The science of alcohol: How does it affect your liver and heart?

From the first taste to the long-term effects, Dr Nick Knight explains exactly what alcohol does to your body

Alcohol, the presumed panacea of low confidence, bad days in the office, and social cohesion, has built-up quite the reputation. The social drinkers, binge drinkers, occasional drinkers, and abstainers, after-all, all share an opinion on this 21 Century drug. Yet I am going to actively side-step these psycho-social issues and take you on a journey of a different kind. It begins with that infamous phrase, “Fancy a drink?”.

When the answer is “Yes”, the journey begins with your alcoholic drink slipping past your lips, down your oesophagus and into your stomach, dancing its way around your gastric juices. For those of you drinking a carbonated drink your alcohol will be absorbed faster as the pressure increases inside your stomach, forcing alcohol into your blood stream. This compared to the savvy consumer, who already has a stomach lined with food to curtail absorption. Soon, alcohol is absorbed into your blood stream. The portal vein, connecting your gut to your liver, acts as the super-highway transporting your alcohol, now neatly dissolved in your bloodstream.

At the liver, the Mecca of alcohol metabolism - alcohol meets its fate - where it becomes a mere shadow of its former self. The complex alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme pathway breaks down alcohol into safe bi-products of acetate, water and carbon dioxide with ruthless efficiency. Of course, there are limits. Too much alcohol can fast overwhelm your liver’s capacity to metabolise your liquid panacea, and consequently your blood alcohol level rises.

A rising level will have a plethora of effects. However, to give it a fair trial we need to consider both the short and long term. Now if I were the PR rep for alcohol I would highlight that the alcohol in your body (which is currently within safe, recommended limits) is relaxing, aiding social interaction, and even promoting cardiovascular disease prevention.

It relaxes you by travelling to your central nervous system where it depresses activity by interfering with chemical neurotransmitter signals, in particular, Gamma-Aminobutryric Acid (GABA). As your alcohol alters these, communication between your brain cells becomes increasingly impaired. We’ve all heard the phrase “I just didn’t know what I was thinking!” Now you have part of the answer!

Cardiovascular disease prevention from alcohol is, for many, a prickly chair to sit on, leaving them shifting, uncomfortable at the thought that a drug with such negative effects could be painted in such positive light. It is suggested that safe, moderated levels of alcohol promote your aforementioned relaxation which consequently improves your blood pressure - an established risk factor for vascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.

Of course, we are only human. Since your first alcoholic drink touched your lips, many more may have passed, with the assistance of friends, drinks deals, and a wave of excitable disinhibition as your central nervous system becomes increasingly impaired. Your blood alcohol level has now snuck past that happy and euphoric level of 10-30 milligrams per decilitre and you are now slurring your speech, with impaired balance (due to brain cerebellar dysfunction), and feeling sick. Vomiting, the hallmark of “I think I’ve had one too many” is triggered to get rid of your toxic, poisonous level of alcohol now achieved. Thank your stomach for this, whose lining has become too sharply irritated by the alcohol and on sending electrical signals to your vomiting centre in your brain, contracts sharply to produce a vomit.

So you have survived the night. Now fast forward 5 years, 10 years, even 30 years. Chronic, excessive alcohol consumption can affect nearly every single organ in your body – often as a result of imbalance between how much fat you deposit and how much fat you metabolise from energy dense alcohol. Your liver bears the brunt of this, slowly and insidiously sliding along a progressive spectrum of hepatic steatosis (where fat from alcohol deposits in the liver cells), alcoholic hepatitis and finally alcoholic cirrhosis.

Having seen patients in intensive care not survive this, I can assure you that no drink is worth it. Your heart can beat abnormally, your stomach can develop gastric ulcers that can rupture and cause bleeding, your can pancreas can fail with diabetes ensuing, and your risk of cancer of the oesophagus, tongue, and liver increase. I have barely scratched the surface of the damaging chronic effects of alcohol excess but trust me – it is not a club you want to belong to.

Of course, we all choose to drink different amounts. At one end of the spectrum are social drinkers enjoying the positive, stimulating effects within a safe degree of relaxation and disinhibition. Then come the increasing unhealthier ‘at risk drinkers’, the ‘problem drinkers’ (causing serious family and social problems), and finally ‘alcohol dependent drinkers’. Alcohol dependence shows a priority of drinking over all other aspects of life. These people need help and support, not judgement.

We also know violence can easily join hands with its consumption. One study by the Office of National Statistics linked over 880,000 violent incidents in 2012-2013 to alcohol (or drugs) in England and Wales. New ankle bracelets (known lovingly as ‘sobriety tags’), which test for any alcohol consumption through the owner’s sweat, is being trialled for offenders already guilty of alcohol-related crimes; just another marriage of technology, medicine, and social service!

Alcohol is here to stay, ingrained on the fabric of our modern society. Yes, your body is designed to cope with it in moderation but excess leads to significant short and long term health implications. Remember too that your health is not just about physical wellbeing; Total Health comprises your physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health. I will close by being a clichéd Doctor and say please drink responsibly. If you are concerned about your drinking then your GP can help – you just have to ask.

For more information visit here

Dr Nick Knight is a junior doctor based in London with a PhD background in human performance. His blog on life as a doctor can be read at: https://drnickknight.wordpress.com/

Or follow him via Twitter: @Dr_NickKnight

Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Call Handler

    £14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a Sales Ca...

    Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

    £14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique pers...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor