The Alcohol Effect

A sobering look at the physical and mental tolls of heavy drinking

WRITTEN BY Holly Fisher
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Andrey Cherkasov & Scott Henderson

With a chill in the air and the early settling of dusk, this season’s dark, cold days have some of us reaching for warmth and comfort in the form of a drink. And as holiday party cocktails and New Year’s Eve champagne toasts spill into the first months of the year, wintertime drinking has become a public health issue. In fact, research shows that when the temperature drops and sunlight hours decrease, alcohol consumption increases. If left unchecked, seasonal overindulgence can lead to serious long-term health issues, including alcohol addiction.

ID the Problem

In 2014, BACtrack, maker of personal and professional-grade Breathalyzers, analyzed nearly 300,000 blood alcohol tests and identified December to March as peak drinking season. The results also showed that the average blood alcohol content level exceeded the legal limit more than 35 percent of the time. Despite our relatively mild winters, the Lowcountry isn’t immune to such cold-weather alcohol abuse.

Dr. John Stewart

What exactly makes this season so boozy? “The cooler temperatures and lack of daylight during the winter can trigger seasonal affective disorder, depression or anxiety,” explains Dr. John Stewart, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care doctor. As a result, people may self-medicate with alcohol. “Alcohol releases feel-good hormones, those endorphins that fuel the reward centers of the brain,” he continues. “That, in turn, can lead to dependence and addiction.” For others, drinking is a way to decompress. People who tend to be anxious or have highly stressful jobs may rely on this drug to unwind.

While most people associate binge drinking with college parties, “excessive alcohol use happens among people of all ages and can be truly problematic for your health,” says Dr. Stewart. One in six American adults drinks heavily; here in Charleston, where cocktail culture is a regular social habit, that rate jumps to nearly one in four, according to data from the 2021 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program.

Beyond the Buzz

“Drinking in excess, even once a week, can be detrimental to your health,” says Dr. Stewart. So how much is too much? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking for men as more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week. For women, it’s more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week. “Some people will consume three or four beverages in the time it takes to watch a ball game,” says the doctor.

Most people know the immediate effects of having one drink too many—impaired motor skills and slurred speech followed by a hangover the next morning or forgetting exactly what happened the night before. And though you may be tempted to take an aspirin and shrug it off, overindulging slowly chips away at your overall health and puts you at significant risk for health complications.

In the short term, drinking too much increases the risk of fatal accidents, particularly from driving while under the influence. At least 50 percent of all serious trauma injuries and deaths as well as 40 percent of fatal falls and traffic accidents involve alcohol. Down the road, the long-term physical and mental impacts of excessive alcohol consumption form a sizable list: heart and liver troubles, lower white blood cell counts, memory loss, dementia and movement disorders, to name just a few.

The liver’s job is to process toxins out of the body. Since alcohol is toxic to our cells, excessive drinking causes the liver to work overtime. The breakdown of alcohol also generates harmful substances that damage the liver, cause inflammation and weaken the immune system. As a result, alcohol consumption commonly leads to issues such as fatty liver disease (a buildup of fat in the liver), alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), fibrosis (scar tissue in the liver) and cirrhosis (liver failure). However, the health implications of drinking too much alcohol far exceed just liver problems.

Over an extended period, alcohol consumption can damage the heart, leading to arrhythmias, stroke and high blood pressure. It also results in toxic secretions and potentially fatal inflammation in the pancreas, putting the body at greater risk for disease.

Additionally, the National Cancer Institute shows strong scientific evidence that drinking alcohol raises a person’s risk of developing cancers, including head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast and colorectal. This correlation may have to do with the carcinogens released during the breakdown of ethanol in alcohol as well as an impaired ability to absorb certain nutrients associated with preventing cancer.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also points out that alcohol impacts the brain’s communication pathways, altering the way the brain looks as well as changing mood and behavior and making it harder to think. In a 2017 study shared by The BMJ, scientists noted that participants who consumed more than four alcoholic beverages per day showed six times the risk of brain shrinkage compared to nondrinkers.

“I was always the one having the best time at the party,” says Sandy Jones. A heavy drinker since college, the 35-year-old nurse practitioner knew she needed a change. Since taking her last sip on October 3, 2020, Sandy has lost 30 pounds, gotten proper medication for her ADHD and no longer has issues with anxiety and insomnia. “My home life has become more stable, and I’m confident my kids are getting the best of me.”

To Your Health

While a daily glass of red wine has previously been touted as beneficial to a person’s health, more recent science may dry up that theory. In a 2018 Lancet report, experts analyzed more than 1,000 alcohol studies and 26 years of data sources. They concluded that the optimal number of daily drinks to minimize overall health risks is zero.

As with most health-related matters, the doctor says moderation is key when it comes to drinking. Having the occasional drink isn’t worrisome, he reassures, but imbibing daily, binging or feeling like you have to drink may be signs of a problem. “If there are days during the week when you can’t function, you have a sense of regret from drinking or you feel hungover, that’s concerning,” Dr. Stewart says. “Feeling that you need to drink in order to operate or go out in public, or using alcohol to enhance your life in any way—those are signs of dependency.”

Dr. Stewart recommends that anyone who feels dependent on alcohol to get through the day should consult with their doctor, as they may need help managing withdrawal symptoms including nausea, anxiety and shakiness. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous also offer free, confidential help with recovery from a drinking problem.

One in six American adults drinks heavily; here in Charleston, where cocktail culture is a regular social habit, that rate jumps to nearly one in four. —2021 america’s health rankings/County Health Rankings

“Alcohol is a natural drug, and it has addictive properties that can cause severe harm just like any other prescription drug,” warns Dr. Stewart. “It’s also not as regulated as prescription drugs, but more accessible and highly abused.”

In recent years, the concept of “dry January,” or abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the year, has gained popularity. Within 30 days of quitting alcohol, a person’s blood pressure may go down, the liver begins to heal, skin may improve, sleep becomes more restful and energy levels increase. For lots of people, this is a time to focus on healthier habits while saving the money (and calories) they would have spent on drinks. The practice may also reveal whether you’ve become too dependent on alcohol.

Now & LaterThe short-term and long-term effects of alcohol consumption

Being intoxicated may cause you to experience…

• Lowered inhibitions & poor social judgment
• Trouble concentrating
• Loss of coordination
• Loss of critical judgement
• Dulled perception, especially vision
• Mood swings
• Reduced core body temperature
• Elevated blood pressure
• Passing out
• Vomiting

Regular, excessive drinking may cause you to suffer…

• Diminished brain matter
• Memory loss
• Loss of attention span
• Trouble learning
• Alcoholic hepatitis
• Liver fibrosis
• Fatty liver disease
• Throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal or esophageal cancer
• High blood pressure
• Cardiomyopathy
• Stroke
• Irregular heartbeat

Source: American Addiction Centers