Physiological Effects of Alcohol and Drugs

Recreational use of drugs and alcohol is, at best, not good for us; at worst, it is a pastime with disastrous, sometimes fatal results. So why do we keep using them?

Physiological Effects of Alcohol and DrugsWell, by and large, it seems to be a normal behavior for our species, and we’ve been doing it for a long time now. We humans have been getting our kicks from alcoholic beverages since some time before 7000 BCE, and possibly thousands of years earlier. Archeological evidence suggests that we’ve been using psychoactive plants in ceremonies for just as long. When it comes to alcohol, especially, we find that drinking is a normative experience in cultures around the world. This normalcy stands like an open invitation: get a little tipsy, hang out with friends, lighten up.

Once consumed, alcohol (and some other drugs) activate the reward and pleasure centers of our brains; other drugs, like cocaine, do something similar by messing with the brain’s ability to appropriately regulate the neuroreceptors associated with pleasure and reward. In short, they make us feel good, while encouraging us to use more.

With moderation and infrequent use, alcohol and some drugs can be relatively harmless to us; however, habitual and/or heavy use sees these chemicals’ negative effects quickly outstripping whatever benefits they might confer. Cross your specific tolerance threshold, and alcohol can swing from a party drug that makes you sociable to something that makes you sleepy, ill, and incapable of controlling your bodily functions. And that is to say nothing of how terrible you might feel the following morning. However, a night of retching and a morning’s hangover are actually the milder costs of overconsumption of alcohol.

Excessive amounts of alcohol—whether consumed all at once or over time—can lead to serious problems with several important organs, including the heart, liver, and pancreas. Drink too much and you put yourself at risk of developing cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, and high blood pressure. You also increase your chances of having a stroke. Your liver won’t thank you, either: excessive drinking can lead to steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. You also put yourself at risk of developing pancreatitis; cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast; and, as though that’s not all bad enough, you compromise your immune system, compounding whichever of those ailments—or combination of those ailments—you might suffer.

Other drugs used recreationally can carry higher physiological price tags, like gangrene, “zombification,” and sudden death; but for all their stigma, alcohol is arguably more dangerous than most “street drugs.” A recently published study suggests that experts rank alcohol’s ability and likelihood to cause harm to the user only beneath that of heroin, crack, and crystal meth; and that experts rank alcohol’s ability and likelihood to cause harm to others (through drinkers) as second to no other drug. Ironically, this may be true precisely because alcohol use isn’t stigmatized, and it is instead normal to see adults regularly and legally use alcohol.

The next time a friend invites you out for a drink or two, consider making it just a drink. Your body will thank you for taking it easy.

The next time a friend invites you out for a drink or two, consider making it just a drink. Your body will thank you for taking it easy.

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