National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week: The Effects of Alcohol on The Major Organs

This article follows up on the information presented in our post National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week: The Latest Data on Adolescent Alcohol Use. In that article, we presented a string of statistics about teens and alcohol. We asked you to think about how to use this latest round of data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) to help your teen.

For starters – since the data make it clear that more than one in four teens will drink between the ages of 12 and 17 – we think you should have an open and honest discussion with them about the health dangers associated with excessive, long-term alcohol use.

Most people, teenagers included, know alcohol wreaks havoc on the liver. But that’s not the only organ that suffers under chronic alcohol use. What most people don’t know – or have forgotten – is that long-term, excessive alcohol use exacts a heavy toll on all the major organs. Let’s take a look at what can happen to each organ or system. We’ll start right at the top, with the brain.

Alcohol and The Organs

We recommend reading this list and sharing these facts with your teenager, so that if they do choose to drink, they know exactly what the consequences are.

The Brain

Excessive alcohol use can damage both brain structure and function. New brain imaging technology shows significant decrease in brain tissue as a result of long-term, excessive alcohol use. Chronic over-consumption of alcohol can also lead to Wernicke’s-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), which is caused by vitamin B-1 deficiency. WKS is ugly. Its effects may include alcoholic dementia, short-term memory loss, the inability to learn new information, cognitive impairment, eye problems, poor physical coordination, and difficulty walking.

The Heart

Most people have read or heard a glass or two of wine a day is good for the cardiovascular system. What most people haven’t heard is that heavy alcohol consumption can damage the heart. Excessive drinking can cause cardiomyopathy, a heart disease with symptoms like dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, swelling of the lower extremities, fatigue, abnormal pulse, and cough accompanied by a frothy, pink discharge. These symptoms often go unnoticed until it’s too late, and heart failure is imminent.

The Liver

The primary job of the liver is to filter blood that comes from the digestive tract before it spreads to the rest of the body. The liver also processes (a.k.a. detoxifies) harmful chemicals, metabolizes drugs, and secretes enzymes necessary for a wide range of physiological processes. Excess alcohol use can severely damage the liver, which can result in liver disease, liver failure, and in extreme cases, death. Alcohol-related liver disease comes in three primary forms:

1. Alcoholic Cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis means scarring. Therefore, alcoholic cirrhosis means scarring caused by alcohol. Cirrhosis is not reversible, but further damage can be prevented if it’s caught early enough. Untreated cirrhosis causes permanent damage which can only be improved by a liver transplant. Unfortunately, over 30,000 people a year die from alcohol related liver disease, and about one-third of liver transplants are alcohol related.

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis.

This causes an increase in liver fat, inflammation, and can lead to mild cirrhosis. People suffering from alcoholic hepatitis often experience nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, stomach pain, fever, and jaundice. Nearly 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. Mild cases can be reversed when identified soon enough, while extreme cases may escalate quickly and lead to severe complications, including death.

5. Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

This causes a buildup of fat in liver tissue, which impedes typical, healthy liver function. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the least damaging of the liver diseases caused by excessive alcohol consumption, and can be reversed.

The Kidneys

Like the liver, the primary job of the kidneys is to filter blood. Kidneys remove waste, maintain overall fluid balance, process toxic substances and medications, produce urine, and secrete hormones that play important roles in bone health, blood pressure, and the production of red blood cells. Excessive alcohol can compromise all these vital functions, and when combined with the other negative effects of chronic alcohol consumption, can lead to kidney disease. In addition, binge-drinking can lead to acute kidney injury, which, if untreated, can lead to kidney failure, which, in turn, can lead to death.

The Pancreas

The pancreas has two main functions in the body. First, it produces insulin and glucagon, hormones essential maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. The second is to produce enzymes that help the intestines digest food properly. Excessive, long-term alcohol consumption can lead to alcoholic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that severely impairs its function. Alcoholic pancreatitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). In extreme cases, untreated pancreatitis – like cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure – can lead to death.

Alcohol and Cancer

Liver disease, kidney disease, and alcoholic pancreatitis are fairly well-known health risks associated with heavy drinking, but they’re not the only serious health conditions related to excessive alcohol use. The American Cancer Society (ACS) links the following forms of cancer to alcohol:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice Box
  • Esophagus
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Breast

The message from the ACS is simple: excessive drinking increases your likelihood of getting cancer.

Our message to you is also simple: if you suspect your teenager is experimenting with alcohol, sit them down and lay out these facts in a calm, rational manner. This isn’t about frightening them. On the contrary, it’s about respecting their intelligence and presenting irrefutable scientific data in order to expand their knowledge base. It’s about giving them information about the consequences of alcohol use. It’s about advising them to factor that information into their decisions about drinking. Not just in the short run, but over the course of their lives. They need this information before they go to college, when the statistics on binge and heavy drinking jump astronomically. They also need it before they turn 21, when their budget is the only constraint on their alcohol consumption

We want you to make sure your kids know that chronic excessive drinking can cause long-term health problems. In addition, they should know that some of these may be permanent, irreversible, and even fatal. Let this article – and the information it contains – act as a stark reminder that although the opioid crisis dominates the national conversation on substance use and abuse, underage drinking is not a minor issue to be dismissed or relegated to the background. Our teenagers rely on us to separate the relevant facts from sensationalist headlines and need our help to navigate the tricky transition from adolescence to adulthood.