Get to know the diseases related to alcohol abuse

The amount of alcohol consumed, genetic considerations, body mass and overall health may impact how a person responds to chronic heavy drinking, in saying this, it’s important to understand the potential side effects and know health risks when it comes to diseases related to alcohol abuse.

Studies consistently reinforce the evidence that shows that overall, heavy alcohol consumption is detrimental to health and a leading preventable cause of death.

The body is unable to sufficiently metabolize the intake of alcohol; excess is built up within the bloodstream. Blood alcohol is then circulated through the body which results in changes in chemistry and normal bodily functions.

A single binge-drinking episode may result in severe impairment, body damage and even death.

Serious health concerns and/or chronic illness may develop over time with the continued uncontrolled use of alcohol.

Diseases related to alcohol abuse

1. Liver disease

The liver is particularly at risk of excessive abuse as this organ is mainly responsible for the metabolism of alcohol. Alcohol is metabolized into acetaldehyde which is carcinogenic (has the potential to cause cancer) and is toxic.

Alcoholic liver disease is impacted by the amount and duration of alcohol abuse. Chronic heavy drinking increases the risk of developing this disease.

The likelihood of developing fatty liver, an early and reversible result of heavy drinking is also increased substantially. The liver’s ability to metabolize fats is altered by heavy consumption of alcohol and excess fat is then stored in the liver.

Alcoholic hepatitis is another effect of heavy drinking on the liver. This disease is caused by long term inflammation of the liver and can cause scarring.  When scarring invades the liver ( Usually after many years of alcohol abuse) this causes the liver to become hard and nodular. When this happens it is referred to as cirrhosis.

When a point is reached where the liver is no longer able to perform life-sustaining functions, organ failure and death will occur. Symptoms usually develop after the damage has been done.

Early symptoms of alcohol-related liver problems may include:

  • Low energy levels
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Spider-like blood vessels that appear on the surface of the skin

Symptoms of severe liver disease include:

  • Jaundiced skin tone (Yellow)
  • Red palms
  • Bruising
  • Thinking difficulty
  • Testicle shrinkage in men

Symptoms may appear gradually depending on the condition of the liver. Symptoms of the disease tend to worsen after drinking episodes.

2. Pancreatitis

Overconsumption of alcohol can cause a condition known as pancreatitis which is the painful inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis often requires hospitalization.

The inflammation of the pancreas may be caused by the premature activation of proenzymes to pancreatic enzymes, chronic exposure to acetaldehyde and other chemical reactions set off by alcohol injury.

Abstinence from alcohol reduces the chance of future episodes.

Chronic pancreatitis occurs when the inflammation of the pancreas is reduced but the pancreas remains damaged. Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include diabetes or other digestive illnesses.

3. Cancer

Chronic alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing different cancers including cancers of the: Mouth, oesophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum and breast.  Both alcohol and acetaldehyde contribute to this increased risk.

Acetaldehyde (Ethanal) is created as it breaks down alcohol in the body. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that damages DNA which in turn prevents the body from repairing cell damage.

DNA controls normal cell growth and function and damaged DNA means that cells can grow and multiply out of control and this may be how alcohol abuse contributes to the development of cancer tumours.

Alcohol is directly responsible for about 5% of new cancer cases and cancer-related deaths worldwide.

4. The digestive tract

The digestive system is more than the stomach and intestines. It includes the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, pancreas, and anus. Frequent or excess consumption of alcohol can damage these organs.

Heavy drinking can cause stomach ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn and inflammation of the stomach lining – gastritis.

Alcohol expands its toxicity as it travels through the digestive tract.  Internal bleeding from enlarged veins within the oesophagus is related to chronic liver disease.

Alcohol interferes with gastric acid secretion and can delay gastric emptying. This impairs muscle movement and movement of the entire bowel.

The gastrointestinal tract sustains a phenomenal amount of damage from alcohol abuse.

5. Osteoporosis

Alcohol negatively affects bone health for many reasons. Excessive consumption of alcohol interferes with the balance of calcium which may be further disrupted by alcohol’s ability to interfere with the production of vitamin D, a vitamin that is essential for calcium absorption.

Chronic heavy drinking can cause hormone deficiencies in men and women. Men with alcohol abuse issues may produce less testosterone which is linked to the production of osteoblasts (the cells that stimulate bone formation). In women, chronic alcoholism may trigger irregular menstrual cycles, which may reduce oestrogen levels thereby increasing the risk for osteoporosis.

Cortisol levels may be elevated in people with alcoholism. Cortisol is known to decrease bone formation and increase bone breakdown.

 Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to an increase in the risk of bone fractures including hip fractures. Vertebral fractures are also more common in chronic heavy drinkers.

6. Heart disease and cardiovascular health

Alcohol abuse can cause high blood pressure by releasing hormones that cause blood vessel constriction. This can have adverse effects on the heart.

Heavy drinking has been linked to multiple cardiovascular complications, including anginahigh blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart failure.

Stroke is a potentially deadly complication of binge drinking.

Fluctuations in blood pressure and increases in platelet activation are common during the body’s recovery from a binge. This deadly combination heightens the chance of ischemic stroke.

7. Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies

Alcohol abuse is known to lead to vitamin deficiencies and malnourishment. This is partly due to insufficient dietary requirements being met but also because nutrients are neither broken down properly nor adequately absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream. They are then unable to be effectively used by the body.

Alcohol’s ability to interrupt the red blood cell production in the bone marrow and to cause bleeding from gastric ulcers may lead to the development of iron deficiency; anaemia.

8. Immune system dysfunction

Heavy drinking weakens the immune system and makes the body susceptible to infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Alcohol elicits changes within red and white blood cells and platelets. A drop in white blood cell count can happen as a result of alcoholism. White blood cells are suppressed and become trapped in the spleen.

Each episode of chronic drinking reduces the body’s ability to ward off infections and adversely affects white blood cell production and function over time.

9. Brain damage

Alcohol consumption is associated with blurred vision, memory lapses, slurred speech, difficulty walking and slowed reaction time. These are all due to the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Receptors and neurotransmitters are affected by heavy drinking and it interferes with cognitive function, moods, emotions, and reactions on multiple levels.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and poses a problem with processing information as well as challenges in solving simple problems.

Alcohol also disrupts fine motor coordination and balance, often leading to injuries from falls. Excessive drinking can cause “blackouts” or the inability to remember events.

Long-term heavy drinking can speed up the brain’s normal ageing process, resulting in early alcohol-related brain disorders.


One of the most important facts to remember about alcoholism is its progression. Alcoholism begins in an early stage that looks nothing at all like a life-threatening disease, proceeds into a middle stage where problems begin to appear and intensify, and gradually advances into the late, degenerative stages of obvious physiological dependence, physical and psychological deterioration, and loss of control.”

WILLIAM F. ASBURY, Beyond the Influence

There is always help and there is always hope.

Call 081-444-7000 or email Changes@ChangesRehab.co.za to get the help you need today.