What happens when you drink alcohol?
When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. All blood from the stomach and intestines first goes through the liver before circulating around the whole body. So, the highest concentration of alcohol is in the blood flowing through the liver.
Liver cells contain chemicals (enzymes) which process (metabolise) alcohol. The enzymes break down alcohol into other chemicals which in turn are then broken down into water and carbon dioxide. These are then passed out in the urine and from the lungs. The liver cells can process only a certain amount of alcohol per hour. So, if you drink alcohol faster than your liver can deal with it, the level of alcohol in your bloodstream rises.
What are the problems of drinking too much alcohol?
Your liver and body can usually cope with drinking a small amount of alcohol. Indeed, drinking a small amount of alcohol (1-2 units per day) may help to prevent heart disease and stroke.
However, drinking over the recommended limits (detailed below) can be harmful. If you drink heavily you have an increased risk of developing:
- Serious liver problems (alcoholic liver disease).
- Some stomach disorders.
- Severe inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
- Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
- Sexual difficulties such as impotence.
- Muscle and heart muscle disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Damage to nervous tissue.
- Accidents - drinking alcohol is associated with a much increased risk of accidents. In particular, injury and death from fire and car crashes. About 1 in 7 road deaths are caused by drinking alcohol.
- Some cancers (mouth, gullet, liver, colon and breast).
- Obesity (alcohol has many calories).
- Damage to an unborn baby in pregnant women.
- Alcohol dependence (addiction).
In the UK, deaths due to alcohol-related diseases (particularly liver disease) have risen considerably over a period of 20 years.
Did you find this information useful?
- House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - Alcohol Guidelines (Eleventh Report); UK Parliament, December 2011
- Schutze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al; Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Apr 7 342:d1584. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d1584.
- I J Beckingham and S D Ryder; ABC of diseases of liver, pancreas, and biliary system: Investigation of liver and biliary disease. BMJ 2001 322:33-36.
- The Government's Alcohol Strategy (proposals to cut 'binge drinking', alcohol-fuelled violence, and number of people drinking to damaging levels); HM Government, 2012
- Antenatal care for uncomplicated pregnancies; NICE Clinical Guideline (March 2008, updated 2017)
- UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review, Summary of the proposed new guidelines; Dept of Health, January 2016
- Alcohol-use disorders: diagnosis, assessment and management of harmful drinking and alcohol dependence; NICE Clinical Guideline (February 2011)
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