driving. Remember that alcohol takes time to leave the body. You may still have alcohol in your body several hours or even the day after drinking. Learner and probationary drivers, and drivers of trucks, buses and trains, must maintain a zero blood alcohol limit.
It is not possible to say exactly how many drinks any one person can drink to stay under a particular BAC. You can get some idea of your general blood alcohol level by recording your drinks and testing yourself over a number of occasions. Use a coin-operated breath tester – these are available in some venues.
Health benefits of alcohol
Very moderate amounts of alcohol (around half a standard drink a day) may provide health benefits for some middle-aged or older people by reducing the risk of some types of cardiovascular disease. However, people who do not already drink alcohol are not encouraged to take up drinking just to get some health benefits.
Recent scientific evidence suggests that the potential for health benefits may have been overestimated in earlier studies. Possible benefits need to be balanced against the risk of cirrhosis, some cancers and other diseases (which becomes greater with increased alcohol consumption).
The same benefits do not extend to younger people. Drinking alcohol can affect how the brain develops in people under the age of 25. Teenagers under 15 years of age are particularly at risk.