You and alcohol

Physical effects

Alcohol doesn’t only affect your mood; it also has an effect on your body. After you drink alcohol it gets into your bloodstream. The blood carries it to every part of your body. Thus, your entire body is affected by drinking alcohol.

To learn more about the effects of alcohol on the body, click here alcohol and your body.

Should I see the doctor?
Alcohol and headaches
Alcohol and pain
Alcohol and sleep
Alcohol and epilepsy
Alcohol and cancer
Alcohol and diabetes
Alcohol and gout
Alcohol and arthritis
Alcohol and vitamin B1

Should I see the doctor?

If you expect to have withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, it is essential to contact your doctor (or GP) and ask for medical support to help you quit drinking.

If you’re going to participate in online therapy, your therapist can give you a referral letter which you can print yourself and take along to your doctor’s appointment. The letter contains information about the online therapy programme and a medical checklist of alcohol related problems for your doctor. Since you’re taking part anonymously, the letter won’t provide any personal information about you.

Any physical symptoms or complaints you have may be related to your alcohol consumption, but they can have other causes as well. Don’t hesitate to go to your doctor if you have a question or want advice.

Alcohol and headaches

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it stimulates the body to get rid of fluid. In others word, you’re losing more water than you’re taking in. This can cause imbalance in the brain fluid. Your brain, which is normally surrounded by fluid, can become sensitive to motion, giving you a headache.

Alcohol is broken down by the liver.  A by-product of this process is a toxic substance called acetaldehyde which in turn also needs to be broken down. This process gives you nausea and headaches.

The manufacture of alcohol (chemical name: ethyl alcohol) produces very small amounts of what is called fusel alcohols. They are toxic and break down more slowly than regular alcohol, and can be felt the following day. These alcohols also contribute to the ‘hangover effect’.

Alcohol has an unpleasant effect on people who suffer from migraines, since it dilates (widens) the blood vessels.

Alcohol and pain

Alcohol is an anaesthetic, thus, it helps relieve pain. For example, drinking will help you feel better if you have a toothache. However, the relief is only temporary. Once the alcohol has worn off, you’ll feel the toothache again. Alcohol may postpone a trip to the dentist, but it won’t make your tooth any better! The same applies to pain anywhere in your body; it can be numbed, but the problem won’t get better. What’s more, alcohol slows down the healing process. Breaking down alcohol takes the energy your body needs to recover. It is also important to remember pain, particularly if it is acute, is a warning signal that something is wrong. Switching off the pain signal through alcohol use can be dangerous.

Sometimes the pain is actually caused by the alcohol, for example a swollen and tender liver.
To give you a better idea of the effect of alcohol on various parts of the body, we’ve put together a list. Scroll back to the illustration above and click on it, then click on the names of the different organs.
This information is general and if you have more specific questions about your own health, we advise you to consult your doctor.

Alcohol and sleep

‘Have a nightcap…’

Alcohol seems to be a frequently used sedative. However, it has strings attached, since you need more and more to get the same effect. That one little drink can gradually become two little drinks, and then three, and four, etc.

Alcohol interferes with healthy sleep. The processes that go on in your brain during sleep don’t go as smoothly when you’ve drunk alcohol.

Waking and getting up is always nicer if alcohol hasn’t affected your sleep. If you’re used to going to sleep under the influence, you’ll find it’s indeed harder to go to sleep when sober. Therefore it is important to realise that your body needs time to adjust to a healthy sleep pattern after you’ve quit drinking.

There is also a great deal of individual variation within healthy sleeping patterns. Some people always lie awake for an hour before they fall asleep. Others sleep lightly and are easily woken by things like noises. If you sleep badly, relaxation exercises can help.

Sleeping tips

Here are a few tips to help you sleep better. Some of these relate to general quality of life issues and some more specifically to sleep hygeine.

  • Make sure your diary isn’t crammed too full of things to do, and that you don’t have to think of too many things at once. If this is the case, you may keep on worrying about things once you’re lying in bed. Be sure to schedule some rest points in your day, times when you don’t have to do anything and can think calmly. Research shows that writing a diary about the days events including any worries or concerns you may have helps the brain to switch off and recuperate.
  • Drink a glass of warm milk before going to bed.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (for example coffee, tea, coca cola etc) in the evenings. Some people are very sensitive to the stimulating effect of caffeine,  and it’s better for them to not drink any caffeinated drinks at all, or not to have any after about noon.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal right before going to bed.
  • Schedule a quiet time before you go to sleep. Listen to relaxing music or read a book.
  • Do relaxation exercises. You can find them on the Internet, in books or ask your doctor for them.
  • Don’t overstimulate your brain by, for example, playing computer games right before going to sleep.
  • Try not to watch television in the bedroom immediately before going to sleep.
  • Sex can have a relaxing effect.
  • Provide structure – go to bed at the same time every night if you can and get up at the same time in the morning, even on days off and weekends.
  • Engaging in sports promotes healthy sleep.
  • Don’t use the nighttimes to think about things; be strict with yourself. Shift your thoughts to relaxing ones, or just don’t think at all by practicing mindfulness.
  • Don’t try to make up for lost sleep during the day. Get up early, and keep a fixed rhythm, even after a bad night.
  • Sleeping pills (sedatives) are highly addictive and should only be used in emergencies, and even then only temporarily.
  • You can find more information on the Internet using search terms such as `sleep hygeine`, ‘trouble sleeping’ or ‘relaxation exercises’.

Alcohol and epilepsy

It’s generally accepted that large amounts of alcohol increase the chances of having an epileptic seizure. Even once the alcohol has left the body, the chance of a seizure is greater.
With social drinkers, the chances of a seizure vary considerably from person to person. Some people with epilepsy are easily bothered by alcohol, while others notice little or nothing. The chances of a seizure are less if alcohol is drunk with a meal than if drunk on an empty stomach.
Alcohol also has an influence on the effects of medicines given to treat epilepsy. Some medicines, such as Phenytoin and Phenobarbital, have a stronger effect when combined with alcohol and symptoms of poisoning can appear. Other medicines such as Valproate make the effects of alcohol greater or longer lasting. Ask your doctor about the effects of alcohol on your medication.

Alcohol and cancer

Scientific studies have shown that alcohol increases the risk of various types of cancer, particularly cancers of the oesophagus, liver, pancreas and breast. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that 3.6% of all cancer cases are the result of excessive alcohol use. If you’re able to limit your alcohol intake you’ll increase your chances of a longer and healthier life. The combination of alcohol and smoking increases the risk of oesophageal and throat cancer in particular. Not drinking or smoking decreases the chances of getting one of these types of cancer.

Alcohol and diabetes

Alcohol and diabetes are not a good combination. On the one hand, drinking even a moderate amount of alcohol lowers blood sugar. This can lead to extremely low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) with all the associated consequences. On the other hand, some drinks such as alcopops and liqueurs actually contain a lot of sugar, and thus raise your blood sugar level. In either case drinking disturbs the blood sugar level of a diabetic. In addition, alcohol can extend the effects of the medicines used for type II diabetes, making it difficult to determine the proper dosage.

Alcohol and gout

Gout is a form of arthritis (swelling of the joints) in which the joints suddenly get inflamed. Gout is painful, and as yet has no cure, although it is easily kept under control with medication. Watching what you eat and drink also helps.

Alcohol aggravates gout. This has to do with the substance purine, which is released in our normal metabolism. Purine in our bodies creates uric acid, which can form crystals that are deposited in the joints and cause an acute inflammation. Too much uric acid can result in attacks of gout.

Alcohol contains a lot of purine (as do protein-rich foods). People with gout are thus better off not drinking at all, or very moderately. Alcohol aggravates the symptoms.

To prevent attacks of gout, it helps to avoid drinking alcohol, eat a low-protein diet and drink a lot of fluids (but non-alcoholic ones) and in any case not to eat too much.

Alcohol and arthritis

The more than 100 forms of arthritis can be divided into three groups: osteoarthritis; fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, which includes gout; and what is commonly called arthritis.

Alcohol has no effect on osteoarthritis and forms of fibromyalgia. It can, however, influence the effects of painkillers prescribed for these forms of arthritis.  Alcohol increases the chances of stomach aches and liver disorders, especially in combination with painkillers.

This is also true for combining alcohol and ‘DMARDs’, medications prescribed for certain forms of rheumatoid arthritis. This is why people taking these medications are advised not to drink, or to limit their consumption to one drink a day.

Excessive alcohol consumption can lower resistance to disease. People who drink heavily often have multiple vitamin deficiencies, especially of vitamins B1 and B6. People with a form of rheumatoid arthritis already have lower resistance, and their immune system is compromised even more by the use of DMARDs. This makes them more susceptible to viral infections. Aside from the risks to the stomach, intestines and liver, a vitamin deficiency is another reason for recommending moderate alcohol consumption.

People with fibromyalgia are sometimes also prescribed benzodiazepines (sedative / tranquilisers) to calm them and relax their muscles. The active ingredients of these medications affect the brain and central nervous system. Alcohol intensifies the effects of these medications, so combining them is dangerous.

Alcohol and vitamin B1

Recent studies have shown that the body’s uptake of vitamin B1 decreases even with moderate alcohol consumption. This can cause various symptoms, including forgetfulness. To prevent this, we advise anyone who drinks too much to take vitamin B1 supplements.
Vitamin B1 is also called Thiamine and is available from pharmacies by prescription. The recommended dosage is 50 mg. per day; if your diet is poor you may need to take a higher dose, but this must be discussed with your doctor