Drinks What Happens to Your Body When You're an Alcoholic  

David Sharp
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Full disclosure before we start: I am an alcoholic.

We don't need to do the weird backhanded bragging so many ex-drinkers like to engage in where I try to tell you nonchalantly just how much I used to consume - suffice it to say I drank enough that I felt like I should stop drinking, which I did four years ago and haven't really looked back.

While my body feels better now than it did when I was drinking, it certainly still bears some of the outward physical effects of alcohol abuse. I have a weird bloated stomach even though I'm skinny everywhere else. My eyes still have those dark circles under them. I still have that scar on my arm from the time I tried to start an impromptu rodeo while in the middle of a cow tipping excursion (I deserved it).

I have only sympathy and solidarity for my still-boozing brethren and this article is not an attempt at conversion. I have no patience for moralizing or proselytizing, and what you do with your body is up to you. That said, it's hard for me to read article after article about what alcoholism does to your body and not feel relieved that I got out when I did.

Obligatory last note before we dive in: If you know someone that's struggling, help them. If you think alcohol is hurting your quality of life, stop drinking it. The internet is full of resources and there are meetings near you no matter where you are. I didn't use a program so it would be disingenuous for me to recommend one, but hey - if you want to talk to someone about it you can email me at davidsanderssharp@gmail.com and I'll at least listen to your story.

Cheers.

Alcohol's Empty Calories Make You Fat

Alcohol's Empty Calories M... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You're an Alcoholic
Photo: By Victovoi (Own work)/Wikimedia Commons

Alcohol has calories. It blew my mind when this first occurred to me. I thought it was just like magic water that made you feel good, I didn't even think that there could be any real caloric content. Turns out that pretty much any drink you can find will have pretty near 100 calories in it, some considerably more. Do you like Piña Coladas? You better, because they're nearly 500 calories apiece, and it's not like your body can do anything with these calories - there's no protein, no fiber, no vitamins - it's all nutritionally worthless.

Your body metabolizes alcohol directly into fat and never converts it into usable cellular energy. For humans that have a baseline 2,000 calorie/day diet, one good night out could end up being the equivalent of a whole extra day's worth of food - and that doesn't even take into account your 2 am Taco Bell run to help soak up the night. Add that up over the span of years, and all those tiny little shots start turning into a thick layer of blubber that encases your now walrus-like body. Need a frame of reference? Look at Val Kilmer's, um, body of work.

The Drinks You Mix With Alcohol Will Make You Fat

The Drinks You Mix With Alcoho... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You're an Alcoholic
Photo:  Michael Pardo/Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0

The Coke in your Jack and Coke? Sugar

The mix in your Margarita? Sugar.

The Red Bull in your Jaeger Bomb? More sugar.

When you're drinking alcohol, you're never just drinking alcohol, that would kill you - plus it would taste terrible. Tasting is your body's primitive detection system for telling you what belongs inside of it and what doesn't; alcohol tastes bad to us because it's poison. In fact it's our body's reaction to these toxins - getting just a little poisoned - that accounts for the euphoric feeling of being drunk (and then the sick one after you've had too much). What the sugar does is override these defense mechanisms and trick your body into thinking that this is a thing that is good for your body so that you can choke down your poison a little easier. As such, almost any cocktail that you buy from a bar is basically just fermented sugar mixed with processed sugar - and shockingly, all that sugar can take its toll on a body.

Sugar is a combination of two molecules: glucose and fructose. Glucose we need for a bunch of important biological functions. Fructose on the other hand, is good for next to nothing, and consuming an excess of it (like you do when you go drinking or trick-or-treating) forces the liver to process the surplus by metabolizing it directly into fat. So yes, all those fun mixers that look so pretty and taste so good are really just converting directly into not-so-pretty excess mass.

Fructose further screws you over by making your brain resistant to the hormone leptin, which is what tells your body that it's got enough fat. When individual fat cells reach a certain size, they secrete leptin telling the brain, in essence, "I'm good." When the brain gets that message from enough cells that it thinks you could survive, say, a long weekend locked inside a bank vault, it ramps down on the fat production. Fructose, dirty rat that it is, raises triglyceride levels in your blood, and those triglycerides in turn block your brain's ability to detect the leptin. Basically your body thinks you still look like [young, fit] Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull when your mirror is telling you actually look like [old, fat] Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull

Throw in to this mix the fact that sugar is every bit as addictive as alcohol, if not more so, and what you have is a perfect cocktail of bloating. You're drinking fat and cutting it with fat, both of which make you want more fat while simultaneously impeding your ability to know you're fat. Thanks, alcohol!

Alcoholism Can Lead to Diabetes

Alcoholism Can Lead to Diabete... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You're an Alcoholic
Photo:  Alden Chadwick/Flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

Getting fatter isn't the only problem that comes along with all this excess sugar. You may have also heard of a fun disease called diabetes, which, if you haven't, is terrible.

Alcohol consumption creates wild swings in blood sugar level and insulin production. All of the sugars in a given drink will initially cause blood sugar levels to rise, and fast - alcohol get metabolized directly into the bloodstream without being broken down in the stomach first. Your liver cleans out the alcohol's toxins and it breaks down all those sugars. It takes the liver, on average, two hours to metabolize a single drink. If in that two hours you happen to ingest more sugars - like, say, a few Jack and Cokes from the bar - then your system becomes overloaded and can't process everything you've thrown at it. The liver stops properly regulating your blood sugar levels, resulting in wild swings of too high and too low blood sugar. Chronic abuse slowly kills your your liver's ability to process insulin which can lead to both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia and, of course, type 2 diabetes.

I won't go into every single thing that happens to your body once you have diabetes - that would be a whole list on its own - but here's a quick rundown of some of the things you can expect: dried out your skin, ruined pancreas, ruined kidneys, ruined nervous system, and then there's blindness, amputation, organ failure, heart attacks, and strokes. If you have a choice in whether or not to get diabetes, five out of five doctors recommend you don't.

Alcoholism Makes Your Heart Hurt

Alcoholism Makes Your Heart Hu... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You're an Alcoholic
Photo: By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator/Wikimedia Commons

All that fat buildup mentioned earlier isn't just a vanity problem, it also comes with serious long term health risks (in case you somehow hadn't heard that). One of the major problems with alcoholic fat buildup is that it's not just on the outside, it's on the inside, too - of your veins. As your liver takes it's sweet, beleaguered time processing everything, excess triglycerides continue to course through your blood, occasionally attaching themselves to your arterial walls - where they stay. Forever. Drink by drink, triglyceride by triglyceride, the walls of your circulatory system become caked with calcified fat leading to narrowed circulatory pathways and dangerously elevated blood pressure (hypertension).

The effects of hypertension get coupled with the fact that alcohol weakens your heart over time, leading to a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The accumulated damage done to your ticker by continued exposure to acetaldehyde and other toxins associated with the drinking process compromises its ability to pump blood efficiently. Your hardened, constricted arteries make pumping more difficult, and the toxins make your heart worse at pumping, until eventually the poor little piston just pops, resulting in cardiac arrest or stroke.

Oh, and if you're a real thoroughbred drinker, you can ignore any of those articles that claim alcohol is good for your heart health. That no longer applies to you, you savage, because you've taken it too far and now any potential benefits are mitigated by all the damage you're doing. So y'know, just in case you were still clinging to that particular shred of hope: stop it.